Important Inventions of the Industrial Revolution

The Flyer takes off from Kill Devil Hill, with Orville Wright at the controls, while his brother Wilbur looks on, on December 17, 1903.
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The inventions and innovations of the Industrial Revolution transformed the U.S. and Great Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries. Tremendous gains in science and technology helped Britain become the world's dominant economic and political power, while in the U.S. it fueled a young nation's westward expansion and built vast fortunes. 

A Revolution Twice Over

Beginning in the mid-1770s, British innovations harnessed the power of water, steam, and coal, helping the U.K.

dominate the global textile market during this era. Other advancements were made in chemistry, manufacturing, and transportation, allowing the nation to expand and fund its empire around the globe.

The American Industrial Revolution began after the Civil War as the U.S. rebuilt its infrastructure. New forms of transportation like the steamboat and the railroad helped the nation expand. Meanwhile, innovations like the modern assembly line and electric lightbulb revolutionized both business and personal life.

Following are some of the most important inventions of this era and how they transformed the world.

Transportation

Water had long been used to power simple machines like grain mills and textile spinners. But it was Scottish inventor James Watt's refinements to the steam engine in 1775 that began the revolution. Up until that point, such engines were crude, inefficient, and unreliable. Watt's first engines were used primarily to pump water and air into and out of mines.

As more powerful and efficient engines were developed, which would operate under high pressure and thus increase output, new forms of transportation became possible. In the U.S., Robert Fulton was an engineer and inventor who had become fascinated with Watt's engine while living in France at the turn of the 19th century.

After several years of experimenting in Paris, he returned to the U.S. and launched the Clermont in 1807 on the Hudson River in New York. It was the first commercially viable steamboat line in the nation. 

As the nation's rivers began opening to navigation, commerce expanded along with the population. Another new form of transportation, the railroad, also relied on steam power to drive the locomotives. First in Britain and then in the U.S., rail lines began appearing in the 1820s. By 1869, the first transcontinental rail line linked the coasts.

If the 19th century belonged to steam, the 20th century belonged to the internal combustion engine. American inventor George Brayton, working on earlier innovations, developed the first liquid-fueled internal combustion engine in 1872. During the next two decades, German engineers including Karl Benz and Rudolf Diesel would make further innovations. By the time Henry Ford unveiled his Model T car in 1908, the internal combustion engine was poised to transform not just the nation's transportation system but also spur 20th-century industries like petroleum and aviation.

Communication

As the populations of both the U.K. and U.S. expanded in the 1800s and America's boundaries pushed westward, new forms of communication that could cover great distances were invented to keep pace with this growth.

One of the first significant inventions was the telegraph, perfected by Samuel Morse. He developed a series of dots and dashes that could be transmitted electrically in 1836; they came to be known as Morse Code, though it wouldn't be until 1844 that the first telegraph service opened, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

As the rail system expanded in the U.S., the telegraph followed along, literally. Rail depots doubled as telegraph stations, bringing news to the far-flung frontier. Telegraph signals began flowing between the U.S. and the U.K. in 1866 with Cyrus Field's first permanent transatlantic telegraph line. The following decade, Scottish inventor Alexander Graham Bell, working in the U.S. with Thomas Watson, patented the telephone in 1876. 

Thomas Edison, who made a number of discoveries and innovations during the 1800s, contributed to the communications revolution by inventing the phonograph in 1876.

The device used paper cylinders coated with wax to record sound. Records were first made of metal and later shellac. In Italy, Enrico Marcone made his first successful radio wave transmission in 1895, paving the way for the radio to be invented in the next century.

Industry

In 1794, the American industrialist Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. This device mechanized the process of removing seeds from cotton, something that had previously been done largely by hand. But what made Whitney's invention particularly special was its use of interchangeable parts. If one part broke, it could be easily replaced by another inexpensive, mass-produced copy. This made processing cotton cheaper, in turn creating new markets and wealth.

Although he did not invent the sewing machine, Elias Howe's refinements and patent in 1844 perfected the device. Working with Isaac Singer, Howe marketed the device to manufacturers and later consumers. The machine allowed for the mass production of clothing, expanding the nation's textile industry. It also made housework easier and allowed the growing middle class to indulge in hobbies like fashion.

But factory work—and home life—still were dependent upon sunlight and lamplight. It wasn't until electricity began being harnessed for commercial purposes that industry truly was revolutionized in the 19th century. Thomas Edison's invention of the electric lightbulb in 1879 became the means by which large factories could be illuminated, extending shifts and increasing manufacturing output. It also spurred the creation of the nation's electrical grid, into which the many inventions of the 20th century from TVs to PCs would eventually plug.

Person

Invention

Date

James WattFirst reliable steam engine1775
Eli WhitneyCotton gin, interchangeable parts for muskets1793, 1798
Robert FultonRegular steamboat service on the Hudson River1807
Samuel F.B. MorseTelegraph1836
Elias HoweSewing machine1844
Isaac SingerImproves and markets Howe's sewing machine1851
Cyrus FieldTransatlantic cable1866
Alexander Graham BellTelephone1876
Thomas EdisonPhonograph, first incandescent lightbulb1877, 1879
Nikola TeslaInduction electric motor1888
Rudolf DieselDiesel engine1892
Orville and Wilbur WrightFirst airplane1903
Henry FordModel T Ford, large-scale moving assembly line1908, 1913