The pre-industrial technology of spinning cotton yarn on the jersey wheel of Indian origin was readily available to all economies of the world for the replication of Indian cotton yarn, and subsequently, the cotton cloth. What, then, explains the mechanisation of spinning through the successive technological developments of the spinning jenny, the water frame and the mule in 18th century Britain? This paper draws attention to the distinction between the availability of a technology and its successful deployment. It argues that a technology is valuable only in so far as the labour force possesses the skill to use it optimally. It highlights that in pre-industrial Britain, the skill to spin fine yet strong cotton warp on the jersey wheel, to match the quality of Indian cotton warp, was missing. Therefore, successive mechanisation in spinning was necessary if the quality of Indian cotton textiles had to be met in Britain.
Evidence from the analysis of the working mechanisms of spinning machinery over time demonstrates that producing improved quality of spun yarn was a key motivation for new spinning machinery, especially the mule. This mechanical evidence corroborates the material textile evidence which has demonstrated quality-led improvements in British cotton manufacturing to meet the quality of the benchmark Indian cottons. It also shows that the three key spinning machines were fundamentally path dependent, with the jenny and the mule based on the jersey wheel technology of Indian origin and the water frame upon the Saxon wheel technology from Europe. Further, it argues that the skill to use a technology successfully is a key component of any technological paradigm. A combination of the technique and the skill required for its use alongside a particular fibre staple determine the quality of yarn, and therefore that of the final cloth, not the staple of the fibre in isolation.
Alka Raman is the Postan Postdoctoral Fellow of the Economic History Society/Institute of Historical Research at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is a historian of technological change in global history. Her work explores the transnational roots of technological evolution by examining the material influence of pre-industrial Indian cotton textiles on industrialisation in the British cotton industry during the 18th and 19th centuries. Alka has an MSc (Research) with distinction, and a PhD in Economic History from the London School of Economics and Political Science
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