How Industrial Espionage Started America’s Cotton Revolution

To the British, Samuel Slater was ‘Slater the traitor,’ but to the Americans, he was the father of the American industrial revolution

An image from the Slater Mill Historic Site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Flickr

With technical know-how and entrepreneurial spirit, Samuel Slater helped build early American industry–becoming rich and famous along the way.

Slater bailed on the English and came to America in 1789, sailing on a ship to New York in response to the bounties offered by the American government for workers who knew how to manufacture cotton. The technologies involved in manufacturing cotton fabrics were held by the British, who kept them from the Americans by the fairly simple expedient of forbidding skilled textile workers from emigrating and not allowing technical drawings of the machinery to leave Britain.

Because of these practices, even though cotton had been cultivated in the United States with the use of enslaved laborers for more than a century, the country had no domestic textile manufacturing industry. After Slater brought his technological know-how from Britain, with the backing of American merchants, textile manufacture became America’s most important pre-Civil War industry and cotton production became a central part of the early American economy.

Slater was born in Derbyshire, England in 1769, writes PBS, and started working at a young age. He was apprenticed to a cotton mill owner and eventually became a supervisor at the mill. In that position, the public broadcaster writes, “he became intimately familiar with the mill machines designed by Richard Arkwright, a genius whose other advances included using water power to drive his machines and dividing labor among groups of workers.” In other words, he was just the kind of person that the British wanted to hold onto.

However, Slater was able to sneak out of Britain. He wasn’t carrying any documents with him, but he had memorized everything he could about Arkwright’s machines and process. In America, he found the support of a Rhode Island merchant, Moses Brown, and constructed the first water-powered cotton spinning mill in that state. It opened on this day in 1790. 

This marked the beginning of a manufacturing boom for Rhode Island and New England in general that drew families of workers to Slater’s mills. “He eventually built several successful cotton mills in New England and established the town of Slatersville, Rhode Island,” writes the Library of Congress. Figures like Samuel Slater and, later, Francis Cabot Lowell, helped to create a domestic textile manufacturing industry that became the most important industry in America before the Civil War, the library writes.

In the South, where the raw material for these mills was produced, the national demand for cotton helped shape the economy. Eli Whitney’s infamous invention of the cotton gin in the early 1790s coincided with this new domestic demand for cotton and thus the demand for slaves to farm it, writes historian Junius P. Rodriguez. “In the South, cotton became the chief crop and the basis of the region’s economy,” he writes. “Cotton production in the South increased from about 3,000 bales in 1793 to approximately 178,000 bales by 1800.” With this growing demand came a resurgence of the slave trade. By the time the Civil War began, "cotton production had exploded to four million bales per year," he writes.

Although a lot of this cotton left the country–it was the biggest export, he writes–it also fueled domestic textile production in New England. “The manufacturing of cotton cloth enabled the North to evolve into an industrialized region,” he writes. To the British, Samuel Slater was known as “Slater the Traitor” for taking their trade secrets to America–to the history of America, he was a more complicated figure.

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