The American Industrial Revolution, also known as the Second Industrial Revolution, began some time between 1820 and 1870. A hugely formative time in terms of social, economic and technological development, the era caused rapid urbanisation in America: a mass exodus of people moving from the countryside to the city meant that by 1900, 40% of people lived in cities, compared to only 6% a century earlier.
The American Industrial Revolution saw inventions such as the telephone, steam engine, X-ray, lightbulb, sewing machine and combustible engine come into widespread use, fundamentally altering the course of human history forever.
Spearheading these inventions were a number of brilliant thinkers, some of whom we’ve outlined below.
1. Eli Whitney (1765-1825)
Eli Whitney was an early Industrial Revolution inventor, whose cotton gin would impact agriculture for decades to come. A Yale College graduate, Whitney moved to Georgia and worked on Mulberry Grove plantation where he determined there was an opportunity to build a machine that would clean a particularly difficult variety of cotton.
At this time, cleaning was done by hand, but it was challenging to remove the seeds and could take an entire day to clean one pound. Whitney’s cotton gin could clean 51 pounds of cotton per day.
This made the cotton variety a profitable crop in the south, which perpetuated slavery as increased profits for enslavers demanded more work from enslaved people as larger crops were grown. Whitney would go on to revolutionise manufacturing, and developed interchangeable, standardised parts for building muskets via an early assembly line that Henry Ford would later perfect.
2. Samuel Morse (1791-1872)
Samuel Morse is most well known for the code he created for sending messages via telegraph. He became fascinated with electricity while studying at Yale College, though he was also an active romanticist painter who travelled extensively across Europe.
He became interested in the idea of the electric telegraph upon his return, and made his first working model in 1835. He continued studying electromagnets while painting, aiming to build models that could send messages on a single wire across increasingly lengthy distances.
In 1838, he developed a system of dots and dashes for sending messages, called Morse code. He obtained a patent for his telegraph and pushed Congress to build telegraph lines across the US. His code was used the world over since it unified language for sending messages. Though others challenged his patent, he was ultimately credited with creating the electric telegraph.
3. Elias Howe (1819-1867)
Elias Howe was a Massachusetts-born inventor whose improvements to the sewing machine increased garment and shoe production output. Howe had been interested in machinery from a young age, and he ultimately worked on his design for his sewing machine for 5 years.
His model used a lock-stitch, pulling thread from two different sources to reinforce one another, making for a stronger and more secure stitch. He was granted a patent for his lock-stitch design in 1846, but it was not immediately popular, leading him to sell his patent rights in England where he lived for several years.
Upon his return to the US, he learned that his sewing machine was being manufactured in violation of his patent. He successfully litigated this and was rewarded with royalties until the patent expired. His sewing machines were widely used.
4. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922)
Alexander Graham Bell was a Scottish-born inventor most notable for being the first to patent the telephone. By the time he began teaching at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes, the telegraph had already been invented. Bell was curious about the invention, researching methods for transmitting multiple messages over a single wire, and his experimentation on the harmonic telegraph ultimately led to his invention of the telephone.
As with many inventors on this list, Bell was one of many working towards the creation of the telephone: however, he was the first to file for a patent – just hours before another inventor, Elisha Gray. Though he was granted the patent on 7 March 1876, his invention could not actually transmit sound until 10 March, when Bell famously summoned his assistant by speaking through his telephone and saying, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
Bell would later improve upon Thomas Edison’s phonograph, and he researched what became the photophone and the metal detector.
5. Thomas Edison (1847-1931)
Thomas Edison holds the world record for the most patents (singly or jointly) at 1,093. He is most noted for his invention of the phonograph and the incandescent lightbulb. Similar to Alexander Graham Bell, Edison was fascinated with telegraph technology and began his career in 1859 working on the railroad. By 1863, he was an apprentice telegrapher.
In New York City, he worked on developing ways to send multiple telegraphs at once and eventually succeeded in transmitting four messages simultaneously over one wire via a system he named the ‘quadruplex’. In 1877, he invented the phonograph, which used tinfoil paper to record and play back sound delivered through a horn.
Edison then improved on the lightbulb by introducing a carbon filament in 1878. This electric light was safer, less expensive and more long-lasting than gaslight bulbs that had previously been on the market. His improvements to the lightbulb set the stage for a modern, electricity-driven world.
6. Brothers Wilbur (1867-1912) and Orville (1871-1948) Wright
Brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright were aviation pioneers most famously known for achieving the first sustained and controlled airplane flight in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They started their careers in printing services before opening a bicycle sales and repair shop in 1892, and by 1896, the pair were building their own bicycles.
Profits from these early endeavours funded their experimentation in aeronautics. They had always been interested in flight, but after the death of pioneer glider Otto Lilienthal in 1896, they began to concentrate more seriously on the development of their flying machine, and developed a ‘wing warping’ system that ultimately resulted in a successful flight.
They tested their gliders in Kitty Hawk in 1900, trying 100-200 wing designs, and on 17 December 1903, Orville made the first successful controlled flight, traveling about 26 metres in 12 seconds. By 1905, they could remain in the air for 39 minutes at a time, so patented their design. The rest is history.
7. Henry Ford (1863-1947)
In his ‘Motor City’, Henry Ford created the world’s first moving assembly line which standardized production. He was interested in mechanics from a young age and constructed his first steam engine aged 15. He then started constructing automobiles in 1893, where he worked on internal combustion engines, and completed his first Ford car named the Quadricycle in 1896.
Ford did not invent the automobile, but his Model T car and production methods have cemented his role in history. The Model T car constituted almost half the auto output of the world from 1908-1927, selling over 15,500,000 models in the United States alone. The affordability of this model meant that millions could now travel more easily.
The demand for the Model T led him to develop the assembly-line factory production method, which operated very precisely, with a complete chassis able to be constructed every 93 minutes, in contrast to the previous time it took for assembly at 728 minutes.