Inventor Samuel Crompton and His Spinning Mule

The 18th Century Innovation The Transformed the Textile Industry

old spinning machine
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A spinning mule is a device that is an essential part of the textile industry. Invented in the 18th century by Samual Crompton, the innovative machine spun textile fibers into yarn using an intermittent process that transformed the way yarn was manufactured, making the process much faster, easier—and more profitable.

The History of Spinning Fiber into Yarn

In early civilizations, yarn was spun using simple handheld tools: the distaff, which held the raw fiber material (such as wool, hemp, or cotton) and the spindle, onto which the twisted fibers were wound. The spinning wheel, a Middle-Eastern invention whose origins can be traced back as far as the 11th century, was the first step toward the mechanization of the textile spinning industry.

The technology is thought to have traveled from Iran to India and was eventually introduced to Europe. The first illustration of the device dates from about 1270. The addition of a foot pedal has been credited to a workman from the town of Brunswick, located in the Saxony region of Germany in the year 1533. This allowed a spinner to power the wheel with one foot, leaving the hands free for spinning. Another 16th-century improvement was the flyer, which twisted the yarn as it was being spun, speeding up the process considerably. Europeans, however, were not the only ones to come up with innovations for spinning textiles. Water-powered spinning wheels were common in China as early as the 14th century.

Samuel Crompton Puts a New Spin on Spinning

Samuel Crompton was born in 1753 in Lancashire, England. After his father passed away, he helped support his family by spinning yarn. Soon enough, Crompton became all too familiar with the limitations of the industrial textile technology currently in use. He began to think of ways he could improve the process to make it faster and more efficient. Crompton supported his research and development working as a violinist at the Bolton Theatre for pennies a show, plowing all of his wages into his realizing his invention.

In 1779, Crompton was rewarded with an invention he called the spinning mule. The machine combined the moving carriage of the spinning jenny with the rollers of a water frame. The name "mule" was derived from the fact that like a mule—which is a cross between a horse and a donkey—his invention was also a hybrid. In the operation of a spinning mule, during the draw stroke, the roving (a long, narrow bunch of carded fibers) is pulled through and twisted; on the return, it is wrapped onto the spindle. Once perfected, the spinning mule gave the spinner great control over the weaving process, and many different types of yarn could be produced. In 1813, the mule was upgraded with the addition of a variable speed control invented by William Horrocks.

The mule was a game changer for the textile industry: It could spin thread of much finer gauge, better quality, and at a higher volume than thread spun by hand—and the better the thread, the higher the profit in the marketplace. The fine threads spun on the mule sold for at least three times the price of coarser threads. In addition, the mule could hold multiple spindles, which greatly increased output.

Patent Troubles

Many 18th-century inventors encountered difficulty over their patents and Crompton was no exception. In the more than five years it took Compton to invent and perfect his spinning mule, he failed to obtain a patent. Seizing on the opportunity, famed industrialist Richard Arkwright took out his own patent on the spinning mule, even though he hadn't had anything to do with its creation. 

Crompton filed a complaint regarding his patent claim with the British Commons Committee in 1812. The committee concluded that "the method of reward to an inventor, as generally accepted in the eighteenth century, was that the machine, etc., should be made public and that a subscription should be raised by those interested, as a reward to the inventor."

Such a philosophy may have been practical in the days when inventions required little capital to develop, however, it was decidedly inadequate once the industrial revolution got underway and investment capital became crucial to the development and production of any substantial technical improvement. Unfortunately for Crompton, British law lagged far behind the new paradigm of industrial progress. 

Crompton was eventually able to prove the financial harm he'd suffered by gathering evidence of all the factories that relied on his invention—more than four million spinning mules were in use at the time—for which he'd received no compensation. Parliament agreed to a settlement of £5,000 pounds. Crompton attempted to go into business with the funds he was finally awarded but his efforts were unsuccessful. He died in 1827.