Spinning Mule

Few inventions on innowiki have inspired as much social unrest at the spinning mule. The mule is a minor innovation compared to most others on the list. However, it caused a massive freak-out. The Luddite movement, that still exists to this day, if often wrongly credited to the printing press but actually began with the mule.


The spinning mule transformed raw wool into fabric. It was a vastly more efficient spinning wheel. Like many jobs threatened by automation, spinning was dull, repetitive, and time-consuming. It created jobs but they were terrible jobs.

Rather than one at a time, the mule wove together dozens. Following a pattern that both pre and postdated the mule, children were often employed to operate the machine.

Whereas spinning wheels had 2-5 spindles, mules typically had 1,320. They were vastly less expensive to operate while producing a more consistent yarn.

Before the mule, weaving was usually a family business. Mom and the children would break up and clean the raw fibers then spin them into thread. Dad wove their thread into fabric. The mule reduced the cost of thread, sending dad to factories and leaving mom and the kids unemployed with no marketable skills.


The whole family reacted predictably, violently breaking up mules. They named their movement, the Luddites, after Ned Ludd who most historians agree is a fictional character invented to create labor unrest. Luddites still exist to this day, opposing countless types of automation all the while enjoying the lower costs the machines provide. For example, modern Luddites talk to one another over mobile phones. They don’t realize technology powering their phones eliminated countless jobs, especially switchboard operators, and vastly lowered costs.

The mule itself was a combination of Arkwright’s water frame and Hargreaves’ spinning jenny. Basically, it did both functions. The offspring of a horse and a donkey is a mule, the origin of the name for Crompton’s invention.

Like countless inventors, Crompton could not afford to patent and commercialize the rights to his work. Finances forced him to sell the rights to industrialist David Dale for a pittance. That man went on to make a fortune from Crompton’s work.

Water Frame Spinner / Modern Factory

Richard Arkwright’s Water Frame Spinner created factories that did not require highly skilled labor. Women and children, with no training, worked in factories that churned out low-cost good enough quality fabric at high volumes. This vastly lowered the cost of fabric.

Arkwright was from a poor family: his father was a tailor. He improved on prior technology and built a better water-powered carding engine that he patented in 1775.

Combining the engine with other innovations he created a new business model, a factory that required little skill. To lower labor costs, he exclusively employed women and children as laborers. This innovation ー building a factory that runs on unskilled labor ー is Arkwright’s most important contribution.

Arkwright rapidly expanded, adding more mills, and acquiring more patents. However, his most important innovation remained factories run by water (and, starting in 1777, Watt steam engines) staffed by unskilled labor.

Six-year-olds were eligible for employment at Arkwright mills. This rule was flexible and some workers were younger. Arkwright’s insatiable appetite for unskilled labor employed entire villages. Large families moved to the mills, encouraged by Arkwright’s need for laborers. This created the “company town” where Arkwright owned everything.

In 1785, Arkwright’s patents were invalidated because they were ruled to be copies of existing technology. Despite that, he was knighted in 1786 and died in 1792 at age 59 with £500,000, a fortune.

Technology exports to the US were prohibited due to the revolution. Nevertheless, Samuel Slater smuggled Arkwright’s technology to America in 1789 and launched US textile mills. The first was in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790.         

Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny’s are significantly more efficient spinning wheels, allowing wool to be produced at a much lower price.

Each Jenny did the work of multiple spinners.

The Jenny (slang for Engine in British English) was unwelcome in Hargreaves’ village because it caused yarn prices to decline. Chased by angry tradesmen, he fled from the spinning community of Blackburn to Nottingham.

Hargreaves patented the Jenny July 12, 1770, but still struggled with knockoffs, losing a major court case. He profited not from the machine but, rather, by running a mill in Hockley.

He died in 1778 and his wife was paid £400 for use of the patent.

The Jenny is one of the seminal innovations of the Industrial Revolution and spurred the Luddites.