Slater the Traitor & America's Industrial Revolution

Julian Assange and Wikileaks hardly constitute a historic first. People have been stealing national secrets for thousands of years. In fact, the Industrial Revolution in the United States was founded on intellectual property smuggled out of England shortly after the American Revolution.

England’s manufacturing might was built on 16th century machinery. James Hargreaves took the first step. His spinning jenny (1764) began centralizing yard and thread manufacture, which had previously been the product of spinning wheels in hundreds of English cottages. Richard Arkwright created a water-powered spinning frame (1771) in his mill in Derbyshire. Within sixteen years the production of cotton goods increased tenfold. The large water frame paved the way for factories to develop across England to keep up with increased demand for textiles. Parliament passed laws in 1774 to protect the country’s industrial secrets, prohibiting engineers and mechanics from traveling abroad.

Jedidiah Stutt owned a factory that used the water frame. In 1782, the year before the American Revolution ended, 14-year-old Samuel Slater accepted an apprenticeship at Stutt’s factory and rose to become a superintendent. But Slater knew that his fortune lay across the Atlantic, where the new United States led the world in cotton production. In 1789 he memorized plans for the water frame, represented himself as a farmer, and sailed to America.

With capital from Quaker Moses Brown, Slater established a factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790, using people walking on a treadmill to supply power. In 1791 a water wheel supplanted the walkers. Eli Whitney’s cotton gin debuted the following year. The gin allowed more cotton to be processed more quickly, and Slater’s factory allowed the much larger amounts of cotton to be turned into thread. In 1803 Slater and his brother established Slaterville, R.I., a village built around his mill, complete with tenements for the workers and a company store. This became a model for factory life known as the Rhode Island system.

In England, where the sudden turn of fortune in American manufacturing threatened the loss of jobs, the renegade supervisor was called “Slater the Traitor.” But his place in U.S. history was assured.

Francis Cabot Lowell witnessed the success of this system. Traveling to Europe as part of his family’s trading firm, Lowell visited English factories and noted the success of another innovation, the power loom. Just as Slater did, Lowell memorized the plans for the loom and returned to America in the midst of the War of 1812. With others, he conceived of a corporate structure with publicly traded stock to finance the Boston Manufacturing Company in 1813. The company’s own mills began operating the following year on the Charles River in Waltham, Massachusetts, using the “stolen” plans.

For 18th century England, machine secrets were a matter of national intelligence. The leak of those secrets to America was, in its way, every bit as devastating as the cyber secrets leeched by Wikileaks in the 21st century.  




Green, Amy. “Waltham’s Manufacturing Revolution: Francis Cabot Lowell and the Boston Manufacturing

Company.” Charles River Museum of Industry & Innovation online. Accessed 22 March, 2017.


Heath, Neal. “Samuel Slater: American hero or British traitor?” BBC News online. 22 September, 2011. Accessed 22 March, 2017.

“Samuel Slater.” Who Made America? PBS online. Accessed 22 March, 2017.