Business and Labor

Flashback Photo: Sam Slater and the Wildly Successful Startup of 1790

Inside of a three-story wooden building on the banks of the Blackstone River late in 1790, machinery groaned into motion for spinning, roving and carding cotton. It was a dream come true for Sam Slater – and the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in America.

Sam Slater's mill. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sam Slater’s mill. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Sam Slater was born in Belper, England, on June 9, 1768, and went to work in a cotton-spinning factory when he was 10. By the time he was 21 he had memorized how much of the machinery of the mill worked. British law forbade the export of such information, so Slater kept it in his head and emigrated to America in 1789. The people of Belper later called him Slater the Traitor.

Slater wasn’t the first to try to manufacture cloth using water power. Rhode Island industrialist Moses Brown and partners moved to Pawtucket in 1789 to run a textile mill. They bought machinery based on a design by English inventor Richard Arkwright, but they couldn’t get it to work.

Slater had worked on the Arkwright machinery in England. He got wind of Brown’s problem and wrote to him offering his services:

If I do not make as good yarn, as they do in England, I will have nothing for my services, but will throw the whole of what I have attempted over the bridge.

Slater persuaded Brown he could make the machinery work. The two men made a deal: Slater would replicate the Arkwright machinery, and Brown would put up the money. Slater would get half the profit and half the business.

Sam Slater Gets It Going

Slater didn’t have enough tools. He didn’t have any skilled mechanics. But with about a dozen workers, the mill machinery started successfully on Dec. 20, 1790.

By 1793, Brown and Slater owned a mill that was fully operational in Pawtucket. Slater would ultimately own 13 mills and become a rich man. In the process he developed the ‘Rhode Island System’ of employment, hiring entire families – including women and children — to work in his mills.

By the Civil War, textile manufacture was America’s most important industry.

This story was updated in 2022. 

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