What happened next is unclear. There is a suggestion, but no evidence, that Highs handed the jenny over to James Hargreaves and returned to tackle the problem of drafting rollers. And this time, he had an able assistant in clockmaker Kay, who knew all about gearing and the cutting of intricate mechanical movements.
So in 1767, Highs was putting the finishing touches to what would become known as the water frame. Where the jenny had stretched the thread by trapping it in a sort of wooden vice and pulling it out, the water frame achieved better results by passing the roving through two sets of gripping rollers.
The second set were rotating at five times the speed of the first, so the thread was stretched to exactly five times its original length, before being given its vital twist by a bobbin and flyer. The machine produced much harder, stronger thread than the jenny, thread that was suitable for warp.
Highs gave Kay a wooden model of his brainchild and asked him to make him a working metal version. Kay did so before returning to live in his native Warrington, a few miles away.
Now, enter the villain, in the shape of the demon barber, Richard Arkwright. Arkwright met Kay on his business travels, gained his confidence, and over a drink in a pub persuaded him to hand over the secrets of Highs's machine. Highs was undone.
Highs had been stymied by lack of money, but Arkwright was determined that money would not stand in his way. With Kay in tow - presumably to prevent him from talking - he decamped swiftly to Preston, bought the clockmaker's loyalty with the promise of a job, and found an investor willing to back development of the water frame.
All this happened in 1767. The following year Arkwright moved to Nottingham and a year after that patented the water frame as his own invention. He was on his way to untold riches, leaving Highs without recognition.
Highs continued to work in obscurity, building machinery for various businesses, winning a handsome prize from Manchester cotton magnates for a machine called a double-jenny. Once, he came face to face with Arkwright in a Manchester tavern, and accused him of stealing his invention.
As Arkwright's power and wealth grew, he developed cotton spinning into a continuous process, in 1775 patenting a variety of machinery that performed all the processes of manufacture, from cleaning to carding to final spinning. He stole all his ideas from others.
In 1781, Arkwright went to court to protect his patents from pirates but the move rebounded when his patents were overturned. Four years later, after seeing his patents restored temporarily, the truth finally came out in another, definitive court battle.
Highs, Kay, Kay's wife and the widow of James Hargreaves all testified that Arkwright had stolen their inventions. The court agreed: Arkwright's patents were finally laid aside.
But there is still one final twist to the story and it links Highs the third and possibly the greatest of the 18th-century's spinning inventions, the Mule.
The accepted story is that Samuel Crompton of Bolton invented the Mule, which was a cross between the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame, using the moving-carriage principle and the spindle-winding system of the earlier machine with the drafting rollers of the later one. Crompton claimed he had no knowledge of Arkwright's rollers and came upon the idea independently, some time between 1772, when he began work and 1779.
But is it just a coincidence that Highs - one of the very few men with intimate knowledge of both Jenny and Water Frame - was living in Bolton between those very years, and was, in fact, a member of the same, tightly-knit Swedenborgian religious sect as Crompton?
Whatever the truth, there is no doubt that Thomas Highs was a man of genius, robbed of credit, wealth and his rightful place in history by Arkwright, who has been totally discredited yet whose name still dominates the story of cotton.