Cotton, William

SUBJECT AREA: Textiles
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b. 1819 Seagrave, Leicestershire, England
d. after 1878
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English inventor of a power-driven flat-bed knitting machine.
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Cotton was originally employed in Loughborough and became one of the first specialized hosiery-machine builders. After the introduction of the latch needle by Matthew Townsend in 1856, knitting frames developed rapidly. The circular frame was easier to work automatically, but attempts to apply power to the flat frame, which could produce fully fashioned work, culminated in 1863 with William Cotton's machine. In that year he invented a machine that could make a dozen or more stockings or hose simultaneously and knit fashioned garments of all kinds. The difficulty was to reduce automatically the number of stitches in the courses where the hose or garment narrowed to give it shape. Cotton had early opportunities to apply himself to the improvement of hosiery machines while employed in the patent shop of Cartwright \& Warner of Loughborough, where some of the first rotaries were made. He remained with the firm for twenty years, during which time sixty or seventy of these machines were turned out. Cotton then established a factory for the manufacture of warp fabrics, and it was here that he began to work on his ideas. He had no knowledge of the principles of engineering or drawing, so his method of making sketches and then getting his ideas roughed out involved much useless labour. After twelve years, in 1863, a patent was issued for the machine that became the basis of the Cotton's Patent type. This was a flat frame driven by rotary mechanism and remarkable for its adaptability. At first he built his machine upright, like a cottage piano, but after much thought and experimentation he conceived the idea of turning the upper part down flat so that the needles were in a vertical position instead of being horizontal, and the work was carried off horizontally instead of vertically. His first machine produced four identical pieces simultaneously, but this number was soon increased. Cotton was induced by the success of his invention to begin machine building as a separate business and thus established one of the first of a class of engineering firms that sprung up as an adjunct to the new hosiery manufacture. He employed only a dozen men and turned out six machines in the first year, entering into an agreement with Hine \& Mundella for their exclusive use. This was later extended to the firm of I. \& R.Morley. In 1878, Cotton began to build on his own account, and the business steadily increased until it employed some 200 workers and had an output of 100 machines a year.
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Bibliography
1863, British patent no. 1,901 (flat-frame knitting machine).
Further Reading
F.A.Wells, 1935, The British Hosiery and Knitwear Industry: Its History and Organisation, London (based on an article in the Knitters' Circular (Feb. 1898).
A brief account of the background to Cotton's invention can be found in T.K.Derry and T.I. Williams, 1960, A Short History of Technology from the Earliest Times to AD 1900, Oxford; C. Singer (ed.), 1958, A History of Technology, Vol. V, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
F.Moy Thomas, 1900, I. \& R.Morley. A Record of a Hundred Years, London (mentions cotton's first machines).
RLH

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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