[From Samuel Smiles's Self-Help (1859). Text courtesy of Professor Professor Mitsuharu Matsuoka of Nagoya University, Japan. Translation to html and links by GPL.]

John Heathcoat was the youngest son of a respectable small farmer at Duffield, Derbyshire, where he was born in 1732. When at school he made steady and rapid progress, but was early removed from it to be apprenticed to a frame-smith near Loughborough. The boy soon learnt to handle tools with dexterity, and he acquired a minute knowledge of the parts of which the stocking-frame was composed, as well as of the more intricate warp-machine. At his leisure he studied how to introduce improvements in them, and his friend, Mr. Bazley, M.P., states that as early as the age of sixteen, he conceived the idea of inventing a machine by which lace might be made similar to Buckingham or French lace, then all made by hand.

The first practical improvement he succeeded in introducing was in the warp-frame, when, by means of an ingenious apparatus, he succeeded in producing "mitts" of a lacy appearance, and it was this success which determined him to pursue the study of mechanical lace-making. The stocking-frame had already, in a modified form, been applied to the manufacture of point-net lace, in which the mesh was LOOPED as in a stocking, but the work was slight and frail, and therefore unsatisfactory. Many ingenious Nottingham mechanics had, during a long succession of years, been labouring at the problem of inventing a machine by which the mesh of threads should be TWISTED round each other on the formation of the net.

Some of these men died in poverty, some were driven insane, and all alike failed in the object of their search. The old warp-machine held its ground.

When a little over twenty-one years of age, Heathcoat went to Nottingham, where he readily found employment, for which he soon received the highest remuneration, as a setter-up of hosiery and warp-frames, and was much respected for his talent for invention, general intelligence, and the sound and sober principles that governed his conduct. He also continued to pursue the subject on which his mind had before been occupied, and laboured to compass the contrivance of a twist traverse-net machine. He first studied the art of making the Buckingham or pillow-lace by hand, with the object of effecting the same motions by mechanical means. It was a long and laborious task, requiring the exercise of great perseverance and ingenuity. His master, Elliot, described him at that time as inventive, patient, self-denying, and taciturn, undaunted by failures and mistakes, full of resources and expedients, and entertaining the most perfect confidence that his application of mechanical principles would eventually be crowned with success.

It is difficult to describe in words an invention so complicated as the bobbin-net machine. It was, indeed, a mechanical pillow for making lace, imitating in an ingenious manner the motions of the lace-maker's fingers in intersecting or tying the meshes of the lace upon her pillow. On analysing the component parts of a piece of hand-made lace, Heathcoat was enabled to classify the threads into longitudinal and diagonal. He began his experiments by fixing common pack-threads lengthwise on a sort of frame for the warp, and then passing the weft threads between them by common plyers, delivering them to other plyers on the opposite side; then, after giving them a sideways motion and twist, the threads were repassed back between the next adjoining cords, the meshes being thus tied in the same way as upon pillows by hand. He had then to contrive a mechanism that should accomplish all these nice and delicate movements, and to do this cost him no small amount of mental toil.

Long after he said, "The single difficulty of getting the diagonal threads to twist in the allotted space was so great that if it had now to be done, I should probably not attempt its accomplishment." His next step was to provide thin metallic discs, to be used as bobbins for conducting the threads backwards and forwards through the warp. These discs, being arranged in carrier-frames placed on each side of the warp, were moved by suitable machinery so as to conduct the threads from side to side in forming the lace. He eventually succeeded in working out his principle with extraordinary skill and success; and, at the age of twenty-four, he was enabled to secure his invention by a patent.

During this time his wife was kept in almost as great anxiety as himself, for she well knew of his trials and difficulties while he was striving to perfect his invention. Many years after they had been successfully overcome, the conversation which took place one eventful evening was vividly remembered. "Well," said the anxious wife, "will it work?" "No," was the sad answer; "I have had to take it all to pieces again." Though he could still speak hopefully and cheerfully, his poor wife could restrain her feelings no longer, but sat down and cried bitterly. She had, however, only a few more weeks to wait, for success long laboured for and richly deserved, came at last, and a proud and happy man was John Heathcoat when he brought home the first narrow strip of bobbin-net made by his machine, and placed it in the hands of his wife.

As in the case of nearly all inventions which have proved productive, Heathcoat's rights as a patentee were disputed, and his claims as an inventor called in question. On the supposed invalidity of the patent, the lace-makers boldly adopted the bobbin-net machine, and set the inventor at defiance. But other patents were taken out for alleged improvements and adaptations; and it was only when these new patentees fell out and went to law with each other that Heathcoat's rights became established. One lace-manufacturer having brought an action against another for an alleged infringement of his patent, the jury brought in a verdict for the defendant, in which the judge concurred, on the ground that BOTH the machines in question were infringements of Heathcoat's patent. It was on the occasion of this trial, "Boville v. Moore," that Sir John Copley (afterwards Lord Lyndhurst), who was retained for the defence in the interest of Mr. Heathcoat, learnt to work the bobbin-net machine in order that he might master the details of the invention. On reading over his brief, he confessed that he did not quite understand the merits of the case; but as it seemed to him to be one of great importance, he offered to go down into the country forthwith and study the machine until he understood it; "and then," said he, "I will defend you to the best of my ability." He accordingly put himself into that night's mail, and went down to Nottingham to get up his case as perhaps counsel never got it up before. Next morning the learned sergeant placed himself in a lace-loom, and he did not leave it until he could deftly make a piece of bobbin-net with his own hands, and thoroughly understood the principle as well as the details of the machine. When the case came on for trial, the learned sergeant was enabled to work the model on the table with such case and skill, and to explain the precise nature of the invention with such felicitous clearness, as to astonish alike judge, jury, and spectators; and the thorough conscientiousness and mastery with which he handled the case had no doubt its influence upon the decision of the court.

After the trial was over, Mr. Heathcoat, on inquiry, found about six hundred machines at work after his patent, and he proceeded to levy royalty upon the owners of them, which amounted to a large sum. But the profits realised by the manufacturers of lace were very great, and the use of the machines rapidly extended; while the price of the article was reduced from five pounds the square yard to about five pence in the course of twenty-five years. During the same period the average annual returns of the lace-trade have been at least four millions sterling, and it gives remunerative employment to about 150,000 workpeople.

To return to the personal history of Mr. Heathcoat. In 1809 we find him established as a lace-manufacturer at Loughborough, in Leicestershire. There he carried on a prosperous business for several years, giving employment to a large number of operatives, at wages varying from 5. to 10. a week. Notwithstanding the great increase in the number of hands employed in lace-making through the introduction of the new machines, it began to be whispered about among the workpeople that they were superseding labour, and an extensive conspiracy was formed for the purpose of destroying them wherever found. . . .

Among the numerous manufacturers whose works were attacked by the Luddites, was the inventor of the bobbin-net machine himself. One bright sunny day, in the summer of , a body of rioters entered his factory at Loughborough with torches, and set fire to it, destroying thirty-seven lace-machines, and above 10,000 worth of property. Ten of the men were apprehended for the felony, and eight of them were executed. Mr. Heathcoat made a claim upon the county for compensation, and it was resisted; but the Court of Queen's Bench decided in his favour, and decreed that the county must make good his loss of 10,000. The magistrates sought to couple with the payment of the damage the condition that Mr.

Heathcoat should expend the money in the county of Leicester; but to this he would not assent, having already resolved on removing his manufacture elsewhere. At Tiverton, in Devonshire, he found a large building which had been formerly used as a woollen manufactory; but the Tiverton cloth trade having fallen into decay, the building remained unoccupied, and the town itself was generally in a very poverty-stricken condition. Mr. Heathcoat bought the old mill, renovated and enlarged it, and there recommenced the manufacture of lace upon a larger scale than before; keeping in full work as many as three hundred machines, and employing a large number of artisans at good wages. Not only did he carry on the manufacture of lace, but the various branches of business connected with it — yarn-doubling, silk-spinning, net-making, and finishing.

He also established at Tiverton an iron-foundry and works for the manufacture of agricultural implements, which proved of great convenience to the district. It was a favourite idea of his that steam power was capable of being applied to perform all the heavy drudgery of life, and he laboured for a long time at the invention of a steam-plough. In 1832 he so far completed his invention as to be enabled to take out a patent for it; and Heathcoat's steam- plough, though it has since been superseded by Fowler's, was considered the best machine of the kind that had up to that time been invented.

Mr. Heathcoat was a man of great natural gifts. He possessed a sound understanding, quick perception, and a genius for business of the highest order. With these he combined uprightness, honesty, and integrity — qualities which are the true glory of human character. Himself a diligent self-educator, he gave ready encouragement to deserving youths in his employment, stimulating their talents and fostering their energies. During his own busy life, he contrived to save time to master French and Italian, of which he acquired an accurate and grammatical knowledge. His mind was largely stored with the results of a careful study of the best literature, and there were few subjects on which he had not formed for himself shrewd and accurate views. The two thousand workpeople in his employment regarded him almost as a father, and he carefully provided for their comfort and improvement. Prosperity did not spoil him, as it does so many; nor close his heart against the claims of the poor and struggling, who were always sure of his sympathy and help. To provide for the education of the children of his workpeople, he built schools for them at a cost of about 6,000.

He was also a man of singularly cheerful and buoyant disposition, a favourite with men of all classes and most admired and beloved by those who knew him best.

In the electors of Tiverton, of which town Mr. Heathcoat had proved himself so genuine a benefactor, returned him to represent them in Parliament, and he continued their member for nearly thirty years. During a great part of that time he had Lord Palmerston for his colleague, and the noble lord, on more than one public occasion, expressed the high regard which he entertained for his venerable friend. On retiring from the representation in , owing to advancing age and increasing infirmities, thirteen hundred of his workmen presented him with a silver inkstand and gold pen, in token of their esteem. He enjoyed his leisure for only two more years, dying in January, 1861, at the age of seventy-seven, and leaving behind him a character for probity, virtue, manliness, and mechanical genius, of which his descendants may well be proud.


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Last modified 22 December 2005