Francis Cabot Lowell and the Power Loom

By Mary Bellis - ThoughtCo Thanks to the invention of the power loom, Great Britain dominated the global textile industry at the turn of the 19th century. Hampered by inferior looming machinery, mills in the United States struggled to compete until a Boston merchant with a penchant for industrial espionage named Francis Cabot Lowell came along.

Origins of the Power Loom

Looms, which are used to weave fabric, have been around for thousands of years. But until the 18th century, they were manually operated, which made the production of cloth a slow process. That changed in 1784 when the English inventor Edmund Cartwright designed the first mechanical loom. His first version was impractical to operate on a commercial basis, but within five years Cartwright had improved his design and was weaving fabric in Doncaster, England.

Cartwright's mill was a commercial failure, and he was forced to relinquish his equipment as part of filing for bankruptcy in 1793. But Britain's textile industry was booming, and other inventors continued to refine Cartwright's invention. In 1842, James Bullough and William Kenworthy had introduced a fully automated loom, a design that would become the industry standard for the next century.

America vs. Britain

As Industrial Revolution boomed in Great Britain, that nation's leaders passed a number of laws designed to protect their dominance. It was illegal to sell power looms or the plans for building them to foreigners, and mill workers were forbidden to emigrate. This prohibition didn't just protect the British textile industry, it also made it nearly impossible for American textile manufacturers, who were still using manual looms, to compete.

Enter Francis Cabot Lowell (1775-1817), a Boston-based merchant who specialized in the international trade of textiles and other goods. Lowell had seen firsthand how international conflict jeopardized the American economy with its dependence on foreign goods. The only way to neutralize this threat, Lowell reasoned, was for America to develop a domestic textile industry of its own that was capable of mass production.

During a visit to Great Britain in 1811, Francis Cabot Lowell spied on the new British textile industry. Using his contacts, he visited a number of mills in England, sometimes in disguise. Unable to buy drawings or a model of a power loom, he committed the power loom design to memory. Upon his return to Boston, he recruited master mechanic Paul Moody to help him recreate what he had seen.

Backed by a group of investors called Boston Associates, Lowell and Moody opened their first functional power mill in Waltham, Mass., in 1814. Congress imposed a series of duty tariffs on imported cotton in 1816, 1824, and 1828, making American textiles more competitive still.

The Lowell Mill Girls

Lowell's power mill wasn't his only contribution to American industry. He also set a new standard for working conditions by hiring young women to run the machinery, something nearly unheard of in that era. In exchange for signing a one-year contract, Lowell paid the women relatively well by contemporary standards, provided housing, and offered educational and training opportunities.

When the mill cut wages and increased hours in 1834, the Lowell Mill Girls, as his employees were known, formed the Factory Girls Association to agitate for better compensation. Although their efforts at organizing met with mixed success, they earned the attention of author Charles Dickens, who visited the mill in 1842.

Dickens praised what he saw, noting that, "The rooms in which they worked were as well ordered as themselves. In the windows of some there were green plants, which were trained to shade the glass; in all, there was as much fresh air, cleanliness, and comfort as the nature of the occupation would possibly admit of."

Lowell's Legacy

Francis Cabot Lowell died in 1817 at the age of 42, but his work did not die with him. Capitalized at $400,000, the Waltham mill dwarfed its competition. So great were the profits at Waltham that the Boston Associates soon established additional mills in Massachusetts, first at East Chelmsford (later renamed in Lowell's honor), and then Chicopee, Manchester, and Lawrence.

By 1850, Boston Associates controlled one-fifth of America's textile production and had expanded into other industries, including railroads, finance, and insurance. As their fortunes grew, the Boston Associates turned to philanthropy, establishing hospitals and schools, and to politics, playing a prominent role in the Whig Party in Massachusetts. The company would continue to operate until 1930 when it collapsed during the Great Depression.