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
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
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