Samuel Slater, a British-born American industrialist, has been lauded as the founder of the American Industrial Revolution. He came to America dreaming of creating a booming textile industry like that of his native Britain. With his entrepreneurial and inventive spirit, he proved highly successful—and became a very important figure in our nation's early history.
Slater was born into a large farming family in Belper, a town in Derbyshire, England, on June 9, 1768. He was educated at a local school. As many young children did at the time, he began working in a local cotton mill at the age of 10. His father died after falling from a cart when Slater was just 14 years old.
After his father's death, Slater was indentured as an apprentice to Jedediah Strut, the owner of the cotton mill where Slater worked. At the time, Strut was using water frame technology created by Richard Arkwright, a pioneer of the British textile industry. Slater, who eventually became mill superintendent, continued working for Strut until his apprenticeship ended on his 21st birthday.
Faced with the prospect of a new beginning, Slater was intrigued by the idea of forging his way in America, where businessmen were offering bounties of $100 to those with knowledge of British textile technologies. Although he risked being charged with treason for breaking British emigration laws—put in place to keep British technology secrets safe at home—Slater departed for New York on September 1, 1789, and arrived there 66 days later.
Upon arriving in America, Slater found employment at a local cotton-spinning workshop. This proved to be a dead-end job, but confirmed what he suspected— the American textile industry was in dire need of his valuable knowledge.
After much inquiry and research, Slater managed to meet the right people. Because he had the know-how to create the latest textile machines, he was funded by Rhode Island investors and opened his first water-powered textile mill in Pawtucket, R.I., in 1793. He designed new machines by memory and intuition, including the first American-built spinning machine. Unlike his predecessors, who were still making their products to order, Slater's goal was to maximize output and create a demand in the marketplace for all the yarn he could produce. It worked. His became the first successful cotton-spinning mill in the United States.
Slater employed local families to work in his mill, and created an organizational method for running it that became a model for future mills run by his successors. By 1809, the U.S. textile industry had grown to 62 mills operating in Rhode Island and other states, with 25 more being planned or built.
In 1803, Slater enlisted his brother John to find a site for a new mill. After much searching, John Slater chose Buffum's Mill, R.I., a small settlement on the banks of the Branch River. The brothers bought up land and water rights and the new mill was built and opened in 1807. With so many new employees, there was a need for housing—so the Slaters built homes, company stores, and churches. This was the beginning of Slatersville. The town became a model for other mill towns built along the Blackstone River in Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
As father of the American textile industry, Samuel Slater's ingenuity and ambition paid off, not only for him but for all Americans. He mechanized the textile industry and created inventive production methods that would shape American factories across the country. His work paved the way for the development of American industry as we know it today.