The Flying Shuttle and John Kay

The John Kay Invention That Changed the Textile Industry

John Kay
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In 1733, John Kay invented the flying shuttle—an improvement to weaving looms and a key contribution to the Industrial Revolution.

Early Years

Kay was born on June 17, 1704, in the Lancashire hamlet of Walmersley. His father, Robert, was a farmer and wool manufacturer but died before he was born. Thus, John's mother was responsible for educating him until she remarried.

John Kay was just a young man when he became the manager of one of his father's mills. He developed skills as a machinist and engineer and made many improvements to the machines in the mill. He apprenticed with a hand-loom reed maker and also designed a metal substitute for the natural reed that became popular enough to sell throughout England. After traveling the country making, fitting, and selling his wire reeds, Kay returned home and, in June 1725, married a woman from Bury. 

The Flying Shuttle

The flying shuttle was an improvement to the loom that enabled weavers to work faster. The original tool contained a bobbin onto which the weft (crossways) yarn was wound. It was normally pushed from one side of the warp (the series of yarns that extended lengthways in a loom) to the other side by hand. Because of this, large looms needed two weavers to throw the shuttle.

Alternatively, Kay's flying shuttle was thrown by a lever that could be operated by just one weaver. The shuttle was able to do the work of two people—and more quickly.

In Bury, John Kay continued to design improvements to textile machinery; in 1730 he patented a cording and twisting machine for worsted.

These innovations were not without consequences, however. In 1753, Kay's home was attacked by textile workers who were angry that his inventions might take work away from them. Kay ultimately fled England for France where he died in poverty around 1780.

Influence and Legacy of John Kay

Kay's invention paved the way for other mechanical textile tools, but it wouldn't be for about 30 years—the power loom was invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1787. Until then, Kay's son, Robert, stayed in Britain. In 1760, he developed the "drop-box," which enabled looms to use multiple flying shuttles at the same time, allowing for multicolor wefts.

In 1782, Robert's son, who lived with John in France, provided an account of the inventor's troubles to Richard Arkwright—Arkwright then sought to highlight problems with patent defense in a parliamentary petition.

In Bury, Kay has become a local hero. Even today, there are still several pubs named after him, as is the park called Kay Gardens.