When the Industrial Revolution was soaring, inventors from all over the world were making a difference by creating a variety of mechanical innovations to vastly improve both the speed goods could be manufactured, hugely reducing labour costs as automation began to take over. While virtually every country went through industrial development during the 1700s and 1800s, those in Europe saw the revolution occur years ahead of every other continent.
For the most part, inventors who created automated and semi-automated looms came from Europe, notably the United Kingdom and France. These were the leaders in many of the innovations that were developed, often leaving the rest of the world behind, including the United States.
Failing to develop their inventions to further along the development within the textile industry, the US States found themselves having to purchase looms and other devices from Europe. However, this changed in 1895 when James Henry Northrop created a shuttle charging mechanism, which later became known as the Northrop Loom and helped to shuttle the textile industry into a new weaving and textile era
Born in West Yorkshire in the United Kingdom in 1865, Northrop moved to Boston in 1881. Before coming to the United States, he had long been involved in the textile industry but sought to create his inventions and ideas thus prompting his emigration to America.
When reaching his new homeland, Northrop began working for George Draper and his sons at the Draper Corporation as a mechanic and foreman. It started a long process of creating innovations and inventions that aided his new partners in their endeavours. The first one of these was a spooler guide which helped to speed up the efficiency of the looms that were being used by the company.
For a brief time, the inventor decided that he wanted to get involved in chicken farming, but this was not his area of expertise. It wasn't long before Northrop realised that this was not the endeavour for him, and returned to inventing a little over a year later.
At the time of his return, Otis Draper, one of the sons was already working on a form of shuttle charger. Otis showed his ideas to Northrop hoping that together the two of them could come up with a way to create the model. Draper was unsuccessful in doing so. However, Northrop had ideas, and by July 1889, he had built a working model for the Rhoades Loom.
In October of that year, the first Northrop device was on trial at the Seaconnect Mills. It worked to perfection, and mass production of the invention quickly began.
While pleased with his new invention, James Henry Northrop was never satisfied and continue to develop other designs. A short time later he created a self-threading shuttle and added shuttle spring jaws which would hold the bobbin in place utilising specially designed rings on the butt.
His work with these other inventions helped to pave the way for his greatest design of all – The Northrop Loom, this was to be his greatest masterpiece and help to make him one of the most significant inventors within the garment industry.
While automated looms had been in operation to some degree for nearly 50 years, there was a need for higher efficiency, especially within the diversity that was provided to the loom itself. With the prior inventions of the self-threading shuttle in the shuttle spring jaws, Northrop was able to develop a filling-changing battery which became the fundamental feature of his new invention.
The battery was revolutionary for several reasons. First of all, many hear the word battery and assume that this had something to do with power. That is not the case at all. What this new design did was make it so that one loom could contain several hundred different design patterns that enabled it to quickly move from one kind of design to another with minimal loss of productivity.
Using the two shuttle features that he had created as well as a workable warp stop that had been created by his partners at the Draper organisation, his new battery made it so that the punch cards and shuttle mechanisms that were used to develop patterns could be interchanged in a matter of a minute or so. A loom could quickly take on a new pattern that the operator wished to employ.
Productivity was enhanced and efficient. It was a significant invention for the textile industry, which helped to make Northrop substantial financial success. In fact, two years after creating the Northrop loom he was able to move to California and retire at the age of 42!
In 1894, the Northrop loom began being marketed to factory owners. The loom was working so well within the Draper organisation that the company decided that it was time to take their invention to market. In no time at all the machine was a huge success. By 1900, over 60,000 Northrop Looms were sold throughout the US. Draper was selling approximately 1,500 of these looms each month, and the company expanded its employees to 2,500 to keep up with the demand.
It was clear that the economic success of the Northrop Loom was making both James Henry Northrop and Draper, substantial financial success. By 1914, 700,000 of these looms had been sold, including 40% in the United States alone.
However, it was not long before Great Britain began to have their model that went to production. The British Northrop Loom Company, established in 1902 looked to take the invention created by their former countryman and turn it into a boon for the British industry.
As labour costs were significantly cheaper in Great Britain than they were in the United States, this allowed the British company to climb regarding production and profit rapidly. By the time that World War I started, over 10,000 of the British version of the Northrop Loom were sold, and the company employed 3,000 workers. This helped to change the economics of the Draper organisation but did not stop the success.
Northrop remained in his self-imposed retirement, enjoying the fruits of the royalties of his invention until he passed away in 1940 at the age of 84.
It is not often that a man can retire at age 42, but James Henry Northrop was able to do so because his invention helped to revolutionise the textile industry by making it significantly more productive than it had ever been. His power looms not only made it so that thread could be spooled quickly, but it also made it so that the designs in garments and tapestries could be changed without any significant loss in production.
Unlike the inventions of his counterparts, Northrop’s device had no negative impact on employment within the textile industry. As a result, he is often held in higher regard for his invention. The mass production of his loom demand to fulfil demand both in the US and UK were also a boon to employment as workers were required to build the looms.
The Northrop Loom is still the basis for many of the garment looms that are used today. His invention was years ahead of its time, and some would say a century ahead of its time and continues to be the primary means that many organisations use to create garments and tapestries. While the inventor was able to retire at an early age, his power loom concept continues to thrive, even today.