The Flying Shuttle and John Kay

The Flying Shuttle and John Kay

In 1733, John Kay invented the flying shuttle, an improvement to weaving looms and a key contribution to the Industrial Revolution.

Early Years

Kay was born on June 17, 1704, in the Lancashire hamlet of Walmersley. His father Robert was a farmer and wool manufacturer. Robert died before John was born His mother was responsible for educating him until she remarried.

John Kay was just a young man when he became the manager of one of his father's mills. Kay developed skills as a machinist and engineer. He made many improvements to the machines in the mill. He apprenticed with a hand-loom reed maker. He designed a metal substitute for the natural reed that proved popular enough for him to sell throughout England. After traveling the country, making and fitting wire reeds, he returned to his home and, on June 29, 1725, both he and his brother, William, married Bury women.

The Flying Shuttle

The flying shuttle was an improvement to looms that enabled weavers to weave faster. The original shuttle contained a bobbin on to which the weft (weaving term for the crossways yarn) yarn was wound. It was normally pushed from one side of the warp (weaving term for the series of yarns that extended lengthways in a loom) to the other side by hand. Large looms needed two weavers to throw the shuttle. The flying shuttle was thrown by a leaver that could be operated by one weaver. The shuttle was able to do the work of two people even more quickly.

In Bury, John Kay continued to design improvements to textile machinery; in 1730 he patented a cording and twisting machine for worsted.

In 1753, Kay's home was attacked by textile workers who were angry that his inventions might take work away from them. Kay fled England for France where he died in poverty around 1780.

Influence and Legacy of John Kay

Kay's invention paved the way for mechanical power looms, however, the technology would have to wait another 30 years before a power loom was invented by Edmund Cartwright in 1787.

John Kay's son, Robert, stayed in Britain, and in 1760 developed the "drop-box", which enabled looms to use multiple flying shuttles at the same time, allowing multicolor wefts. His son John had long lived with his father in France. In 1782 he provided an account of his father's troubles to Richard Arkwright, who sought to highlight problems with patent defense in a parliamentary petition.

In the 1840s, Thomas Sutcliffe (one of Kay's great-grandsons) campaigned to promote a Colchester heritage for Kay's family. In 1846 he unsuccessfully sought a parliamentary grant for Kay's descendants (in compensation for his ancestor's treatment in England). He was inaccurate in the details of his grandfather's genealogy and story, and his "Fanciful and Erroneous Statements" were discredited by John Lord's detailed examination of primary sources.

In Bury, Kay has become a local hero: there are still several pubs named after him, as are the Kay Gardens.