Most Important Inventions of the 19th Century

The Civil War defined the 19th century in the United States and was a seminal historic event. After the war, the inventions of usable electricity, steel, and petroleum products led to a second industrial revolution from 1865 to 1900 that featured the growth of railways and steamships, faster and wider means of communication, and inventions that are taken for granted in modern life—the light bulb, telephone, typewriter, sewing machine, and phonograph all came of age during the 19th century. Try to imagine life without these things. The inventors of many of these products are household names more than a century after they did their work.

The 19th century was the age of machine tools—tools that made tools—machines that made parts for other machines, including interchangeable parts. The assembly line was invented during the 19th century, speeding up the factory production of consumer goods. The 19th century also gave birth to the professional scientist; the word "scientist" was first used in 1833 by William Whewell. 

of 10


Man operating machine punching cards for Jacquard looms, 1844.
Print Collector/Getty Images/Getty Images

The 19th century started out a bit slowly, with the first decade seeing the invention of the Jacquard loom, the battery, and gas lighting. The inventor of the battery, ​Count Alessandro Volta, gave his name to the way battery power is measured—volts.

of 10


Steam locomotive of 0-4-2 wheel arrangement, by George (1781-1848) and Robert Stephenson (1803-1853), built for Cambrian Railways, UK, engraving
De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

A small but important invention started off the decade of the teens—the tin can. Things got bigger after that, with the invention of the steam locomotive in 1814, which would make a major impact on travel and commerce throughout the rest of the century and beyond. The first photograph was taken by the camera obscura, which was set in a window. It took eight hours to take a photo. The soda fountain, a favorite for all, made its debut at the end of this decade, along with the stethoscope.

of 10


Engraving of the Williams Typewriter by E. Poyet
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The Mackintosh, also known as the raincoat, was invented in a place where it was constantly needed—Scotland—and named after its inventor, Charles Mackintosh. This decade produced lots more inventions: toy balloons, matches, Portland cement, and the electromagnet. The typewriter made its debut at the end of the decade, along with Braille printing for the blind, named after its inventor, Louis Braille.​​​​

of 10


Colt Frontier revolver, invented by Samuel Colt (1814-62), c1850.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

The 1830s saw the invention of one of the most important items of the century: the sewing machine, this one by Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier. Also of great importance to agriculture and commerce were the reaper and the corn planter.

Samuel Morse invented the telegraph and Morse code, Samuel Colt made the first revolver, and Charles Goodyear invented rubber vulcanization.

There's more: Bicycles, Daguerreotype photography, propellors, wrenches, postage stamps, and platform scales all made their first appearance in the 1830s.

of 10


Howe's Sewing Machine, by Thomas, 1866.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

Elias Howe was the first American to invent a sewing machine in this decade, which also saw the first vulcanized rubber pneumatic tire, the first grain elevator, and the first stapler. Anesthesia and antiseptics date to this decade, as does the first dentist's chair.

of 10


Isaac Merrit Singer's first sewing machine, patented in 1851 (1880).
Print Collector / Contributor/Getty Images

Isaac Singer invented another sewing machine in this decade, and this would be the one that would become a household name in the years to come. A second major invention: the Pullman train sleeping car, named after its inventor, George Pullman. Louis Pasteur developed pasteurization, a momentous scientific advance.

of 10


Gatling rapid fire gun, 1870. Artist: Anon
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

In the 1860s the United States was engulfed in the Civil War, but inventions and advances continued apace. In this decade of war Richard Gatling patented his machine gun, named after him, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, and Robert Whitehead invented the torpedo.

George Westinghouse invented air brakes, and tungsten steel was first made.

of 10


Early Phonograph
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ward's Catalog made its first appearance in the 1870s, along with several major inventions: Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph and the lightbulb, and the first-ever movie was made.

of 10


Three-wheeled Benz motor car, 1886.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

 In the 1880s, there were hints of things to come in the early 20th century: Karl Benz invented the first car that was powered by an internal combustion engine, and Gottlieb Daimler made the first motorcycle with a gasoline engine.

Photographic film, rayon, fountain pens, cash registers and yes, toilet paper, were invented in the 1880s.

In the treat department, one of the greatest inventions of all time: John Pemberton debuted Coca-Cola in 1886.

of 10


Escalator at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's Cortland Street Station, New York, 1893.
Print Collector/Getty Images / Getty Images

The last decade of the 19th century witnessed the invention of the escalator, the zipper, the Dewar (vacuum) flask, the motor-driven vacuum cleaner, and the roller coaster.

Rudolf Diesel invented, yes, the diesel engine, and in 1895 a motion picture was shown to an audience of more than one person for the first time.