Children & Cotton Learning Zone for Social Studies & Citizenship
Visit New Lanark     Main Website    Contact Us






CLICK TO ENLARGE: Harnessing water to power machines
CLICK TO ENLARGE: Building a lade
CLICK TO ENLARGE: Controlling water flow
CLICK TO ENLARGE: Install water-wheels

CLICK TO ENLARGE: How New Lanark's steam engine was connected























 Annie says ...

The Cotton Industry

For thousands of years, cotton was spun and woven by hand using hand wheels and looms operated by a single person. This was done at home and required skill to produce fine yarn.

During the Industrial Revolution new machines were invented that could process cotton and spin threads much faster than ever before. These machines were too large for peoples' homes and so were housed in new mills and factories that employed hundreds of people.

These new inventions needed more power than human muscle could provide. Some of the very first spinning frames would use donkeys or bulls to power them. Horse power was also used in some early mills because it was cheaper, flexible and meant that mills could be built anywhere.

Above all else, water power was the most popular source of power for the first cotton mills. These factories had to be built beside a river with a good constant flow of water. The New Lanark Mills were built beside the Falls of Clyde to take advantage of the natural power of the waterfalls upstream. The large spinning machines in the mills could be mechanically powered by water-wheels.  


The water falls onto the wheel from above. This causes the water-wheel to revolve in the same direction as the flow of water in the sluice or mill race.

The water strikes the paddles on the underside of the wheel. This causes the water-wheel to revolve in the opposite direction to the flow of water in the sluice or mill race.

The water strikes the wheel halfway up instead of on its underside. These wheels often have deeper buckets or paddles to scoop a greater volume of water. This causes the wheel to turn in the opposite direction to the water flow in the sluice or mill race.

  • A water-wheel requires no coal to power it.
  • The power source is free, reusable and doesn't damage the environment!
  • Water-wheels have a smooth motion, unlike the early steam engines. This was essential to drive early spinning frames.
  • Water-wheels were simply designed and so were less likely to break down!

Different water-wheels have been used for different reasons. They weren't just used to power cotton mills. For centuries the water-wheel was used to mill flour in gristmills, in foClick to open learning activityundry work or pounding linen for use in paper-making. They were commonly made of wood and cast iron.

Some designs were more efficient than others. This meant they worked better and faster using less water. The OVERSHOT wheels are thought to be the most efficient, then the BREASTSHOT and the least efficient being the UNDERSHOT wheels

The water-wheels were situated in the basements of each mill building, and water was channelled to them from the mill lade. The supply of water to a particular water-wheel could be shut off by closing a sluice gate. After pouring over the wheels, the water flows back to the river, but the water-wheels are connected to a system of gears, ropes and belt-drives that get the machines to work!

Many mills and their engineers came up with their own custom-made water-wheel designs. For example, New Lanark's original water-wheels were a variation of the OVERSHOT and BREASTSHOT WHEELS. This design was more efficient because it harnessed the water power from the water falling from above AND the water flowing past the bottom of the wheel. This was also a good design for a river that flowed at different levels at different times of year. Today there is 1 remaining high breastshot water-wheel at New Lanark.

The Works Managers at the mills would record problems with the water-wheels like mechanical breakdowns or weather conditions. For instance, did you know that high river levels could cause serious problems for the mill? 

Click to open the evidence

Mechanics had many different tasks to do to keep the spinning machines working, like splicing frayed ropes and replacing worn belts. Open line-shafting and belt-drives are a very dangerous system and it was easy for accidents to happen! Robert Logan, the Factory Surgeon at New Lanark in the mid-1800s noted down that the most common accidents involved the loss of fingers! Once a woman's hair was caught! After this incident, female workers had to wear dust-caps to cover their hair.

In the 1880s, the water-wheels at New Lanark were replaced by water turbines which were more powerful. These are cylindrical machines which have paddles or runners inside a metal casing. They still need water to work, but the water is forced through the casing much faster (at pressure) than it goes through a water-wheel, so it actually produces more power using less water!

Between 1880 and 1920, the 10 water-wheels at New Lanark which produced about 450 Horse Power, were replaced by 3 turbines that would produce over 1100 Horse Power! Much more efficient!

As well as turbines, other amazing new inventions were used in the great mills like New Lanark such as steam power! Steam engines would probably rank as one of the greatest inventions of all time! They certainly played their part in powering cotton mills.

Nowadays, most of the fuel we use for transport comes from oil (petrol), but from the mid-19th century (1850s) coal was the most popular fuel.

DID YOU KNOW?Coal is organic and contains carbon. It forms over millions of years from the remains of dead plants buried with rocks and squeezed by pressure and cooked by the Earth's heat underground. When coal is burned on a fire, energy is released in the form of heat.

Coal mining became a major industry during the Industrial Revolution because many new factories, foundries, mills and locomotives needed coal to fuel them. As coal was the fuel source, it meant that mills could be built anywhere, particularly in towns and cities.

A steam engine is a machine that burns coal to release the heat energy it contains. It's a bit like a giant kettle sitting on top of a coal fire. The heat from the fire boils the water in the kettle and turns it into steam. But, instead of blowing off uselessly into the air, like the steam from a kettle, the steam is captured and used to power a machine.

Basic Steam Engine

Steam from the boiler is piped into the cyclinder, causing the piston to move. This movement is used to drive the machine attached to the piston. This could be anything from a locomotive, a water pump or a spinning machine!

Many inventors have contributed to the development of the steam engine, but it was James Watt's patented engine of 1769 that produced the first practical engine. The most famous steam locomotive was invented in 1829 by George Stephenson. It was called the "Rocket". This paved the way for the development of railways all over the world. For mills like New Lanark, steam engines were used as a back up power source to water. Although it was alot more expensive than water power, steam was useful to thaw out the water-wheels when they froze in a hard winter!

Through the 19th century many mill owners designed and made their own steam engines and steam became a very common power source for cotton mills. They helped to speed up production but were not very environmentally friendly!

Gas power was also used in many mills from the 1850s. Some mill companies like New Lanark, built a gas-making plant or Retort House on the mill site. Other large mill complexes like Chorlton Mills in Manchester and Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire had gas plants. Gas power was used mainly for lighting in the mills. 

With the development of electricity generation in the early 20th century, cotton mills began to use it as a power source for their machines. 

Some mills, like New Lanark could even generate their own electricity! From 1898, New Lanark could generate electricity from water power by using one of its turbines to drive a dynamo

Finally, by the 1950s, electricity became the sole power for New Lanark Mills and its machinery. The water turbine was connected directly to an induction motor to generate electrical power, and this power was cabled through the workrooms of the Mills. When the machinery was not in use between 10 pm  and 6 am, the electrical power generated was used for heating.

Click to open the evidence

Click to open learning activityClick to open learning activity                       Click to go to the New Lanark Case Study




New Lanark World Heritage Site
South Lanarkshire, Scotland, ML11 9DB
tel: +44 1555 661345   fax: +44 1555 665738
Design & Hosting by Digital Routes Ltd