Francis Cabot Lowell and the Industrial Revolution

More than fifty people gathered at the Pollard Memorial Library last evening to listen to Chaim “Mike” Rosenberg speak about his biography of Francis Cabot Lowell, the man for whom our city is named. Rosenberg contends that Lowell grew up in a wealthy family as a frivolous youth not in the best of health until he was kicked out of Harvard for a relatively benign prank. That seemed to impart a seriousness on Lowell and he became very successful (and very wealthy in his own right) in the import/export business with an office on Boston’s India Wharf.

The sweep of history intervened at this point. England had already launched into the Industrial Revolution in the years before the War of 1812 when Lowell spent two years in the UK “for his health” but he was drawn to the textile factories that were booming there. Contrary to the commonly accepted narrative, Lowell did not memorize the plans for the English textile machinery (which was a tightly guarded state secret). Instead, Lowell absorbed the concept of the English textile mills and concluded that he could improve upon them.

Returning to America, Lowell linked up with Paul Moody, a working-class mechanical genius who translated Lowell’s concepts into working machines. In England, textile manufacturing was bifurcated with cotton being spun into yarn in one mill and the yarn woven into cloth in another. Lowell’s major conceptual accomplishment was to combine all of these functions into a single building so that raw cotton would go in one end and finished cloth would come out the other.

Lowell’s timing was fortuitous, because he built his first textile mill on the Charles River in Waltham during the War of 1812 which had disrupted the flow of manufactured goods – especially textiles – from England to America. Because of this, the Waltham mill was quite successful and many wealthy Bostonians were eager to invest their money into textile manufacturing. Although Francis Cabot Lowell died in 1817 at age 42, his colleagues – whose roster reads like a city of Lowell street atlas – embraced Lowell’s ideas and soon began the search for a site of a new, much larger textile operation. In November 1822 they visited the Pawtucket Falls in East Chelmsford and soon began construction of the first of many textile mills to be located there. When it came time to choose a name for this new community, they decided to call the place Lowell in honor of their deceased friend and partner whose vision helped start the Industrial Revolution in America.

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