Our headquarters are only a few miles from the Blackstone River, which runs from Worcester, MA to Providence, RI. This unassuming river was the site of one of the most important events in the economic development of America. What happened there in 1789-1790 was the confluence of conditions of need, a basic geographical advantage, and the inspiration and persistence of individuals. The result was a complete change in the American economy and way of life.
The Blackstone is not a large river, and does not carry a great flow. It drops an average of 10 feet in each mile that it runs, rendering it a good source of water power. The area has relatively poor farming, because the fields are full of stones. This meant that farmers could subsist, but not prosper. The most prosperous businesses were in iron works, for which Pawtucket, RI, at a falls in the river, had been a hub for nearly a century.
At the time, the American economy was hampered by an inability to produce finished goods, particularly cloth. Cotton had to be shipped to England, where it was processed to produce thread and cloth, and then the much higher-value cloth returned for sale in America. The British protected their textile production technology jealously: the patents on textile production machinery had all been voided, so that the technology was freely traded in Britain, but exporting the technology, or its practitioners, was illegal under English law.
Samuel Slater was a textile production expert in England. He was largely responsible for the profitability of the mill where he worked, but he had no opportunity for advancement: only the mill owners would profit from his ideas. His only opportunities within England were in similar situations, as an ordinary employee at any mill that would hire him, and the laws rendered it illegal for him to seek employment elsewhere.
Moses Brown, a successful merchant from Providence, RI, was involved in business enterprises ranging from candle-making and shipping to iron works. He was also a philanthropist, believing that reliable industry would greatly improve the lives of many workers. In 1789, he invited Slater to come to America to assemble a working mill in Pawtucket.
Slater had to travel under false pretenses to reach America. He found that the available equipment, which was based on bits and pieces they had managed to acquire, required significant modification to produce a workable mill. Because of his extensive experience, Slater was one of the best possible people to perform this work. He and his benefactor persisted, achieving success in 1790. It was the first cotton spinning mill in America.
The result was breathtaking: within 20 years, the entire Blackstone Valley became an unbroken chain of mills (some of which are still in operation) and a corridor of economic power that transformed the American economy. It was the beginning of the American Industrial Revolution.