John Kay (spinning frame)

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John Kay was associated with the invention in 1767 of the spinning frame, which marked an important stage in the development of textile manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution. Born in Warrington, England[1], Kay was at least the co-constructor of the first spinning frame, and was a claimant to having been its inventor. He is sometimes confused with the unrelated John Kay, who had invented the flying shuttle, a weaving machine, some thirty years earlier.[a]

John Kay and Thomas Highs[edit]

In 1763, Kay was working as a clockmaker in Leigh. A neighbour of his, Thomas Highs, was an inventor, and the two collaborated in investigations of machinery for the manufacture of textiles, including the spinning of thread by means of rollers[4]. By 1763 weaving was already automated, but spinning was still done by hand. Lewis Paul had made a machine using mechanical rollers in 1738, but this had not not been a commercial success.[5]

John Kay and Richard Arkwright[edit]

An Arkwright water frame made in 1775

In 1767, Kay commenced a working relationship with Richard Arkwright, an entrepreneur[6]. The character of this relationship, and in particular, the competing claims of Arkwright, Kay, and also Highs to primacy as inventors, were subsequently to become the subjects of bitter legal dispute (see below).

Arkwright initially engaged Kay to manufacture brass wheels, ostensibly for use in a perpetual motion machine[7][8] Six months later, Arkwright engaged Kay to build a roller-based spinning-machine[9].

In 1768 Arkwright brought Kay the town of Preston to develop a further prototype. Kay had given his bond to serve Arkwright for 21 years[10], and to keep their methods secret[11]. To deflect attention, Arkwright told outsiders that he and Kay were developing a longitude machine[12]; even so, the secrecy and the noises coming from their workshop led to accusations of witchcraft[13].

Arkwright and Kay subsequently moved to Nottingham, where in 1769 they constructed a spinning machine embodying the ideas which they had been developing. Arkwright patented it 1769 without mentioning Kay, his "workman"[14][13]. Kay learned of this patent from another Nottingham inventor, James Hargreaves, and told Hargreaves that it was he, Kay, who was the real inventor. Arkwright accused Kay of revealing the design to Hargreaves[15], and the two fell out. Kay left Arkwright's Nottingham house, where he had been living, ending their relationship. Kay subsequently accused Arkwright of stealing his work tools, and Arkwright made a counter-charge [16].

The spinning machine constructed in Nottingham by Kay and Arkwright was powered by horses, and apparently was not commercially viable[17]. But it did prove the feasibility of the new machine, known as a "spinning frame". Arkwright was thereby able to finance a more elaborate mill using water power, built in 1771 on the River Derwent at Cromford. The new machine, called a "water frame", would revolutionize the textile manufacturing industry and enrich Arkwright and his partners – but not Kay.[18]

Disputes over patents[edit]

Arkwright obtained a "Grand Patent" covering the spinning frame and other inventions in 1775. Subsequent infringements by mill-owners led him to take legal action to assert his rights. A series of trials began in 1781, and in the last of them (1785), Arkwright's claims as an inventor were called into question, Highs, Kay and Kay's wife Sarah all testifying that Arkwright had stolen High's invention of the rollers "by the medium of Mr Kay". Subsequently it was variously claimed that Arkwright had envisaged the design before meeting Kay,[14][19] that Kay had stolen High's ideas,[20] or that Kay conceived the machine as well as building it.[21][22]

The case did not settle the question of authorship, but was notable for clarifications of patent law in the instructions given by the judge to the jury: they must find the patent null, regardless of authorship, if they considered it insufficiently novel, or if Arkwright had failed to adequately specify the technology in the patent documents.[23] Presumably on these grounds, the jury set aside the patents -- a loss for Arkwright, as well as for Highs and Kay.



  1. ^ For example, the MadeHow biography of Arkwright confuses the two, giving a date of death for the maker of the spinning-frame slightly before it was built.[2][3]


  1. ^ Musson, A. E.; Robinson, E. (June 1960). "The Origins of Engineering in Lancashire". The Journal of Economic History. Cambridge University Press on behalf of the Economic History Association. 20 (2): 209–233. JSTOR 2114855.
  2. ^ "How Products Are Made". Retrieved 3 June 2010.
  3. ^ Espinasse (2010), p. 338.
  4. ^ Fitton, R. S. (1989). The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune. Manchester University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-7190-2646-1. It must have been about 1764 or 1765 – the time Highs was later to claim he had first become acquainted with Arkwright – that, again assisted by Kay, he began work on a machine for spinning cotton by rollers. But drawing of the Highs design from this time "reveal vital differences which show that despite his great mechanical abilities he was unable to develop the finer points of roller spinning". In any case, these drawings (and all documentation of the 1764 research) are of uncertain authenticity because they were presented long after the fact, by Highs and his advocates.
  5. ^ Espinasse (2010), p. 294.
  6. ^ John Kay's essay on the two John Kays of the industrial revolution: Kay, J. (2 January 2003). "Weaving the fine fabric of success". Financial Times. Retrieved 2 June 2010. technological progress is equally dependent on skills of invention and the management of invention.
  7. ^ Aikin, J.; Johnston, W. (1799). General Biography. 1. Robinson. p. 391. OCLC 220051472. John Kay became acquainted with him and dissuaded him from it [perpetual motion contrivances].
  8. ^ Ure, Dr Andrew (1861). "The Factory System". The cotton manufacture of Great Britain investigated and illustrated. Bohn's scientific library. II. H. G. Bohn. p. 249. OCLC 1979449. Arkwright, aware of the importance of the spinning apparatus, which he was then concocting, may have disguised the purpose of his wheels under the name of a perpetual motion.
  9. ^ Fitton, R. S. (1989). "Arkwright in Lancashire". The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune. Manchester University Press. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-7190-2646-1.
  10. ^ Espinasse (2010), p. 395.
  11. ^ Hills, R. L. (August 1998). "Kay (of Warrington), John". In Day, L.; McNeil, I. (eds.). Biographical Dictionary of the History of Technology (1st ed.). Routledge. p. 394. ISBN 978-0-415-19399-3. he engaged to serve Arkwright for twenty-one years and to keep details of the technology confidential.
  12. ^ Fitton (1989) p.15
  13. ^ a b "Arkwright, Richard (1732-1792)" . Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900.: "with the co-operation of a friend of Arkwright, Mr. John Smalley, described as a 'liquor merchant and painter,' the machine was constructed and set up in the parlour of the house belonging to the Free Grammar School."
  14. ^ a b Espinasse (1874) p.408 & p.391, Dr Ure: "This straightforward expedition in constructing a complex machine affords unquestionably a conclusive proof that Arkwright must have thoroughly matured his plan of a drawing-roller frame before he ever called upon Kay, and that he employed this workman partly on account of his reputation as a clever clockmaker, but chiefly from his living at a distance from Bolton where Arkwright resided, and where he would not wish any hints of his projects to transpire."
  15. ^ Espinasse (2010), pp. 395–396.
  16. ^ Espinasse (2010), pp. 392–395.
  17. ^ Espinasse (1874) p.392 "Little is known of the mill at Nottingham except that it was turned by horses."
  18. ^ "Sir Richard Arkwright: Was he a cheat?". Cotton Town website. Archived from the original on 10 August 2004. External link in |publisher= (help)
  19. ^ "Arkwright, Richard (1732–1792)". Archived from the original on 15 March 2012. According to most accounts, Arkwright had the idea for a spinning frame, a powered machine which would spin cotton using a system of rollers. Lacking the technical expertise to put the idea into execution, he called on Kay's skills to build the first working models.
  20. ^ Espinasse (2010), p. 378.
  21. ^ "Sketch of the life of Arkwright". Glasgow mechanics' magazine, and annals of philosophy. 2: 4. 1825. the merit of the first suggestion of the principle, it is said, is attributable to Kay... But it must be observed, in the first place, that the machine which Kay constructed for Mr. Hayes [Highs] did not succeed; and it is well-known that many others besides Hayes were at this time engaged in making experiments to change the mode of spinning.
  22. ^ Espinasse (2010), pp. 396–397.
  23. ^ Fitton, R. S. (1989). "Rex v. Arkwright". The Arkwrights: spinners of fortune. Manchester University Press. pp. 130–137. ISBN 978-0-7190-2646-1. Mr Justice Buller: it may have the effect of inducing people who apply for patents in future times, to be more explicit in their specifications, and consequently, the public will derive a great benefit from it ... If those [Arkwright's specifications] are of no use but to be thrown in merely to puzzle, I have no difficulty to say upon that ground alone, the patent is void