Who Invented the Power Loom?

Reverend Edmund Cartwright patented the power loom.

Public Domain

The power loom was a steam-powered, mechanically-operated version of a regular loom, an invention that combined threads to make cloth.

In 1785, an inventor named Edmund Cartwright patented the first power loom and set up a factory in Doncaster, England to manufacture cloth. A prolific inventor, Cartwright also invented a wool-combing machine in 1789 and continued to improve his power loom. He also invented a steam engine that used alcohol, a machine for making rope in 1797 and helped Robert Fulton with his steamboats.

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.

Power Looms in America

The first American power loom was constructed in 1813 by a group of Boston merchants headed by Francis Cabot Lowell. The city of Lowell and other early industrial American cities grew supporting a nearby Lowell's designed power loom, an amended version of the British power loom invented by Edmund Cartwright. The power loom allowed the wholesale manufacture of cloth from ginned cotton, itself a recent innovation of Eli Whitney's.

According to the Lowell National Historical Park Handbook, for the first two centuries of American history, the weaving of cloth was a cottage industry, even after the introduction of power spinning frames in 1790.

Yarn produced by machines in water-powered factories was still put out for weaving on hand looms in homes. All cloths were woven in basically the same way, although weavers followed patterns to produce cloths with intricate weaves.

Because the operations of a loom focus on such a small working area, its movements must be exact.

That's because weaving, as opposed to spinning, requires a cycle of sequential steps and involves reciprocal movement as well as circular. In a power loom, movements coordinated by human hand and eye have to be replicated through the precise interaction of levers, cams, gears and springs. For these reasons, weaving was the last step in textile production to be mechanized.

Successful power looms were in operation in England by the early 1800s, but those made in America were inadequate. It was Lowell who realized that for the United States to develop a practical power loom, it would have to borrow British technology. So while visiting English textile mills, he memorized the workings of their power looms.

And upon his return, 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. With the introduction of a dependable power loom, weaving could keep up with spinning, and the American textile industry was underway.