Biography of Edmund Cartwright

A Prolific Inventor Who Patented the First Power Loom

Portrait Of Edmund Cartwright

Stock Montage/Getty Images

In 1785, an inventor and clergyman named Edmund Cartwright (1743-1823) patented the first power loom and set up a factory in Doncaster, England to manufacture cloth. The power loom was a steam-powered, mechanically-operated version of a regular loom, an invention that combined threads to make cloth.

Family Life and Religious Career

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 and also began a career in the church, becoming a clergyman in the Church of England. In 1786 he became a prebendary of Lincoln Cathedral until he died. 

Career as an Inventor 

Cartwright was also a prolific inventor. In 1784 he was inspired to create a machine for weaving when he visited Richard Arkwright's cotton-spinning mills in Derbyshire. Although he had no experience in this field, and many people thought his ideas were nonsense, he worked to bring his concept to fruition and his first power loom was patented in 1785. 

He continued to make improvements on subsequent iterations of the power loom and established a factory in Doncaster to mass produce them. However, he had no experience or knowledge in business or industry so was never able to successfully market his power looms, using his factory only to test out new inventions. He invented a wool-combing machine in 1789 and continued to improve his power loom.

Bankrupt and the Factory Shut Down

In 1793 Cartwright went bankrupt and the factory was shut down. 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 the competition of the power looms.

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

More Improvements

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

Although many of Cartwright's inventions were not successful, he was recognized by the House of Commons for the national benefits of his power loom.

Cartwright died on 30 October 1823.

Power Looms in America

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. 

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, 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.

Lowell and Moody Adapt the British Design

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 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.

Lowell, MA, named after Francis Cabot Lowell, was founded in the 1820s as a planned manufacturing center for textiles.