- Engineering & Materials
- Heathcoat, John (1783–1861)
Heathcoat, John (1783–1861)
English inventor of lace-making machinery. His contribution was acknowledged by Marc Isambard Brunel who said that Heathcoat (then aged 24) had devised “the most complicated machine ever invented.”
Heathcoat was born in Duffield, near Derby, on August 7, 1783. He received an average education and, after completing his apprenticeship as a journeyman in the hosiery trade, he became a master mechanic at Hathorn in about 1803. He then set himself the task of constructing a machine that would do the work of the pillow, the multitude of pins, thread and bobbins, and the fingers of the hand lace-maker and supersede them in the production of lace—just as the stocking loom had replaced knitting needles in stocking-making.
Analyzing the component threads of pillow lace, he classified them into longitudinal and diagonal. The former he placed on a beam as a warp. The remainder he reserved as weft with each thread worked separately, twisted around the warp thread to close the upper and lower sides of the mesh. He then devised the necessary mechanical features: bobbins to distribute the thread, the carriage and groove in which they must run, and their mode of twisting around the warp and traveling from side to side of the machine. The first square yard (0.8 sq m) of plain net from the machine was sold for £5. By the end of the 19th century its price had fallen to one shilling.
In 1805 Heathcoat settled in Loughborough—as a consequence his improved machine became known as the “Old Loughborough.” Four years later he went into partnership with the aptly named Charles Lacy, a former point-net maker at Nottingham. Following this amalgamation the machine's capacity was so increased that by 1816 there were as many as 35 frames at work in the Loughborough factory. They also made a great deal of money from royalties paid by other companies for permission to use the machines.
On the night of June 28, 1816 an angry crowd of Luddites, fearful that the new machines would deprive them of their jobs, attacked Heathcoat's Loughborough factory and destroyed 35 frames, burning the lace that was on them. The company sued the county for damages and received £10,000 in compensation, on condition that the money was spent locally. Heathcoat refused to accept the condition; he had already received threats to his life and wanted to leave the district for good. He dissolved his partnership with Lacy and left for Tiverton in Devon, forfeiting his right to compensation.
At Tiverton events took a more favorable turn. With a former partner, John Boden, he bought a large water-powered mill on the River Exe. Heathcoat devised new frames that were wider and faster, and by using rotary power he lowered the cost of production. He patented a rotary, self-narrowing stocking frame and put gimp and other ornamental threads into the bobbin by mechanical adjustment.
In 1821 the partnership with Boden was ended. Year by year Heathcoat took out patents for further inventions, continuing to make improvements in the textile trade until he retired in 1843. Also in 1832, with Henry Handley, he patented a steam plow to assist with agricultural improvements in Ireland. On December 12 of that year he was elected to represent Tiverton in the newly reformed Parliament and remained MP for the borough until 1859. He died in Tiverton on January 18, 1861.
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.