Today, the Rhode Island State Quarter Coin remembers the first powered cotton mill in the United States with operations begun on December 20, 1790.
In the December 1908 periodical Valve World, an article described the mechanical genius of the man who built the first water-powered cotton mill in the United States.
Real Builders of America
Samuel Slater. Introducer of Cotton Manufacture into America and Mechanic of Uncommon Skill
In the month of January, 1790, a young man, Samuel Slater by name, went to Pawtucket, R. I.
In December of this same year, this young man put into operation in this same town, three eighteen-inch carding machines, the necessary drawing heads with two rolls and four processes, the roving cases and winders for them, and throstle spinning frames of seventy-two spindles— starting, in fact, the first complete and successful power cotton-spinning mill in America.
Between these two months of January and December, 1790, there occurred one of the most noteworthy achievements in the whole history of the world’s mechanics.
Samuel Slater, the man who introduced power cotton spinning into the United States, was born in Belper, County of Derby, England, in 1763. He was the son of a well-to-do farmer and was given such education as his neighborhood afforded, until the age of fourteen, when he was apprenticed to Jedediah Strutt, to learn the business of cotton spinning.
He showed unusual aptitude for that craft, even during his apprentice days suggesting and making many improvements in the machinery. At the age of twenty-one he was considered one of the most skilled operatives in the mills of his native county; and in addition to this he had become a first-class mechanic.
It was at this time young Slater learned that the Congress of the new republic in America was making uncommon efforts to encourage manufacture in the United States, and that one or two of the older states had offered bounties for the invention or introduction of cotton-making machinery.
He decided to go to America, and landed in New York in 1789. As the laws of England prohibited anyone from taking machinery, models, drawings, or even printed or written descriptions of machinery out of that country, Slater carried nothing with him save his memory of the Arkwright series of spinning machinery on which he had worked for some six or seven years.
Notwithstanding this handicap, the young man wrote to Moses Brown, of Pawtucket, R. I., who had made some effort to establish cotton spinning, that he could build and equip a successful power cotton-spinning mill.
Brown answered: “If thou canst do this thing, I invite thee to come to Rhode Island and have the credit of introducing cotton manufacture into America.”
The invitation was accepted promptly by Slater; and then followed the achievement that prompted the great Rhode Island orator, Tristam Burgess, to say on one occasion, in Congress: “If manufacturing establishments are a benefit and a blessing to the Union, the name of Slater must ever be held in grateful remembrance by the American people.”
With nothing but his memory and his mechanical skill, Samuel Slater set to work. He made his drawings, he made his tools; in some instances he even had to make the machines to make his tools; and largely, with his own hands he made his spinning machinery. Such mechanical assistance as he had he was compelled to train before it could be useful to him.
And when he set his spinning mill in operation, the first cotton yarn that came from his machinery was superior in quality and finish to cotton yarn that had been imported from England, the birthplace of cotton manufacture.
Under the firm name of Almy, Brown & Slater, the business started at Pawtucket that since has become such a tremendous factor in the industrial prominence of the United States. From the first the enterprise was successful. By 1800 a second cotton factory was started and within ten years from that date there were many of them throughout the new country.
In 1805 Samuel Slater was joined by his brother John, and not long afterward they together founded the town of Slaterville, R. I., and made it a center of cotton manufacture for New England.
From the beginning, Samuel Slater had the interests of his employees at heart. He did many things for their physical comfort, and he was not unmindful of their moral welfare. Knowing the temptations to which they were subjected between the closing of work on Saturday and Monday morning, he started little Sunday meetings for them, and thus, practically, was the first to establish in New England, what have come to be commonly known as Sunday schools all over the land.
Scarcely had the pronounced success achieved by Slater become known than capital was found in abundance for the establishment of collateral enterprises and the expansion of the spinning and weaving business.
In 1791 an organization of capitalists, known as the Society of New Jersey, began operations on a large scale, for the time, at the Falls of the Passaic, near Patterson, N. J. The society had a capital of $500,000 and engaged in the making and printing of cotton goods.
To show how rapid was the growth of this industry, immediately following the invention of the cotton gin by Whitney, and the introduction of the Arkwright machinery by Slater, the following figures for a century are given:
In 1791, 200,000 pounds of cotton were exported from the United States, very little being used in this country. In 1891, the cotton produced in America reached more than 3,500,000,000 pounds. In 1900 cotton was grown in the Southern states on more than 20,000,000 acres of ground. Today the mills of America are using more than 2,000,000 bales of cotton a year.
In 1791 Samuel Slater started seventy-two spindles to spin cotton. One hundred years after there were 15,000,000 spindles in operation in this country. To such tremendous proportions has this industry grown from the small beginning of Samuel Slater’s bold and successful attempt to bring over from England, in his memory, the machinery necessary for cotton manufacture.
In every way Samuel Slater was a man eminently qualified to be enrolled in the list of real builders of America. His character was of the highest. His skill as a mechanic placed him in the front rank. He was generous, mindful of the welfare of his employees, a liberal advocate of practical education for the working classes, and an eminently successful manufacturer, not only in cotton, but also in woolens and in iron, in both of which lines he was largely interested.
It might be mentioned, by the way, that it was a son of Samuel Slater, John F., who, in 1882, placed $1,000,000 in the hands of trustees, the interest of which was to be used for the education of the freedmen of the South and their descendants.
Well has it been said of the subject of this sketch that “the skill and industry which introduced the era of the cotton manufacture deserve to be commemorated, in some lasting memorial, by the people of America.”
The Rhode Island State Quarter Coin shows with an image, circa 1960s, of the historic Slater Mill in Pawtucket.