Edmund Cartwright was born in 1743 to a wealthy family of talented men in Nottinghampshire. His brother John became an important radical politician, earned the title Father of Reform and led him to publish over eighty works between 1774 and 1824. and his eldest brother George joined the army, then became an explorer in Canada and brought the first eskimos to Britain where they became court favourites.
Edmund became a poet whilst studying at Oxford, his work praised by no less than Sir Walter Scott. He was appointed vicar of Goadby Marwood in Leicestershire in 1772 when he showed himself to be a genuinely clever man. He attended a boy dying of putrid fever or typhus, who was not expected to live, but Cartwright noticed a tub of yeast in the room, and recalling how this was often used by country folk to stop meat rotting, he gave some to the boy and cured him. This practice became widespread and I am really amazed this is not what he was famous for, because he is describing airborne antibiotics, something we still do not have.
But this is not what he is primarily famous for. There are several versions of how he came up with the idea of a power loom. One is that he was visiting Matlock in 1784 when the conversation turned on Arkwright’s spinning machinery. One of the company observed that as soon as Arkwright’s patent expired, so many mills would be erected and so much cotton spun that hands would never be found to weave it. This was a huge problem, as not only would it cost the industry lots of money, idle workers had a habit of rioting. Cartwright, who had never seen a loom, suggested someone should invent a power driven one, but his companions said it was too difficult. So of course he did it.
There is a slightly different version of this which I stumbled upon in the process of researching my book on the Microcosm clock. According to this other story, Cartwright was visiting the famous travelling show, the Turkish Chess Player, supposedly a piece of automata, that successfully beat humans. when Cartwright saw this, he suggested, if man could build this, why couldn’t he build a loom; when this was mocked, he designed a power loom and took out a patent on it, (no. 1470) though there are several others that lay claim to being the first. He could not find a manufacturer to produce these, so produced them himself, but repeated breaches of copyright and a series of mysterious fires (probably by the hand weavers who were being made redundant) made him lose thousands of pounds on the scheme. He was more successful with a wool combing machine (to get the dirt etc out of wool before spinning) . It was called Cartwright’s comb, or Big Ben after a famous boxer of the time.
But his debts on the loom continued to rise after 1793, and friends in Manchester presented a petition to parliament on his behalf in 1807, signed by fifty of the largest firms. It was claimed that his loom had benefited Britain to the amount of £1.5 million, which accordingly had been successful in keeping the textile trade. Parliament recognized his contribution, and in 1809 voted him a grant of £10,000—twice the sum that Crompton had received for his ‘mule’.
He moved to London and patented geometic bricks, tiles, whilst stilll wrting poetry and taking his degree in divinity, or DD. He patented a reaping machine in 1793, then a three-furrow plough; he also carried out important work on manures and the culture of potatoes.
His last patent was for roller print presses, and was granted the year after his death which was in 1823.
But the invention that should have got him into the record books if not for its sheer oddity, was his 1820 invention of a carriage ‘to go without horses’. His ‘Centaur Carriage’ was used to collect groceries, and was powered by two men working cranks, and was claimed to be able to travel 27 miles with ease in a single day, though not on hills.