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A cotton spinning machine which could mass produce yarn, without the constant intervention of a highly-skilled operator, was the desideratum of mill owners. Many inventors strived to develop a spinning mule which was largely self-acting, but it fell to Richard Roberts to develop the self-acting mule into a truly practicable piece of equipment. Others had previously developed self-actors, notably William Kelly (New Lanark) and William Eaton, but these left much to be desired. Maurice de Jongh of Warrington patented a machine on the same day as Richard Roberts, the timing not being as coincidental as might appear!
An early (1836) account of the then short history of the development of self-acting mules, and of the working of Roberts's mule, was written by James Montgomery of Glasgow
From a contemporary newspaper article
'Many of our readers are probably already aware, that, within a few months past, two patents have been taken out in this neighbourhood, for self-acting mules for spinning cotton; one by Mr. Roberts, of Manchester, and the other by Mr. De Iongh [De Jongh], of Warrington; both of which, by a singular coincidence, were granted on the same day. We understand that the one invented Mr. De Iongh is now at work, and we have been told that it spins well, but have not yet had an opportunity of seeing it. We have, however, had several opportunities, during the last week, of observing that invented by Mr. Roberts, and we have to announce its complete success,—a success, indeed, so decisive, to astonish even those who were best acquainted with the extraordinary talents of the inventor, and who consequently formed the highest expectations as to the result of his labours. Though the machine is, to certain extent, rude and temporary in its construction, and has been set to work under several disadvantages, it is now spinning as well as, if not better than, any hand-spinner could possibly do.
'The mule to which Mr. Roberts's invention is attached is one of 120 spindles, and quite new, having never been worked upon before, and consequently not so well adapted for the purpose as one that has been short time in use. It has been set work in a room of very unequal temperature (being heated merely by pans of charcoal,) and with rovings in very indifferent condition but yet, as soon as the different movements were properly adjusted, it spun nineteen stretches (of 40’s twist) without breaking a single end, and it now generally spins for half an hour together, without breaking an end in running in the carriage, which is the best criterion for judging of the merits of the invention ; the breaking in coming out, being referable causes entirely unconnected with Mr. Roberts's patent. Indeed it is perfectly obvious, from examination of that part of the machine by which the difficult process of winding-on is effected, that it must possess very great and decided advantages over the hand-spinner. By a contrivance, equally simple and efficacious, the tension of the yarn in winding on is always precisely the same, whether it is wound upon bare spindle or full cop; so that the cop must be throughout of equal degree of hardness; and the tension may, with the greatest ease, be varied to any point which is requisite for spinning the finest or the coarsest yarn, or for producing the hardest or the softest cop. On this account the invention is extremely well calculated for spinning fine numbers, in which the moderate and equal tension of the yarn in winding on is of the utmost consequence; and we should not be at all surprised if it is made to produce yarn of degree of fineness which has never yet been, and never can be, spun by hand.
'In another point, too, Mr. Roberts's invention possesses a decided advantage over the mule in common use, and an advantage which would scarcely be expected from it,—viz. a considerable saving in time. In other inventions of this nature, for which patents have been obtained, the reverse has been the case, there has been great loss of time in putting up the carriage; and this is one of the objections which have prevented their getting into general use. In Mr. Roberts's mule, the various motions follow each other with as much rapidity and may be made to proceed with as much velocity, as the yarn is capable of bearing; so that there is no loss of time in any part of the operation. So far as we can judge, all the parts of the machine are capable of ready adjustment, and not liable to get out of repair, which in a machine that must be entrusted to the management of persons of moderate mechanical skill, is a matter of no small consequence.
'It may probably be supposed, that a machine so effective, must of necessity be complicated and expensive in its construction, but this is by no means the case; it is, comparatively, very simple machine. It is, perhaps, necessary here to explain, that Mr. Roberts's improvements are confined (with very trifling exceptions,) to that part of the mule which is usually called the headstock. In the rollers, the spindles, and the body of the mule generally, there is no alteration whatever: and we should suppose that one of Mr. Roberts's headstocks would cost little more than one of those in common use; so that where parties are getting new machinery, the difference in cost per 100 spindles would be a mere trifle. But the invention is also readily applicable to old mules on the common construction in which case it will only be necessary to remove the old headstocks, and replace them by new ones on Mr. Roberts's plan, which may be done in about the same time that would be necessary to change one of the old headstocks for another.
'Mr. Roberts's invention possesses various other advantages of minor importance, which, however, are still worth mentioning. The alteration in the head stock necessary for changing the count of the yarn, is effected in very simple and expeditious manner;—the headstock itself does not extend beyond the rollers, so that when placed in the centre of the mule, it does not obstruct the view or the passage along the wheel house; there will also be a considerable saving in the expense of shafting a mill intended for these mules, as no cross shafts will be necessary for driving them. We intended to describe the construction of this important machine, which, we have very little doubt, is destined to work a complete revolution in the mode of spinning cotton; but we find that some engravings are necessary to make our description intelligible.— Manchester paper '
The machine patented in 1825 was not successful, and a patent for an improved machine was obtained in 1830, the result of development work costing £12,000.
Despite the vast effort and expenditure, by 1839 Sharp, Roberts and Co had only recovered £7000 in profits, and they successfully petitioned to have the patent extended in 1839.
1836 'The Self-Acting Mule.— We understand, from good authority, that many of the master spinners in Preston, and the neighbourhood, are entertaining serious thoughts of adapting some of their mules to the self-acting principle, and are in correspondence on the subject, with the house of Messrs. Sharp, Roberts, and Co., of Manchester, the patentees of self-acting mules, the joint invention of Mr. Roberts and Mr. De Jough, which have been, for some time, worked, in several places, to great advantage. Mr. Smith, of Deanston, in Scotland, the talented patentee of a more recently invented self-acting mule, and his Manchester agent, have both been in Preston this week, for the purpose of forming a connexion with an eminent machine-making establishment, to construct new patent mules, and other patent machines; and, also, to adapt common mules to Mr. Smith's plan. Those who are skilled in the matter, inform us, that great improvements have lately been made by both patentees, the machine of the latter being particularly simple and effective; and that the principle may easily be engrafted on those of the old description, at a comparatively trivial cost. The chief object, we understand, of the master spinners alluded to, in making this change, is, to employ adults, such as hand-weavers, in the capacity of piecers and attendants, to whom higher wages can be afforded, than what they are now earning at their present employment ; and, thereby, divert their labour into a new channel, more beneficial to themselves, and supply, at the same time, the deficiency that has, in some degree, been caused the operation of the last Factory Act, which restricts the employment of younger persons —Preston Chronicle.'
1846 Patent Law: '.... The perfected machine, it may be observed, was generally understood to be a combination of two inventions and patents, the one of a Mr. de Jongh, the other of Messrs. Sharp and Roberts themselves. It was also understood that neither invention could be successfully brought to work for want of a certain principle patented in the other. Messrs Sharp purchased the patent rights of Mr. de Jongh, and thus became the proprietors of both.'