Samuel Slater (June 9, 1768 – April 21, 1835) was an early American industrialist popularly known as the "Father of the American Industrial Revolution" because he brought British textile technology to America. A native of England, he was apprenticed as an engineer and in 1789 violated a British emigration law that prohibited the spread of British manufacturing technology to other nations. When he left for New York, he had memorized the plans for the mill and offered to sell his knowledge to American industrialists. He then gave it to Moses Brown, who used the plan, and made major profit. He soon found work in Rhode Island replicating British factory equipment for a textile mill, and earned the owner's backing to design and build the first water powered mill in the United States.
Slater established tenant farms and towns around his textile mills such as Slatersville, Rhode Island. Due to his technical knowledge from Britain, he became a full partner and eventually went into business for himself and grew wealthy. By the end of Slater's life he owned thirteen spinning mills.
Learn more about Samuel Slater and Slater's Mill, free from the University of California's College of Natural Resources website. Slater is also known as the "Father of the American Sunday School System" establishing youth bible classes in his mills.
Slater was born in Belper, Derbyshire, England June 9, 1768. In 1782, Slater was apprenticed to a local factory master, Jebediah Strutt, who had been doing business with Samuel's father. Originally Strutt had requested an older sibling but his father recommended Samuel instead because of his aptitude with mechanics. As a partner of Richard Arkwright, Strutt was a pioneer in the use of the new British textile technology, and he is believed to have passed along the trade secrets to Slater over the course of the next seven years apprenticeship.
After the apprenticeship neared its end (around the time when Slater was 22), he began to recognize that the English textile factory was not so good. At this point, the desperate American textile industry was offering bounties of $100 to people with British technological knowledge. These had been offered because all attempts to obtain English models, by purchase or smuggling, had failed.
Life in America
In 1789, a Quaker merchant by the name of Moses Brown had decided to start his own textile factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and hired his son-in-law, William Almy, and nephew, Smith Brown, to operate the mill. Housed in a former fulling mill, Almy & Brown, as the company was to be called, set about to make and sell cloth spun on spinning wheels, jennies, and frames.Operational challenges with the frames led Brown to seek out someone with experience with textile mills and the ability to reproduce Arkwright's machine. Slater offered his services and was put to work duplicating British factory equipment. After he proved his competency, Brown provided the funds to build a mill on the Blackstone River based on the Arkwright designs in his photographic memory. During construction, Slater made some adjustments to the designs to fit the needs of America. The result would be the first successful water-powered textile mill in America. Samuel's wife, Hannah (Wilkinson) Slater, also invented a type of thread made of cotton. Slater's machinery carded cotton and spun it into thread.
After creating this mill, he put the principles of management in place that would lead to success by teaching people to be skilled mechanics.
In 1793, now partners with Almy and Brown, Slater constructed a new mill for the sole purpose of textile manufacture under the name Almy, Brown & Slater. It was a 72-spindle mill; the patenting of Eli Whitney's cotton gin in 1794 insured ample supplies of cotton from the South.
In 1818 Samuel Slater split from Almy and Brown to build his own larger mill in partnership with his brother John, which he called the White Mill.
Slater drew on his British village experience to create a factory system called the "Rhode Island System," based upon the customary patterns of family life in New England villages. Children aged 7 to 12 were the first employees of the mill; Slater personally supervised them closely. The first child workers were hired in 1790. Slater first tried to staff his mill with women and children from far away, but that fell through due to the closeknit framework of the New England family. He then brought in whole families, creating entire towns. He provided company-owned housing nearby, along with company stores; he sponsored a Sunday School where college students taught the children reading and writing.
Slater put his brother John in charge of the White Mill that opened in 1799. By 1810 Slater held part ownership in three factories in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. In 1823, he bought a mill in Connecticut. He then built factories that made textile machinery used by many of the region's mills, and formed a partnership with his brother-in-law to produce iron for use in machinery construction. Slater spread himself too thin, and was unable to coordinate or integrate his many different, spread out business interests. He refused to go outside his family to hire managers and after 1829 he made his sons partners in the new umbrella firm of Samuel Slater and Sons. His son Horatio Nelson Slater completely reorganized the family business, introduced cost-cutting measures, and gave up old-fashioned procedures. thereby making the firm one of the leading manufacturing companies in the United States.
Slater also hired recruiters to search for families willing to work at the mill. He also used means of advertisement to get more families into his business.
By 1800 the phenomenal success of the Slater mill had been duplicated by other entrepreneurs; by 1810 Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin reported the U.S. had some 50 cotton-yarn mills, many of them started in response to the Embargo of 1807 that cut off imports from Britain. The War of 1812 speeded up the process of industrialization; when it ended in 1815 there were within 30 miles of Providence 140 cotton manufacturers employing 26,000 hands and operating 130,000 spindles. The American textile industry was launched.
In the eighteen-teens, Francis Cabot Lowell built his full cotton-to-cloth textile mill in Waltham, Massachusetts which was immensely successful. By 1826, although Lowell had died, the Waltham System had proven so successful that the town of Lowell, Massachusetts, the first to use the system on a large scale, was founded by his partners in his honor. Lowell would be the model for textile towns for many decades to follow.
Slater died on April 21, 1835 in Webster, Massachusetts. At the time of his death, he owned thirteen mills and was worth a million dollars. His original mill, known today as Slater Mill, still stands and operates as a museum dedicated to preserving the history of Samuel Slater and his contribution to American industry.