- Engineering & Materials
- Hargreaves, James (1720–1778)
Hargreaves, James (1720–1778)
English weaver who invented the spinning jenny, a machine that enabled several threads to be spun at once.
Virtually nothing is known of Hargreaves's early life. He was probably born in about 1720 in Blackburn, Lancashire, and from 1740 to 1750 seems to have been a carpenter and hand-loom weaver at nearby Standhill. In about 1760 his skill led Robert Peel (the grandfather of the politician) to employ him to devise an improved carding machine. He is supposed to have invented the spinning jenny in about 1764 when he observed that a spinning-wheel, accidentally overturned by his daughter, continued to revolve, together with the spindle, in a vertical position. Seeing the machine in this unfamiliar up-ended state apparently made him think that if a number of spindles were placed upright and side by side, several threads might be spun at the same time.
At first the resulting jenny was used only by Hargreaves and his children to make weft for the family loom. But in order to supply the needs of a large family he sold some of his new machines. Spinners with the old-fashioned wheel became alarmed by the possibility of cheaper competition and in the spring of 1768 a mob from Blackburn and its neighborhood gutted Hargreaves's house and destroyed his jenny and his loom. Hargreaves moved to Nottingham, where he formed a partnership with a Mr. James, who built a small cotton mill in which the jenny was used.
Throughout his life Hargreaves was handicapped by having had neither formal education nor what has often proved to be an adequate compensation for it, a sound business sense. He was, however, at least aware of his deficiencies in the latter and with the aid of his partner took out a patent for the spinning jenny in 1770. And when he found out that many Lancashire manufacturers were using the machine, he brought actions for infringement of patent rights. They offered him £3,000 for permission to use it, but he stood out for £4,000. The case continued until his lawyer learned that Hargreaves had sold a number of jennies in Blackburn, and the lawyer withdrew his services.
Hargreaves continued his business partnership until James died on April 22, 1778 in Nottingham. Six years later there were 20,000 hand-jennies in use in England compared with 550 of the mechanized (spinning) mules. Hargreaves is said to have left property worth £7,000 and his widow received £4,000 for her share in the business. But after her death some of the children were extremely poor and Joseph Brotherton sought to raise a fund for them and found great difficulty in getting from the wealthy Lancashire manufactures sufficient money to save them from destitution.
The spinning jenny came, like so many successful inventions, at a time when the need for it was at a maximum. The flying shuttle, invented by John Kay and first used in cotton weaving in about 1760, had doubled the productive output of the weaver, whereas that of the worker at the spinning-wheel had remained much the same. The spinning jenny at once multiplied eightfold the output of the spinner and, because of its simplicity, could be worked easily by children. It did not, however, entirely supersede the spinning-wheel in cotton manufacturing (and was itself overtaken by Samuel Crompton's mule). But for woolen textiles the jenny could be used to make both the warp and the weft.
There is as about as much uncertainty surrounding the origins of the spinning jenny and its name as there is about its inventor. Some maintain that it was Thomas Highs, and not Hargreaves, who invented the jenny and that Richard Arkwright (another contender in this confused history) stole part of Highs's idea in order to claim the invention was his own. But there is little conclusive evidence that it was Highs or Arkwright, rather than Hargreaves, who invented the jenny. As to the name of the machine, it is said that Highs had a daughter named Jane whereas Hargreaves definitely did not, and that Jane Highs gave her pet name—Jenny—to the machine. Were this so, it is difficult to believe that Hargreaves would have accepted without comment or protest the widespread use of a name that virtually branded his claim to be “father” of the jenny as nothing less than imposture.
From the Hutchinson Dictionary of Scientific Biography, © RM, 2020. All rights reserved. Published under license in AccessScience, © McGraw-Hill Education, 2000–2020. Helicon Publishing is a division of RM.