The Most Important Inventions of the 19th Century

Innovations that Changed the World

Civil War was a historic event of such magnitude that it forever changed the way Americans thought about their history and divided the cultural understanding of the nation into two distinct periods: everything that came before the war, and everything that happened afterward. The Second Industrial Revolution (1865 to 1900) was another such watershed era that redefined not only the American way of life but life around the world. Inventions that relied on newly harnessed means of putting electricity, steel, and petroleum to use spurred the growth of railways and steamships, and transformed everything from farming to manufacturing. The 19th century was the age of machine tools—tools that made tools and machines that made parts for other machines, including interchangeable parts. The 19th century brought us the assembly line, speeding up the factory production of goods. It also gave birth to the notion of a professional scientist. In fact, the word "scientist" was first used in 1833 by William Whewell. Inventions including the telegraph, typewriter, and the telephone led to faster and wider means of communication. The following list (by no means exhaustive) chronicles some of the most important innovations that took shape in the 19th Century.

01
of 10

1800–1809

Man operating machine punching cards for Jacquard looms, 1844.
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The first 10 years the 19th century may not have been the most fertile for new technology but the impending Second Industrial Revolution would follow soon enough. Here are some of that decade's most important innovations:

  • 1800—French silk weaver J.M. Jacquard invents the Jacquard loom.
  • 1800Count Alessandro Volta invents the battery.
  • 1804—Friedrich Winzer (Frederick Albert Winsor) patented coal-gas.
  • 1804—English mining engineer Richard Trevithick develops a steam-powered locomotive but is unable to produce a viable prototype.
  • 1809Humphry Davy invents the arc lamp, the first electric light.
  • 1810—German Frederick Koenig invents an improved printing press.
02
of 10

1810-1819

Steam locomotive of 0-4-2 wheel arrangement, by George (1781-1848) and Robert Stephenson (1803-1853), built for Cambrian Railways, UK, engraving
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  • 1810—Peter Durand invents the tin can.
  • 1814—The first successful steam locomotive, designed by George Stephenson, makes its debut.
  • 1814—Joseph von Fraunhofer invents the spectroscope for use in the chemical analysis of glowing objects.
  • 1814—Using a camera obscura, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph. The process takes eight hours.
  • 1815—Humphry Davy invents the miner's lamp.
  • 1816René Laënnec invents the stethoscope.
  • 1819—Samuel Fahnestock patents the soda fountain.
03
of 10

1820—1829

Engraving of the Williams Typewriter by E. Poyet
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  • 1823—Charles Mackintosh invents his eponymous raincoat (a.k.a. "the Mac") in Scotland.
  • 1824—Professor Michael Faraday invents the toy balloons.
  • 1824—Joseph Aspdin takes out an English patent for Portland cement.
  • 1825William Sturgeon invents the electromagnet.
  • 1827—John Walker invents modern-day matches.
  • 1827Charles Wheatstone invents the microphone.
  • 1829—W.A. Burt invents the typographer, the precursor to the typewriter.
  • 1829—Louis Braille develops his eponymous method of raised printing to be read by the blind.​​​​
04
of 10

1830—1839

Colt Frontier revolver, invented by Samuel Colt (1814-62), c1850.
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  • 1830—Frenchman Barthelemy Thimonnier invents a rudimentary sewing machine.
  • 1831—Cyrus H. McCormick invents the first commercially viable reaper.
  • 1831—Michael Faraday invents the electric dynamo. 
  • 1834—Henry Blair, the second African American to receive a U.S. patent, invents the corn planter.
  • 1834Jacob Perkins invents and ether ice machine, a precursor to the modern refrigerator.
  • 1835—Solymon Merrick patents the wrench.
  • 1835Charles Babbage invents a mechanical calculator. 
  • 1836—Francis Pettit Smith and John Ericcson team up to invent the propellor.
  • 1836—Samuel Colt invents the first revolver.
  • 1837Samuel Morse invents the telegraph. (Morse code arrives the following year.)
  • 1837—English schoolmaster, Rowland Hill invents the postage stamp.
  • 1839—Thaddeus Fairbanks invents platform scales.
  • 1839Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber.
  • 1839Louis Daguerre invents the daguerreotype.
05
of 10

1840—1849

Howe's Sewing Machine, by Thomas, 1866.
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  • 1840—Englishmen John Herschel invents the blueprint.
  • 1841—Samuel Slocum patents the stapler.
  • 1844—Englishman John Mercer invents a process to increase the tensile strength and affinity for dyes in cotton thread.
  • 1845Elias Howe invents the modern sewing machine.
  • 1845—Robert William Thomson patents pneumatic tires made of vulcanized rubber.
  • 1845—Massachusetts dentist Dr. William Morton is the first to use anesthesia for a tooth extraction.
  • 1847—Hungarian Ignaz Semmelweis invents antiseptics.
  • 1848—Waldo Hanchett patents the dentist's chair.
  • 1849—Walter Hunt invents the safety pin.
06
of 10

1850—1859

Isaac Merrit Singer's first sewing machine, patented in 1851 (1880).
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  • 1851Isaac Singer invents his eponymous sewing machine, and four years later, patents a sewing machine motor.
  • 1852Jean Bernard Léon Foucault invents the gyroscope, crucial to the development of navigation systems, automatic pilots, and stabilizers.
  • 1854—John Tyndall demonstrates the principles of fiber optics.
  • 1856—Health science pioneer Louis Pasteur develops the process of pasteurization.
  • 1857George Pullman invents his eponymous sleeping car for trains.
  • 1858—Hamilton Smith patents a rotary washing machine.
  • 1858—Jean Joseph Étienne Lenoir invents a double-acting, electric spark-ignition internal combustion automobile engine fueled by coal gas, which he patents two years later. 
07
of 10

1860—1869

Gatling rapid fire gun, 1870. Artist: Anon
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  • 1861—Elisha Graves Otis patents elevator safety brakes, creating a safer elevator.
  • 1861—Linus Yale invents his eponymous cylinder lock.
  • 1862Richard Gatling patents his machine gun.
  • 1862—Alexander Parkes creates the first man-made plastic.
  • 1866—J. Osterhoudt patents a tin can with a key opener.
  • 1866—Englishmen Robert Whitehead invents the torpedo. 
  • 1867Alfred Nobel patents dynamite.
  • 1867—Christopher Scholes invents the prototype for the modern typewriter.
  • 1868—George Westinghouse invents air brakes.
  • 1868—Robert Mushet invents tungsten steel.
  • 1868—J.P. Knight invents the traffic light.
08
of 10

1870—1879

Early Phonograph
Hulton Archive / Getty Images
  • 1872—A.M. Ward creates the first mail-order catalog.
  • 1873—Joseph Glidden invents barbed wire.
  • 1876Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone.
  • 1876—Nicolaus August Otto invents the first practical four-stroke internal combustion engine.
  • 1876—Melville Bissell patents the carpet sweeper.
  • 1878Thomas Edison invents the cylinder phonograph (known then as the tin foil phonograph).
  • 1878Eadweard Muybridge invents moving pictures. 
  • 1878—Sir Joseph Wilson Swan invents the prototype for a practical electric lightbulb. 
  • 1879—Thomas Edison invents the first commercially viable incandescent electric light bulb.
09
of 10

1880—1889

Three-wheeled Benz motor car, 1886.
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  • 1880—The British Perforated Paper Company debuts toilet paper.
  • 1880—English inventor John Milne creates the modern seismograph.
  • 1881—David Houston patents camera film in roll format.
  • 1884—Lewis Edson Waterman invents the first practical fountain pen.
  • 1884—L. A. Thompson built and opened the first roller coaster in the United States at a site on Coney Island, New York.
  • 1884—James Ritty invents a functional mechanical cash register.
  • 1884—Charles Parson patents the steam turbine.
  • 1885Karl Benz invents the first practical automobile powered by an internal-combustion engine. 
  • 1885—Gottlieb Daimler invents the first gas-engine motorcycle. 
  • 1886—John Pemberton introduces Coca-Cola.
  • 1886—Gottlieb Daimler designs and builds the world's first four-wheeled automobile.
  • 1887Heinrich Hertz invents radar.
  • 1887Emile Berliner invents the gramophone. 
  • 1887—F.E. Muller and Adolph Fick invent the first wearable contact lenses.
  • 1888Nikola Tesla invents the alternating current motor and transformer.
10
of 10

1890—1899

Escalator at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company's Cortland Street Station, New York, 1893.
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  • 1891—Jesse W. Reno invents the escalator.
  • 1892Rudolf Diesel invents the diesel-fueled internal combustion engine, which he patents six years later.
  • 1892—Sir James Dewar invents the Dewar vacuum flask.
  • 1893—W.L. Judson invents the zipper.
  • 1895—Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière invent a portable motion-picture camera that doubles as a film-processing unit and projector. The invention is called the Cinematographe and using it, the Lumières project the motion picture for an audience.
  • 1899—J.S. Thurman patents the motor-driven vacuum cleaner.

19th-Century Roots, 21st-Century Technology

Everyday things consumers took for granted by the 20th century—the light bulb, telephones, typewriters, sewing machines, and phonographs—were all products of the 19th century. Even as we embrace the 21st-century technology that has rendered some of these marvels obsolete, while we might not know the names of the 19th-century inventors who created the precursors to computers, smartphones, and streaming media, more than a century after their inventions first saw the light of day their ideas live on, continuing to inspire current and future generations of inventors, scientists, and innovators.