Corporate Espionage, Colonial Style

Williamsburg craftswoman, spinning the old fashioned way

Williamsburg craftswoman, spinning the old fashioned way

The brilliant thing about a place like Colonial Williamsburg, the place where I went for a writer’s getaway over Labor Day Weekend, is that it’s packed full of historical interpreters. These tour guides and craftspeople are more or less walking encyclopedias of historical facts and deeper tidbits. And while I didn’t have nearly enough time to enjoy amongst these amazing people, I did find out some very cool things.

First of all, I’ve had an idea for a Colonial era novel for a while. Since it’s a one-off, I haven’t put as much effort or energy into developing and writing it – yet. It involves the burgeoning Philadelphia textile industry of the late Colonial period. Ooo. Gives you shivers, doesn’t it. Such a romantic setting for a bodice-ripper. Right?

Yeah, I see you arching an eyebrow in doubt. But after what I learned from talking to Colonial Williamsburg’s two weavers, you might change your mind.

Turns out that the textile industry in the years surrounding the American Revolution was a hotbed of corporate espionage. No, really! This is what the Williamsburg weavers told me….

The colonies may have been a fantastic source of raw materials and quick money for the British, but the last thing they wanted was for those wily colonists to have any sort of advanced technology or means of production in their control. Therefore, it was a legitimate crime to share the technology of the Industrial Revolution with the colonists. This meant that industries like weaving were operating with equipment and methods that dated back to the 13th century. The loom that the Williamsburg apprentice weaver so kindly demonstrated for me was completely manual and was more or less the same machine that had been used for hundreds of years before that.

All of that changed thanks to a man named Samuel Slater, or “Traitor Slater” as he was known to the British.

In Europe, spinning and weaving technology underwent a massive revolution in the mid-18th century as advancements in machinery, like the water frame, came into use. The water frame made it possible for multiple spindles to spin uniform thread at the same time, thus quadrupling the output of textile factories. As the technology advanced and things like the spinning jenny and eventually steam power came into use, cloth could be mass-produced and mass-consumed.

It’s not as if the colonies had no idea this was going on back in Europe, or even that they had no clue what the machinery looked like or how it worked. However, it was illegal to share that technology with those rustic colonials. But round about the time that the Americans won their independence, things began to change. In 1789, a group of cousins in Rhode Island, Moses Brown, William Almy, and Smith Brown, bought a 32 spindle frame … and couldn’t get it to work.

Weaving with technology that was mostly unchanged since the Middle Ages

Weaving with technology that was mostly unchanged since the Middle Ages

Well, Samuel Slater heard about their dilemma and offered his services. Slater had been born working class and started working in a cloth mill at the age of 10. He knew the machinery, which was a plus, but it was still illegal to transfer any printed information or blueprints to anyone in the new country of America. So Slater memorized everything he could, then hopped on a boat to join up with Brown, Almy, and Brown in Rhode Island. He ended up throwing out the spindle machine they had and reconstructing a water frame from memory.

Guess what? It worked! Slater was an incredibly smart man with a memory for detail and a strong working knowledge of machinery. He oversaw the building of more and more machines in the new America. The result was exactly what the British feared. With southern cotton and a handy little invention called the cotton gin by a man named Eli Whitney, within a relatively short period of time the American textile industry took off. Huge amounts of money were made for all involved, including Slater. In fact, at the time of his death in 1835, Slater was worth $1.2 million … in 1835 dollars!

Imagine the drama that must have surrounded Slater as he more or less stole insider technology from one country and sold it to another. His act of corporate espionage helped to launch an industry and boost the economy of our baby country. He may had tripped on the wrong side of the law in Britain, but his contributions to America were invaluable.

So now this Colonial novel I want to write might just shift from being a simple love story to a high-stakes industrial spy thriller! Many thanks to the weavers of Williamsburg and their treasure-trove of information!

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