1770’s - Water-Powered Textile Mill
Water-powered textile mill Supplied from a stream or dam, the water wheel is linked to a mechanical system of gears and shafts. Running at a steady, uniform speed, it drives the long rows of machinery on the floors above. These machines performed the repetitive, dexterous work previously carried out by hand. Why would water wheels continue in use after steam engines were invented?
The 18th century saw the industrialisation of spinning, weaving and other textile manufacturing processes, hitherto carried out in the home with simple hand-operated equipment. Men like James Hargreaves, Richard Arkwright and Samuel Crompton devised ingenious machines that could do the job faster and more cheaply. Factories were built several storeys high to house long rows of machinery, operated by workforces composed largely of women and children. Early mills used horse-powered machinery but in the later and larger ones - built close to rivers and streams that could be dammed to provide cheap energy - huge water wheels were installed. A series of shafts and gears took power from the wheel and transmitted it around the mill, the drive for each loom or frame being taken directly from the overhead system of belts and pulleys. Early steam engines could not provide a smooth rotary motion; uneven running might break the yarn and water even continued to be the driving force in some mills until recently. Quarry Bank Mill at Styal in Cheshire, built in 1784, is today preserved in full working order. The mill shown here - one of three built by Arkwright at Cromford in Derbyshire and dated 1771 - is of particular interest in being the first successful water-powered cotton mill in the world. The differences between the water wheels at the various Cromford mills encapsulate the efforts of engineers to find a design capable of making the best use of the available water supply as, with the continued expansion of the site, more demands were made of it to drive textile machinery.