In the late 18th and 19th centuries, Great Britain underwent an industrial revolution with innovations that still impact social, cultural and economic conditions today. This period of innovation and invention spread, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States experienced its own industrial revolution.
In that period, America made great strides in agriculture and textile manufacturing, communications and other technology. Though there were many new inventions that changed living and working conditions from this time, a few inventions had a particularly profound impact.
Here are 8 of the most important inventions and innovations of the American Industrial Revolution.
1. The icebox
The first wooden icebox was created by Thomas Moore in Maryland in 1802. This box was lined with insulating materials like tin and zinc with a large block of iced stored in a compartment at the top. The exterior was lined with fur or other insulating fabrics.
Iceboxes allowed perishable foods to be kept fresh for longer without it needing to be smoked, dried or canned. It also changed the ways that people could prepare food before the invention of the modern freezer.
2. The cotton gin
Invented by Eli Whitney in Georgia in 1793, the cotton gin machine was used to separate cotton seeds from raw cotton. This machine allowed for much faster production times for cleaning cotton, which had previously been done by enslaved people.
When done by hand, it could take an entire day to clean one pound of cotton, but with the cotton gin, 51 pounds of cotton could be cleaned per day. This invention paved the way for the mass production of cotton-based products.
3. The steel plough
In 1837, a blacksmith in Illinois called John Deere invented the steel plough. Previously, farmers had used cast iron ploughs, which would easily get caked in soil, making them cumbersome to work with and in need of constant cleaning. The steel plough could be polished so that soil did not stick to it.
Like the cotton gin, the invention was a commercial success, and it made for more efficient farming practices. In fact, the John Deere company still makes farming and agriculture equipment to this day which is used across the world.
4. The aeroplane
Though a manned glider was invented by George Cayley in 1853, Orville and Wilbur Wright would invent the first plane not powered by wind in 1903. Orville Wright flew a gas-motored plane for 12 seconds over a beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on 17 December, and the aeroplane was born.
This aeroplane had a wooden frame covered in cotton cloth and sealed, and the engine was powerful enough to fly the plane without weighing it down. The invention of the aeroplane has since had a profound impact on warfare, travel and the environment.
5. The sewing machine
Though he did not invent the sewing machine, Elias Howe patented the first sewing machine in 1846, which improved upon an earlier version invented by Walter Hunt. This new machine used a lock-stitch, pulling thread from two different sources to reinforce the stitches.
In 1855, Isaac Singer would motorise the sewing machine, making it adaptable for home use and revolutionising the clothing and shoe industry.
6. The telephone
Scottish-born American inventor Alexander Graham Bell was one of several working on transmitting sound through electric current in the late 1800s, but Bell was the first to patent the telephone and commercialise it.
Bell’s telephone model was invented in Boston in 1875 and patented in 1876. It worked using metallic reeds and electromagnetic coils to transmit sound. At first, it was used mainly by the rich. However, it became a common household item by the mid-1900s and went on to transform communication systems across the US.
7. The phonograph
In New Jersey in 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. This device could record and play sounds. To record, you spoke into a cylinder attached to the device, and the sound waves moved a needle in the device which created a groove on a piece of tin foil. Sound could be then played back by a stylus that traced the groove, causing it to reproduce the sound. This early record player still impacts the music business and the way we listen to music.
8. The incandescent lightbulb
After inventing the phonograph in 1877, Thomas Edison would go on to patent the first practical incandescent light bulb in 1880. Like other inventors on this list, Edison was not the first to create a lightbulb, but his invention drastically improved the practicality of the object which made it a commercial success.
In his design, Edison used a carbon filament so that the bulb would last longer. Moreover, it did not require a high electric current to operate, making it easier to install and use and cheaper to manufacture. Edison’s invention was so successful that he created the Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York in 1880. Several other inventors working on lightbulb inventions at the time would merge their companies with his, forming General Electric.