Born the twelfth and youngest child of Thomas and Mary Wedgwood, Josiah Wedgwood survived a childhood bout of smallpox to serve as an apprentice potter under first his father -- who owned the Churchyard Works in Burslem, Staffordshire, England -- then his eldest brother. Smallpox left Josiah with a permanently weakened knee, which made him unable to work the foot pedal of a potter's wheel. As a result, he concentrated from an early age on designing pottery rather than making it.
In his early twenties, Wedgwood began working with the most renowned English pottery-maker of his day, Thomas Whieldon. There he began experimenting with a wide variety of pottery techniques, an experimentation that crossed in his mind with the burgeoning early industrial city of Manchester, which was nearby. Inspired, Wedgwood leased the Ivy Works in his home town of Burslem and set to work. Over the course of the next decade, his experimentation (and a considerable injection of capital from his marriage to a richly endowed distant cousin, Sally Wedgwood) transformed the sleepy artisan works into the first true pottery factory.
Wedgwood's work was of very high quality, and by 1763 he was receiving orders from the highest levels of the British nobility, including Queen Charlotte. Wedgwood convinced her to let him name the line of pottery she purchased "Queen's Ware", and trumpeted the royal association in his paperwork and stationery. As a burgeoning industrialist, Wedgwood was a major backer of the Trent and Mersey Canal dug between the River Trent and River Mersey, during which time he became friends with Erasmus Darwin.
Later that decade, his burgeoning business caused him to move from the smaller Ivy Works to the newly- built Etruria Works, which would run for 180 years. The factory was so-named after the Etruria district of Italy, where black porcelain dating to Etruscan times was being excavated. Wedgwood found this porcelain inspiring, and his first major commercial success was its duplication with what he called "Black Basalt". Not long after the new works opened, continuing trouble with his smallpox-afflicted knee made necessary the amputation of his right leg.
In 1780, his long-time business partner Thomas Bentley died, and Wedgwood turned to his friend Erasmus Darwin for help in running the business. As a result of the close association that grew up between the Wedgwood and Darwin families, one of Josiah's daughters would later marry Erasmus' son. One of the children of that marriage, Charles Darwin, would also marry a Wedgwood -- Emma, Josiah's granddaughter. Essentially, this double-barrelled inheritance of Josiah's money permitted Charles Darwin the life of leisure that eventually led to the formulation of his theory of evolution.
In the latter part of his life, Wedgwood's obsession was to duplicate the Portland Vase, a blue and white glass vase dating to the first century AD. For three years he worked on the project, eventually producing what he considered a satisfactory copy in 1789. After passing on his company to his sons, Wedgwood died in 1795.
Wedgwood's company is still a famous name in pottery today, and "Wedgwood China" is the commonly used term for his jasper ware, the blue (or sometmes green) china with overlaid white decoration, still common throughout the world.