Biography of Edmund Cartwright, English Inventor

Portrait Of Edmund Cartwright

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Edmund Cartwright (April 24, 1743–October 30, 1823) was an English inventor and clergyman. He patented the first power loom—an improved version of the handloom—in 1785 and set up a factory in Doncaster, England, to manufacture textiles. Cartwright also designed a wool-combing machine, an instrument for making rope, and a steam engine powered by alcohol.

Fast Facts: Edmund Cartwright

  • Known For: Cartwright invented a power loom that improved the speed of textile production.
  • Born: April 24, 1743 in Marnham, England
  • Died: October 30, 1823 in Hastings, England
  • Education: University of Oxford
  • Spouse: Elizabeth McMac

Early Life

Edmund Cartwright was born on April 24, 1743, in Nottinghamshire, England. He graduated from Oxford University and married Elizabeth McMac at the age of 19. Cartwright's father was the Reverend Edmund Cartwright, and the younger Cartwright followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a clergyman in the Church of England, serving initially as the rector of Goadby Marwood, a village in Leicestershire. In 1786, he became a prebendary (a senior member of the clergy) of Lincoln Cathedral (also known as St. Mary's Cathedral)—a post he held until his death.

Cartwright's four brothers were also highly accomplished. John Cartwright was a naval officer who fought for political reforms to the British Parliament, while George Cartwright was a trader who explored Newfoundland and Labrador.

Inventions

Cartwright was not only a clergyman; he was also a prolific inventor, though he didn't begin experimenting with inventions until he was in his forties. In 1784, he was inspired to create a machine for weaving after he visited inventor Richard Arkwright's cotton-spinning mills in Derbyshire. Although he had no experience in this field, and many people thought his ideas were nonsense, Cartwright, with the help of a carpenter, worked to bring his concept to fruition. He completed the design for his first power loom in 1784 and won a patent for the invention in 1785.

Although this initial design was not successful, Cartwright continued to make improvements to subsequent iterations of his power loom until he had developed a productive machine. He then established a factory in Doncaster to mass produce the devices. However, Cartwright had no experience or knowledge in business or industry, so was never able to successfully market his power looms, and he primarily used his factory to test out new inventions. He invented a wool-combing machine in 1789 and continued to improve his power loom. He secured another patent for a weaving invention in 1792.

Bankruptcy

In 1793, Cartwright went bankrupt, forcing him to close his factory. He sold 400 of his looms to a Manchester company but lost the remainder when his factory burnt down, possibly due to arson committed by handloom weavers who feared they would be put out of work by the new power looms. (Their fears would eventually prove to be well founded.)

Bankrupt and destitute, Cartwright moved to London in 1796, where he worked on other invention ideas. He invented a steam engine powered by alcohol and a machine for making rope, and Cartwright helped Robert Fulton with his steamboats. He also worked on ideas for interlocking bricks and incombustible floorboards.

Improvements to Power Loom

Cartwright's power loom needed to be improved upon and several inventors did just that. It was improved upon by Scottish inventor William Horrocks, the designer of the variable speed batton, and also by American inventor Francis Cabot Lowell. The power loom became commonly used after 1820. When the power loom became efficient, women replaced most men as weavers in textile factories.

Although many of Cartwright's inventions were not successful, he was eventually recognized by the House of Commons for the national benefits of his power loom. The legislators awarded the inventor a £10,000 prize for his contributions. In the end, though Cartwright's power loom would prove to be highly influential, he received little financial reward for it.

Death

In 1821, Cartwright was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He died two years later on October 30, 1823, and was buried in the small town of Battle.

Legacy

Cartwright's work played a pivotal role in the evolution of textile production. Weaving was the last step in textile production to be mechanized because of the difficulty in creating the precise interaction of levers, cams, gears, and springs that mimicked the coordination of the human hand and eye. Cartwright's power loom—though flawed—was the first device of its kind to do this, accelerating the process of manufacturing all kinds of cloth.

According to the Lowell National Historical Park Handbook, Francis Cabot Lowell, a wealthy Boston merchant, realized that in order for America to keep up with England's textile production, where successful power looms had been in operation by the early 1800s, they would need to borrow British technology. While visiting English textile mills, Lowell memorized the workings of their power looms (which were based on Cartwright's designs), and when he returned to the United States, he recruited a master mechanic named Paul Moody to help him recreate and develop what he had seen.

They succeeded in adapting the British design and the machine shop established at the Waltham mills by Lowell and Moody continued to make improvements in the loom. The first American power loom was constructed in Massachusetts in 1813. With the introduction of a dependable power loom, weaving could keep up with spinning, and the American textile industry was underway, as the power loom allowed the wholesale manufacture of cloth from ginned cotton, itself a recent innovation of Eli Whitney.

Though primarily known for his inventions, Cartwright was also an esteemed poet.

Sources

  • Berend, Iván. "An Economic History of Nineteenth-Century Europe: Diversity and Industrialization." Cambridge University Press, 2013.
  • Cannon, John Ashton. "The Oxford Companion to British History." Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Hendrickson, Kenneth E., et al. "The Encyclopedia of the Industrial Revolution in World History." Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
  • Riello, Giorgio. "Cotton: the Fabric That Made the Modern World." Cambridge University Press, 2015.