In June of 1704, John Kay was born in the Lancashire hamlet of Warmsley, just north of Bury in England. His father was a landowner but died just before John was born. His mother educated him as he was growing up until she married another man when he was 14, at which point he became an apprentice with a hand loom reed maker. In less than a month, he claimed that he had become a master at the loom and shortly afterwards began to develop a metal substitute that was used in place of the wood reed that traditionally had been used within the loom.
In 1725 he married his wife Anne, and they had a daughter a year later. Two years later a son, named after his father Robert, was born. He would remain in the city of his youth for the remainder of most of his life where he would create a large number of inventions and improvements to the loom.
In 1733, John Kay earned a patent for his most important invention of all. The wheeled shuttle revolutionised weaving within the country, immensely accelerating the process through the innovative ideas that he created.
What this device did was allow the shuttle that carried the weft to be passed through the warp threads at a significantly faster rate and over a much wider width of the cloth itself. This was done by broadening the width of the loom which increased the amount of work that could be done in a shorter period. This innovation ensured that just one operator was needed for the loom to work correctly, reducing the labour force while still increasing efficiency.
In no time, the wheeled shuttle took on a new name – the flying shuttle. The reason it was given this name was that of the rapid speed by which the new mechanism processed the textile and weaved in the material. It also was able to maintain momentum at a constant rate which made production higher and more efficient than ever before.
The increased speed and efficiency were so significant that later historians would refer to it as one of the most significant innovations in the history of textile production, and describe the speed at which the device worked as “unimaginable.”
The Flying shuttle was the very first device in the Industrial Revolution to significantly increase productivity. Many ignored the impact on the labour force at first, but as other innovations quickly followed, Kay became the focus of attacks.
There was never any doubt that Kay's invention worked well. Productivity more than doubled because of the flying shuttle. Textiles looked better than ever, and costs began to drop as productivity increased significantly.
Kay attempted to take the flying shuttle to other textile industries to demonstrate to them how his invention could improve their productivity. The woollen manufacturers were one such example. Within two years, productivity increased, while also decreasing the number of loom operators that were needed.
It was at this time that large numbers of once employed works began to protest against his invention. While the Flying shuttle had made textiles more affordable, it had also cost thousands of workers their jobs. Unemployment within the region surrounding his home increased significantly, and both the flying shuttle and its inventor became hugely unpopular. There were massive backlashes against John Kay and his invention as constituents called upon their local representatives to put a stop the use of Kay's invention.
In 1738, John Kay left his home and went to Leeds to help promote the use of his devices there. Much to his dismay, the inventor discovered that weavers within the city had been using his tool while not paying the license fee that was owed. He was forced to take the groups to court for patent infringement in a series of lawsuits. While winning the case, the cost he would have to pay to prosecute for damages would have cost him more than to have just let the process continue. However, he could not in good conscience allow them to continue to use his device without compensation.
That year he formed what was referred to as “The Shuttle Club,” assent which paid all the fees for any member that was brought to court for infringement upon his licensing and patent agreements. It seemed like a brilliant strategy at the time to get the compensation he needed while still protecting his investment, but the syndicate nearly bankrupted him. The plan backfired, and costs rose to try to keep his flying shuttle protected.
In 1745, Joseph Stell invented a cloth ribbon weaving loom that was believed to operate using a waterwheel successfully. However, the plan never came to fruition as the costs associated with Kay’s legal challenges became too overwhelming to assist Stell in developing the machine.
Nearly bankrupt and finding that the harassment of him and his family was becoming too much to bear, Kay left Leeds in return to his home in Bury, Lancashire. That same year his final child, Anne was born.
His invention of the flying shuttle was bringing great prosperity to manufacturers throughout the region, but he was finding minimal financial gain as the infringements upon his patent continued. This led him to return to his first love, to invent, and in 1746 he began the process of developing a method to make salt production more efficient. He also made several improvements on the spitting technology related to weaving, making the efficiency of these devices greater.
The problem was that with each innovation that he designed, the idea led to more people losing their job. His popularity continued to plummet, especially after creating the spinner, and he soon found himself as a virtual recluse in his hometown.
After the treatment against him became violent, John Kay was forced to leave England and moved to France. From there he was utterly unable to enforce his patent protections and was forced to lean upon the support of the French government to keep him, and his family sustained.
In 1747, he sold the French government all the rights to his technology. This gave him the financial resources that he needed to care for his family and continue his work, while also removing the burdens he was facing from years of litigation. In France, he encountered none of the persecution or animosity from citizens, and the flying shuttle was a huge success, enabling France to become one of the leaders in textile production throughout the world.
France became his adopted country, and he would only return to England two more times in his life. One of those was in 1766 when he received an award for his inventions. At the age of 70, his pension that he had been receiving from the French government came to an abrupt end until he began to teach a year later.
In 1779, John Kay passed away. While his name may not be one of the most commonly known about great inventors during the Industrial Revolution, his innovative ideas helped to transform the textile production industry as well as many other industries because of the advancements and improvements that he made. It is sad that he was so vilified during his lifetime, but his efforts made a significant difference to weaving. John Kay was indeed a man ahead of his time.