John Kay 1704-1780
Inventor of the Flying Shuttle
John Kay was born near the Lancashire town of Bury. Very little is known of his early life, but by 1730 he had already applied to patent a machine for cording and twisting worsted. However, it was a subsequent invention which really revolutionised the cotton weaving process and is now seen as one of the single most important inventions of the nascent industrial revolution.
Producing cloth on a simple handloom was a slow and labour-intensive process. Passing the shuttle containing the weft through the 'shed' formed by lifting alternate warp threads was an awkward business - it effectively limited the width of cloth that could be woven to the length of the weaver's arm as he passed the shuttle through.
Kay's great innovation was to increase the speed at which the shuttle passed across the loom, and to increase the distance that it travelled. He installed two 'shuttle boxes' at either side of the loom, connected by a wooden track or 'shuttle race'. The shuttle was propelled backwards and forwards along the race by means of a 'picking peg' which the weaver jerked from side to side. The speed at which a piece of cloth could be woven increased dramatically.
Kay's 'Flying Shuttle' was the first true mechanization of the textile weaving process. The success of Kay's invention greatly increased the demand for spun cotton, as weavers could now produce finished cloth far more quickly than they could be supplied with the spun thread. The knock-on effect of this shortfall was for other inventors such as James Hargreaves and Samuel Crompton to mechanize the spinning process later in the 18th century.
Sadly, as with many other innovative men, Kay was not recognised as a prophet in his own land. Greedy manufacturers refused to pay him royalties for his invention and machine-breakers raided his Bury home in 1753. He left England for France shortly afterwards and is thought to have died in poverty.
His son Robert continued the Kay family tradition by inventing the 'drop-box' in 1769, allowing rapid interchange of multiple shuttles with different coloured threads on one loom.