John Kay, Inventor of the Fly Shuttle A.D. 1753 by Ford Madox Brown, Courtesy Manchester City Council

Story: The Rise of the Machine Age
Object: Kay’s Flying Shuttle
Year: 1733
Location: Town Hall Mural

In No 8, The Birth of Textiles in Manchester, we learnt that King Edward III introduced Flemish weavers to Manchester in 1363 to boost the local cloth trade. This was instrumental in the rise of Manchester as a great centre of textiles. Yet, astonishingly, for four hundred years there was no discernible improvement in the technology used.

This seems unthinkable today, when technology advances too quickly for most people to keep up with. But this was pre-Industrial Revolution.

Change came in the 18th century with a succession of ingenious inventions that revolutionised industry, not least the cotton industry. After centuries of nothing, Britain saw the following inventions:

1712 Thomas Newcomen devises an atmospheric steam engine
1733 John Kay invents the Flying Shuttle in Bury
1764 James Hargreaves creates the Spinning Jenny which could spin 8 threads at once Soon it was spinning 120 threads simultaneously
1769 James Watt (who has a statue in Piccadilly Gardens) improves the Newcomen steam engine
1769 Richard Arkwright patents the Water Frame, a machine with cogs linked to a wheel turned by running water. Two years later he opens Cromford Mill in Derbyshire. It is the first water-powered cotton spinning mill and employs 200 workers. He builds his Shudehill Mill in 1782
1779 Samuel Crompton devises the Spinning Mule which produces finer, stronger thread
1781 Boulton and Watt make a steam engine that can be used in a cotton mill
1785 Edmund Cartwright invents the power loom.

Kay’s Flying Shuttle was the first new cotton machine and so is particularly important in Manchester terms. Before Kay, textile workers had “thrown” the shuttle with their hands. This meant that at least two weavers were needed at the loom, throwing the shuttle to each other. Now, with this invention, the weavers could get through their work much more quickly by themselves.

During the 18th century, the cotton industry changed from being a home-based (cottage) industry to a large-scale factory-based industry employing thousands of workers in huge mills, some of the earliest of which survive in Ancoats.

But why did this happen in Britain? Why not Finland or Spain or Greece? The clue lies in a man whose statue resides in the reading room of the John Rylands Library: Francis Bacon, the greatest of renaissance men, philosopher, writer and politician.

In 1620, Bacon outlined his method in his book Novum Organum or “New Method”. It propounded the revolutionary idea that to understand how the world works, one should experiment, write down the findings, and conduct a better experiment next time. That simple.

This new scientific principle derided the long-held dominant view that nature could be explained by alchemy, magic, and superstition. But it took around a hundred years for society to catch up with Francis Bacon. When it did, it happened even more so in the cotton industry in Manchester.

Read how Manchester got its name here. For more information on Ed Glinert’s tours of Manchester, click here.

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