Hitting the Books: Meet Richard Arkwright, the world’s first tech titan

You didn’t actually believe all those founder’s myths about tech billionaires like Bezos, Jobs and Musk pulling themselves up by their bootstraps from some suburban American garage, did you? In reality, our corporate kings have been running the same playbook since the 18th century when Lancashire’s own Richard Arkwright wrote it. Arkwright is credited with developing a means of forming cotton fully into thread — technically he didn’t actually invent or design the machine, but developed the overarching system in which it could be run at scale — and spinning that success into financial fortune. Never mind the fact that his 24-hour production lines were operated by boys as young as seven pulling 13-hour shifts.

In Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech — one of the best books I’ve read this year — LA Times tech reporter Brian Merchant lays bare the inhumane cost of capitalism wrought by the industrial revolution and celebrates the workers who stood against those first tides of automation: the Luddites.

blockprint of two luddites beating on an old timey machine with hammers on a faux aged paper background with red block book title lettering, black author lettering

Hachette Book Group

Excerpted from Blood in the Machine by Brian Merchant. Published by Hachette Book Group. Copyright © 2023 by Brian Merchant. All rights reserved.

The first tech titans were not building global information networks or commercial space rockets. They were making yarn and cloth. A lot of yarn, and a lot of cloth.

Like our modern-day titans, they started out as entrepreneurs. But until the nineteenth century, entrepreneurship was not a cultural phenomenon. Businessmen took risks, of course, and undertook novel efforts to increase their profits. Yet there was not a popular conception of the heroic entrepreneur, of the adventuring businessman, until after the birth of industrial capitalism. The term itself was popularized by Jean-Baptiste Say, in his 1803 work A Treatise on Political Economy. An admirer of Adam Smith’s, Say thought that The Wealth of Nations was missing an account of the individuals who bore the risk of starting new business; he called this figure the entrepreneur, which translated from the French as “adventurer” or “undertaker.”

For a worker, aspiring to entrepreneurship was different than merely seeking upward mobility. The standard path an ambitious, skilled weaver might pursue was to graduate from apprentice to journeyman weaver, who rented a loom or worked in a shop, to owning his own loom, to becoming a master weaver and running a small shop of his own that employed other journeymen. This was customary.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as now in the twenty-first century, entrepreneurs saw the opportunity to use technology to disrupt longstanding customs in order to increase efficiencies, output, and personal profit. There were few opportunities for entrepreneurship without some form of automation; control of technologies of production grants its owner a chance to gain advantage or take pay or market share from others. In the past, like now, entrepreneurs started small businesses at some personal financial risk, whether by taking out a loan to purchase used handlooms and rent a small factory space, or by using inherited capital to procure a steam engine and a host of power looms.

The most ambitious entrepreneurs tapped untested technologies and novel working arrangements, and the most successful irrevocably changed the structure and nature of our daily lives, setting standards that still exist today. The least successful would go bankrupt, then as now.

In the first century of the Industrial Revolution, one entrepreneur looms above the others, and has a strong claim on the mantle of the first of what we’d call a tech titan today. Richard Arkwright was born to a middle-class tailor’s family and originally apprenticed as a barber and wigmaker. He opened a shop in the Lancashire city of Bolton in the 1760s. There, he invented a waterproof dye for the wigs that were in fashion at the time, and traveled the country collecting hair to make them. In his travels across the Midlands, he met spinners and weavers, and became familiar with the machinery they used to make cotton garments. Bolton was right in the middle of the Industrial Revolution’s cotton hub hotspot.

Arkwright took the money he made from the wigs, plus the dowry from his second marriage, and invested it in upgraded spinning machinery. “The improvement of spinning was much in the air, and many men up and down Lancashire were working at it,” Arkwright’s biographer notes. James Hargreaves had invented the spinning jenny, a machine that allowed a single worker to create eight threads of yarn simultaneously—though they were not very strong—in 1767. Working with one of his employees, John Kay, Arkwright tweaked the designs to spin much stronger threads using water or steam power. Without crediting Kay, Arkwright patented his water frame in 1769 and a carding engine in 1775, and attracted investment from wealthy hosiers in Nottingham to build out his operation. He built his famous water-powered factory in Cromford in 1771.

His real innovation was not the technology itself; several similar machines had been patented, some before his. His true innovation was creating and successfully implementing the system of modern factory work.

“Arkwright was not the great inventor, nor the technical genius,” as the Oxford economic historian Peter Mathias explains, “but he was the first man to make the new technology of massive machinery and power source work as a system — technical, organizational, commercial — and, as a proof, created the first great personal fortune and received the accolade of a knighthood in the textile industry as an industrialist.” Richard Arkwright Jr., who inherited his business, became the richest commoner in England.

Arkwright was the first start-up founder to launch a unicorn company, we might say, and the first tech entrepreneur to strike it wildly rich. He did so by marrying the emergent technologies that automated the making of yarn with a relentless new work regime. His legacy is alive today in companies like Amazon, which strive to automate as much of their operations as is financially viable, and to introduce surveillance-intensive worker-productivity programs.

Often called the grandfather of the factory, Arkwright did not invent the idea of organizing workers into strict shifts to produce goods with maximal efficiency. But he pursued the “manufactory” formation most ruthlessly, and most vividly demonstrated the practice could generate huge profits. Arkwright’s factory system, which was quickly and widely emulated, divided his hundreds of workers into two overlapping thirteen-hour shifts. A bell was rung twice a day, at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. The gates would shut and work would start an hour later. If a worker was late, they sat the shift out, forfeiting that day’s pay. (Employers of the era touted this practice as a positive for workers; it was a more flexible schedule, they said, since employees no longer needed to “give notice” if they couldn’t work. This reasoning is reminiscent of that offered by twenty-first-century on-demand app companies.) For the first twenty-two years of its operation, the factory was worked around the clock, mostly by boys like Robert Blincoe, some as young as seven years old. At its peak, two-thirds of the 1,100-strong workforce were children. Richard Arkwright Jr. admitted in later testimony that they looked “extremely dissipated, and many of them had seldom more than a few hours of sleep,” though he maintained they were well paid.

The industrialist also built on-site housing, luring whole families from around the country to come work his frames. He gave them one week’s worth of vacation a year, “but on condition that they could not leave the village.” Today, even some of our most cutting-edge consumer products are still manufactured in similar conditions, in imposing factories with on-site dormitories and strictly regimented production processes, by workers who have left home for the job. Companies like Foxconn operate factories where the regimen can be so grueling it has led to suicide epidemics among the workforce.

The strict work schedule and a raft of rules instilled a sense of discipline among the laborers; long, miserable shifts inside the factory walls were the new standard. Previously, of course, similar work was done at home or in small shops, where shifts were not so rigid or enforced.

Arkwright’s “main difficulty,” according to the early business theorist Andrew Ure, did not “lie so much in the invention of a proper mechanism for drawing out and twisting cotton into a continuous thread, as in . . . training human beings to renounce their desultory habits of work and to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.” This was his legacy. “To devise and administer a successful code of factory discipline, suited to the necessities of factory diligence, was the Herculean enterprise, the noble achievement of Arkwright,” Ure continued. “It required, in fact, a man of a Napoleon nerve and ambition to subdue the refractory tempers of workpeople.”

Ure was hardly exaggerating, as many workers did in fact view Arkwright as akin to an invading enemy. When he opened a factory in Chorley, Lancashire, in 1779, a crowd of hundreds of cloth workers broke in, smashed the machines, and burned the place to the ground. Arkwright did not try to open another mill in Lancashire.

Arkwright also vigorously defended his patents in the legal system. He collected royalties on his water frame and carding engine until 1785, when the court decided that he had not actually invented the machines but had instead copied their parts from other inventors, and threw the patents out. By then, he was astronomically wealthy. Before he died, he would be worth £500,000, or around $425 million in today’s dollars, and his son would expand and entrench his factory empire.

The success apparently went to his head — he was considered arrogant, even among his admirers. In fact, arrogance was a key ingredient in his success: he had what Ure described as “fortitude in the face of public opposition.” He was unyielding with critics when they pointed out, say, that he was employing hundreds of children in machine-filled rooms for thirteen hours straight. That for all his innovation, the secret sauce in his groundbreaking success was labor exploitation.

In Arkwright, we see the DNA of those who would attain tech titanhood in the ensuing decades and centuries. Arkwright’s brashness rhymes with that of bullheaded modern tech executives who see virtue in a willingness to ignore regulations and push their workforces to extremes, or who, like Elon Musk, would gleefully wage war with perceived foes on Twitter rather than engage any criticism of how they run their businesses. Like Steve Jobs, who famously said, “We’ve always been shameless about stealing great ideas,” Arkwright surveyed the technologies of the day, recognized what worked and could be profitable, lifted the ideas, and then put them into action with an unmatched aggression. Like Jeff Bezos, Arkwright hyper-charged a new mode of factory work by finding ways to impose discipline and rigidity on his workers, and adapting them to the rhythms of the machine and the dictates of capital — not the other way around.

We can look back at the Industrial Revolution and lament the working conditions, but popular culture still lionizes entrepreneurs cut in the mold of Arkwright, who made a choice to employ thousands of child laborers and to institute a dehumanizing system of factory work to increase revenue and lower costs. We have acclimated to the idea that such exploitation was somehow inevitable, even natural, while casting aspersions on movements like the Luddites as being technophobic for trying to stop it. We forget that working people vehemently opposed such exploitation from the beginning.

Arkwright’s imprint feels familiar to us, in our own era where entrepreneurs loom large. So might a litany of other first-wave tech titans. Take James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine that powered countless factories in industrial England. Once he was confident in his product, much like a latter-day Bill Gates, Watts sold subscriptions for its use. With his partner, Matthew Boulton, Watts installed the engine and then collected annual payments that were structured around how much the customer would save on fuel costs compared to the previous engine. Then, like Gates, Watts would sue anyone he thought had violated his patent, effectively winning himself a monopoly on the trade. The Mises Institute, a libertarian think tank, argues that this had the effect of constraining innovation on the steam engine for thirty years.

Or take William Horsfall or William Cartwright. These were men who were less innovative than relentless in their pursuit of disrupting a previous mode of work as they strove to monopolize a market. (The word innovation, it’s worth noting, carried negative connotations until the mid-twentieth century or so; Edmund Burke famously called the French Revolution “a revolt of innovation.”) They can perhaps be seen as precursors to the likes of Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber, the pugnacious trampler of the taxi industry. Kalanick’s business idea — that it would be convenient to hail a taxi from your smartphone — was not remarkably inventive. But he had intense levels of self-determination and pugnacity, which helped him overrun the taxi cartels and dozens of cities’ regulatory codes. His attitude was reflected in Uber’s treatment of its drivers, who, the company insists, are not employees but independent contractors, and in the endemic culture of harassment and mistreatment of the women on staff.

These are extreme examples, perhaps. But extremity is often needed to break down long-held norms, and the potential rewards are extreme, too. Like the mill bosses who shattered nineteenth-century standards and traditions by automating cloth-making, today’s start-up founders aim to disrupt one job category after another with gig work platforms or artificial intelligence, and encourage others to follow their lead. There’s a reason Arkwright and his factories were both emulated and feared. Even two centuries later, the most successful tech titans typically are.

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