SAMUEL Crompton invented the spinning mule but it was Richard Roberts who exploited its full possibilities. He took Crompton's brilliant but simple idea and turned it into a highly-sophisticated piece of textile machinery.

Roberts's self-acting mule was capable of being operated by unskilled workers and as such, it unlocked the true potential of the factory system, at the same time having immense social consequences.

Roberts was born in Llanymynech, Montgomeryshire, in 1789 and even as a child he showed remarkable mechanical aptitude.

After some years spent working for Maudsleys, the London machine-tool and marine engineers, he moved to Manchester in 1816 to set up his own business as a millwright.

With funds provided by his partner Thomas Sharpe, he enhanced his reputation as an engineer and inventor, designing the world's first metal planing machine and the back-geared lathe headstock which became the standard in the industry for more than 100 years.

His first foray into the world of textile engineering came in 1822 when he made significant improvements to Horrocks's 1803 metal-framed power loom, which accelerated the move to full industrialisation of the weaving process. Crompton's mule had been a brilliant idea for its time, but in its original form it required both skill and brawn to operate it. The search for a self-acting, or automatic, mule had occupied the minds of inventors since the late 18th century, with varying levels of success.

But with the Government's repeal of the Combination Laws in 1824, the need for such a machine took on much greater significance in the eyes of the millowners.

The laws, which had been in effect since 1800, had forced trade unions underground and made strikes virtually impossible. But their repeal meant unions were lawful again, and that inevitably sparked an immediate spinners' strike, which in turn persuaded the manufacturers to seek a way to break the stranglehold these skilled workers had on the industry.

What they wanted was a machine which could be operated by semi-skilled workers, and after his success with the power loom it was inevitable that they should turn to Roberts, who took up the challenge with alacrity.

By 1830 he had virtually finished his work, producing what one expert observer described as "one of the most beautiful

CROMPTON'S simple wooden machine evolved into this - a fine spinning mule of 1895 - thanks to the work done by Roberts

specimens of mechanical combination to be found; exhibiting a rare degree of original invention."

Within three years, 100,000 spindles were in operation on Roberts's self-acting mules and the total was 500,000 four years after that.

However, Roberts proved his own worst enemy. His design made it possible to convert existing, manual mules to self actors reasonably cheaply and simply, so that Roberts's firm took a long time to recoup their 12,000 development costs. With just 7,000 made in profits by 1839, the Government agreed to extend the company's patent for a further seven years but even so, Roberts never saw a proper return on his investment.

In 1843, the partnership between Roberts and Sharpe was dissolved. The firm continued as Richard Roberts and Co, building railway engines and Roberts also designed and built a machine to punch rivet holes in the massive metal plates of Robert Stephenson's Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits.

In 1852, Roberts divested himself of his Manchester interests and moved to London, where he concentrated on consultancy work and inventing. But he did not prosper and in 1864, like Crompton and so many other inventors before him, he died in poverty.

As a gesture towards his genius and his contribution to British industry, after his death the Government granted Roberts's daughter a 300 annuity.