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No. 384:
Samuel Slater

Today, a story about a young man in a new land. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Samuel Slater came to America when he was 21. He'd been born and raised in England and served an apprenticeship in an English spinning mill. When he arrived in 1789, our new country was trying to create its own industries, apart from England. The great Quaker patron of Rhode Island, Moses Brown, for one, was trying to spin thread with English equipment.

Slater first took a dead-end job in a New York textile mill. Then he heard about Brown and wrote to him. Brown replied:

We are destitute of a person acquainted with water frame spinning. ... If thy present situation does not come up to what thou wishest... come and work [with] ours and have the credit as well as the advantage of perfecting the first watermill in America.

What a chance for a smart young man -- "Come and have the credit as well as the opportunity." Slater arrived and found Moses Brown's machinery in disarray, 3000 miles from any backup technology. He seized opportunity, all right. He told Brown to start from scratch with an American-designed, American-built spinning machine. Brown agreed, and Slater went to work.

What Slater provided was a sturdy, reliable, and home-grown version of Arkwright's English mill. It wasn't the original that some have claimed it to be. But Slater brought a different kind of gift to America. He had the sense to create technology that fit into its surroundings.

Slater designed his mill to push the limited resources of early America to their very edge, and no further. He suffered and conquered anti-English prejudice. He began with the English system of hiring women and children away from distant homes. But he quickly saw that New England families weren't about to break apart that way. So he created a system of tenant farms around his mills. Then he moved whole families in, and provided work for everyone.

He soon married the daughter of Moses Brown's business partner. The marriage was, itself, a fine working partnership. In 1793, only four years after Slater began his work, Hannah Slater became the first woman to file for a patent in our new patent office. She'd invented a new way to spin thread.

By 1800 many Englishmen were trying to sell English expertise in America. Most failed. They simply didn't have Slater's uncanny gift for seeing that New England was not a new England at all. It was a new land with a new people. Its technologies had to be molded to that land and to that people. This young man, who'd been promised that credit would ride on opportunity, not only received that gift. He returned it to us, full measure, pressed down, and running over.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Hawke, D.F., Nuts and Bolts of the Past. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1988, Chapter 9.