John Kay - Weaving the fine fabric of success

Weaving the fine fabric of success

From the eighteenth century history of John Kay of Bury and John Kay of Warrington, we learn that creative skills and management skills are very different.

There is a famous picture of John Kay, hero of the industrial revolution, trying to protect a prototype of his flying shuttle from a riotous mob. I like to think that, as the stones whistled around his ears, he was telling the angry weavers that technological advance might destroy individual jobs, but would not increase unemployment overall. That it would offer new opportunities for consumption, work and leisure. But somehow those facts of economics have never seemed very consoling to the individuals concerned.

I have been trying to establish the true story of John Kay. Historical accounts are confused, partly because there were two John Kays. Both played a key role in the new technologies that transformed first Britain, then Europe, and ultimately the world. These two John Kays were not closely related to each other – or to me.

John Kay of Bury, north-west England, invented the flying shuttle, a device that enabled a mechanical weaving machine to be operated by one person. It more than doubled productivity at a stroke. But Kay seems to have spent more in litigation to attack alleged infringements of his patent than he ever received from users. Kay’s own account tells us he fled to France to escape unemployed weavers: more likely he fled to France to escape his creditors.

Disenchanted with patents, he concluded that he would do better to persuade the French government to buy his discovery. But Kay’s invention did not work particularly well in France. The truth seems to be that it did not work particularly well anywhere. Only after many piecemeal improvements did the flying shuttle become sufficiently robust and reliable to deliver the productivity gains that it promised. Users needed to develop the original idea and this is probably why Kay perceived so many violations of his proprietary rights. Most innovations are like that.

The two key technologies of the revolution in textiles were weaving and spinning and, while the flying shuttle set the scene for mechanical weaving, the spinning frame was equally important in creating a modern textile industry. School histories attribute this latter discovery to Sir Richard Arkwright, a barber from northern England.

But Arkwright was a businessman rather than an inventor. He began by cutting hair and pulling teeth – 18th-century barbers doubled as dentists. He diversified into making wigs and running public houses. But he then enjoyed the good fortune to hear John Kay of Warrington describe over a glass or several of wine the new spinning machine he was building with his partner Thomas Hayes. Arkwright lured Kay away from Hayes and raised finance to commercialise the spinning frame.

Arkwright and Kay soon fell out. The Warrington John Kay did not prosper any more than the Bury John Kay. He only re-emerges a decade later, giving evidence when Arkwright’s competitors successfully challenged the originality of Arkwright’s key patents for want of originality. But by then Arkwright was England’s leading mill owner: and probably the largest manufacturing employer in the world.

Business skills and inventive skills are very different. Bill Gates, the Richard Arkwright of the 20th century, bought the operating system that made his fortune for $50,000 – little more, in real terms, than Arkwright paid John Kay. Today as 200 years ago, business skills are better rewarded than inventive skills, but command less prestige. That is why business people from Arkwright to the present day have made the claim that their success is the result of creative achievement rather than organisational abilities, and school histories laud Arkwright for his ingenuity rather than his acumen.

But technological progress is equally dependent on skills of invention and the management of invention. The two kinds of ability rarely go together. James Watt, whose discovery of steam power was the most important of all 18th-century inventions, found the business skills he needed – and himself lacked – in his partner, Matthew Boulton. The combination made both rich, though Boulton richer. It is a mistake to ask which skill is more valuable. It is more relevant to ask which is most scarce. There have always been Richard Arkwrights. There also need to be John Kays.


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