Samuel Slater, also known as “The Father of the American Factory System”, was born on June 9, 1768 in Belper, Derbyshire. He was the fifth son of a farming family of eight children, and received a basic education at a school in Belper run by a Mr. Jackson.
At the age of ten he started working as an apprentice for Jedediah Strutt, the owner of Comford Mill, one of the biggest cotton mills in Belper. In short time he evolved to the position of superintendent, and became extremely familiar with the mill machines designed by Richard Arkwright for Strutt’s cotton business. Strutt used Richard Arkwright’s genius invention, the water spinning frame which meant he could deal with huge quantities of cotton, 24 hours a day. After working for eight years in Strutt’s mills, Slater gained a comprehensive understanding of the Arkwright machines which he later on used to revolutionize the American factory system.
In 1774, Britain passed a law that banned textile workers from traveling to America only because the US were the biggest cotton exporters at that time and all this, without Arkwright’s technology.
The US entrepreneurs were desperate to acquire the machines developed in the UK by offering bribes to the English workers for their knowledge, published in newspapers. Slater could not resist the temptation and illegally fled to the US at the age of 21, disguised as a farmer, carrying the secret to the water-powered spinning machine in his memory.
With the support of industrialist Moses Brown, Slater built America’s first water-powered cotton spinning mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. By the end of 1790, it was up and running, with workers walking a treadmill to generate power. By 1791, a waterwheel drove the machinery that carded and spun cotton into thread.
Thanks to Slater, America was producing in 1835, cotton worth over £80m compared to their production from 1790 that was worth only £2m.
In Belper, the situation was getting worse by the day. Workers were facing the possible loss of their livelihoods because of the industrial decline and Slater became known as “Slater the Traitor” by the community members.
In the US, Slater created the “Rhode Island System,” a special factory practice, based upon the patterns of family life from the New England villages. The first employees of the mill were children aged 7 to 12, which Slater used to supervise them closely. He quickly attracted workers and developed his business faster than anyone before. In 1803 in Rhode Island, Slater and his brother built a mill village they called Slatersville that included a large modern mill, housing for its workers, and a company store.
His machines and work system were quickly imitated and improved in time, and with their help, the American industry nourished and reached fabulous stages.
Slater died in 1835 and as years passed, the hatred had slowly vanished and Belper gained strong connections with the US, making Pawtucket its twin town.
Perhaps Slater’s actions were not that bad in the end. He had the right knowledge in the right place, at the right time, and offered good livelihood to a great number of people, on the long run.