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  • Robert Farago

How European Hat Wearers Enabled America's Industrial Revolution

And what it means for the future of AI

Samuel Slater was born in Belper, England, the fifth son in a family of eight children. At age 10, Slater was packed off to the Cromford Mill, the world’s first water-powered cotton-spinning mill.

Four year later, his father died. The 14-year-old became an indentured servant for the mill’s owner.

In exchange for seven years’ labor, food, clothing and shelter – giving-up the right to marry without his “master’s” permission, acknowledging his master’s legal right to punish him as he saw fit – Slater was guaranteed paid passage to the former American colonies.

As he approached the end of his contract, Slater sought to secure his future. He began corresponding with Moses Brown, the Quaker brother to one of the country’s foremost slave traders (and founder of Brown University).

Moses tried and failed to set-up a cotton mill to capitalize on America’s abundant (slave-produced) cotton crop. The once and future abolitionist cut a deal with the 22-year-old Brit to start a mill from scratch in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, powered by the Blackstone River.

Problem: Britain’s Exportation of Machinery Act of 1781. Designed to deny cotton-growing foreigners the technology needed for vertical integration (cotton → yarn → textiles), anyone caught exporting textile machinery, tools, drawings or models faced fines and prison.

Though not formally educated, Samuel Slater’s eleven-year stint at the Compton Mill gave him a thorough understanding of its then-cutting edge technology. All of it, including carding, drawing, and roving machines. All stored in his head.

“Slater the traitor” – as he was called by the mill community he left behind – worked with Moses to establish a successful textile mill, serving the country’s growing domestic market. It wasn’t America’s first textile mill, but it was the country’s first hydro-powered mill, and the first to depend on child labor.

Slater staffed his initial workforce with children aged seven to 12, then expanded his crew to include entire families. Slater, Brown and their partners created this “Rhode Island system,” complete with company housing, stores and education. None of which could have happened without water power.

British engineer James Watt developed an efficient steam engine in late 1700’s. But steam power was not yet applied to mass production; which didn’t exist in any significant form until the Waltham Watch Factory spooled-up almost a hundred years later.

All hail the fast-flowing Blackstone River, spinning the Slater Mill’s 16,000-pound overshot water wheel! All hail European hat wearers!

When the American colonies were first colonized, animal trappers tapped into a huge – and hugely profitable – market for beaver pelts. Europe went mad for beaver fur hats. For good reason. Beaver pelt is/was ideal for millinery purposes, providing…

  1. Warmth - It traps air, insulating the hat wearer’s head, keeping it warm

  2. Water resistance - As you’d expect

  3. Moisture-wicking - It absorbs moisture then releases it, helping to regulate the wearer’s head temperature

  4. Softness - It’s very soft; it can be worn against the skin without irritation.

  5. Durability - It’s resistant to water, wind and wear and tear

And so Colonial trappers shot New England’s beavers to near extinction. Bye-bye beaver dams. Beaver dams that regulated water flow. Without regulated water flow, the region’s rivers ran wild.

On the negative side, the beaver-less rivers forced native Americans to move further afield in search of this vital resource, bringing them into greater conflict with European settlers. (Not to mention the effect of trappers’ mercury-based pelt treatment on aquatic life.) Dam-less river were also prone to flooding, erosion and sudden course changes.

On the positive side, power! Lots and lots of predictable power.

Yes, the steam engine eventually brought more and more reliable power to America’s burgeoning industrial revolution, freeing it from geographic limitations. But before that, Rhode Island and Massachusetts’ relied on beaver-free fast-flowing rivers to git ‘er done.

History is nothing more than a series of connections, many of which seem incredibly random, both at the time and in reflection. And, thus, they’re unpredictable.

As the AI revolution races ahead, we can’t know what connections will arise between AI and, uh, other stuff. Connections that will change our lives forever.

One thing I can tell you for sure. Then, as now, as in the future, a beaver fur hat is still the business.

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