James Hargreaves and the Invention of the Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny
Wikimedia Commons/Markus Schweiß

During the 1700s, a number of inventions set the stage for an industrial revolution in weaving. Among them were the flying shuttle, the spinning jenny, the spinning frame, and the cotton gin. Together, these new tools allowed for the handling of large quantities of harvested cotton.

Credit for the spinning jenny, a hand-powered multiple spinning machine invented in 1764, goes to a British carpenter and weaver named James Hargreaves. His invention was the first machine to improve upon the spinning wheel. At the time, cotton producers had a difficult time meeting the demand for textiles, and Hargreaves found a way to ramp up the supply of thread.

James Hargreaves

Hargreaves’ story begins in Oswaldtwistle, England, where he was born in 1720. He had no formal education, was never taught how to read or write, and spent most of his life working as a carpenter and weaver. Legend has it that Hargreaves' daughter once knocked over a spinning wheel, and as he watched the spindle roll across the floor, the idea of the spinning jenny came to him. This story, however, is just a legend. The idea that Hargreaves named his invention after either his wife or his daughter is also a long-standing myth. The name "jenny" actually came from the English slang for "engine."

The original spinning jenny used eight spindles instead of the single spindle found on the spinning wheel. A wheel controlled the eight spindles, which created a weave using eight threads spun from a corresponding set of rovings. Later models of the spinning jenny had up to 120 spindles.

Opposition to the Spinning Jenny

After inventing the spinning jenny, Hargreaves built a number of models and started to sell them to locals. However, since each machine was capable of doing the work of eight people, other spinners became angry about the competition. In 1768, a group of spinners broke into Hargreaves' house and destroyed his machines to prevent them from taking away their work.

Opposition to the machine caused Hargreaves to relocate to Nottingham, where he and his partner Thomas James set up a small mill to supply hosiery makers with suitable yarn. On July 12, 1770, Hargreaves took out a patent on a 16-spindle spinning jenny and soon after sent notice to others who were using copies of the machine that he would pursue legal action against them.

The manufacturers he went after offered him a sum of 3,000 pounds to drop the case, less than half of Hargreaves' requested 7,000 pounds. Hargreaves ultimately lost the case when it turned out that the courts had rejected his patent application (he had produced and sold too many of his machines before filing for the patent).

Legacy

Hargreaves' invention not only decreased the need for labor but also saved money. The only drawback was that the machine produced thread that was too coarse to be used for warp threads (the weaving term for the yarns that extend lengthwise in a loom) and could only be used to make weft threads (the crosswise yarns).

The spinning jenny was commonly used in the cotton industry until about 1810, when it was replaced by the spinning mule.