The flying shuttle was one of the key developments in the industrialization of weaving. It allowed a single weaver to weave much wider fabrics and it could be mechanized, allowing for automatic machine looms. It was patented by John Kay (1704–c. 1779) in 1733. (British Patent GB 542/1733)
Before the flying shuttle
In order to understand the importance of this invention, it is useful to review the action of weaving prior to it. In a typical frame loom, the operator sits with the newly woven cloth before him or her. Using treadles or some other mechanism, the heddles are raised and lowered to open the shed in the warp threads. The operator must then reach forward, holding the shuttle in one hand, and pass it through the shed; the shuttle carries a bobbin for the weft. The shuttle must then be caught in the other hand, the shed closed, and the beater pulled forward to push the weft into place. This action (called a "pick") requires a lot of bending forward over the fabric; more importantly, however, the coordination between the throwing and catching of the shuttle requires more than one operator if the width of the fabric exceeds that which can be reasonably reached across (typically 60 inches (150 cm) or less).
How the flying shuttle works
In one respect, the term is somewhat misleading, as the shuttle itself is only a component in a new system attached to the loom as part of the beater. A board called the "race" runs along the front of the beater, from side to side, forming a track on which the shuttle runs. At each end of the race, there is a box which catches the shuttle at the end of its journey, and which contains a mechanism for propelling the shuttle on its return trip. The shuttle itself has some subtle differences from the older form. The ends of the shuttle are bullet-shaped and metal-capped, and the shuttle generally has rollers to reduce friction. The weft thread is made to exit from the end rather than the side, and the thread is stored on a pirn (a long, conical, one-ended, non-turning bobbin) to allow it to feed more easily. Finally, the flying shuttle is generally somewhat heavier, so as to have sufficient momentum to carry it all the way through the shed.
In manual operation, a cord runs to each box from a handle held by the operator. To start the pick, the shed is opened as before; however, instead of throwing the shuttle, the operator jerks the cord for the box containing the shuttle. This causes the mechanism in the box to shoot the shuttle along the race to the other box; then the shed is closed and the beater is used to complete the pick as before. The operator does not need to touch the shuttle until it needs to be reloaded, so fabrics of great width can be woven; but more importantly, the movements needed are greatly reduced.
Even more important was the fact that this mechanism could be automated and powered; all the operator needed to do was monitor the machine for failures and keep it supplied with pirns of weft thread, a job that was simplified with the invention of the Northrop Loom, which reloaded the shuttle automatically. Kay's son developed a modification that allowed the use of an array of different shuttles.
The increase in production due to the flying shuttle exceeded the capacity of the spinning industry of the day, and prompted development of powered spinning machines, beginning with the spinning jenny and the water frame, and culminating in the spinning mule, which could produce strong, fine thread in the quantities needed. These innovations transformed the textile industry in Great Britain. All were attacked as threats to the livelihood of spinners and weavers, and Kay's patent was largely ignored. It is often incorrectly written that Kay was attacked and fled to France, but in fact he simply moved there to attempt to rent out his looms, a business model that had failed him in England. The flying shuttle itself produced a new source of injuries; if deflected from its path, it could be shot clear of the machine, potentially striking workers. Turn of the century injury reports abound with instances in which eyes were lost or other injuries sustained, and in several instances (for example, an extended exchange in 1901) the British House of Commons was moved to take up the issue of installing guards and other contrivances to reduce these injuries.
The flying shuttle dominated commercial weaving through the middle of the twentieth century. By that time, other systems began to supplant it. The heavy shuttle was noisy and energy-inefficient (since the energy used to throw it was largely lost in the catching); also, its inertia limited the speed of the loom. Projectile and rapier looms eliminated the need to take the bobbin/pirn of thread through the shed; later, air- and water-jet looms reduced the weight of moving parts further. Flying shuttle looms are still used for some purposes, and old models remain in use.