Inventors - Inventions & Inventors of the Nineteenth Century

A Timeline of Inventions and Inventors of the 19th Century

You lay your hands on something during the course of your busy day – a cookie when you’re starving but haven’t had time to eat, or a flashlight when the electricity cuts out due to a storm. But do you ever stop to wonder, “Who thought this up this little lifesaver in the first place?” 

If you’re like most of us, you probably don’t. Who has time? Here are some highlights of 19th century brainstorms that still help us out a lot today. 

In the Kitchen 

About that cookie – it it’s a Fig Newton, you can tip your hat to Charles M. Roser of Ohio. He concocted this goodie in 1891 and sold the recipe to Kennedy Biscuit Works, which would become Nabisco. Roser named the cookie after a town nearby to Kennedy Biscuit Works. 

George Washington Carver should take some credit for the peanut butter that’s provided so many sandwiches for your kids. He discovered 300 uses for peanuts by 1880, butter being just one of them. 

Marvin Stone came up with drinking straws in 1888. By 1890, his factory was making more straws than cigarette holders. 

You can thank Josephine Cochrane for your dishwasher. Joel Houghton patented a wooden machine with a hand-turned wheel that splashed water on dishes in 1850, but it was hardly a workable machine. Cochran reportedly tried out the contraption and proclaimed in disgust, "If nobody else is going to invent a dishwashing machine, I'll do it myself!" And she did, in 1886. She expected that the public would welcome her invention with open arms when she unveiled it at the 1893 World's Fair, but only hotels and large restaurants bought her idea. Dishwashers didn’t catch on with the general public until the 1950s. Cochran's machine was a hand-operated mechanical dishwasher. She founded a company to manufacture it which eventually became KitchenAid.

The best thing since sliced bread might be a toaster to brown it. The first electric toaster was invented in 1893 in Great Britain by Crompton and Company, and re-invented in 1909 in the U.S. It only toasted one side of the bread at a time and it required a person to stand by and manually turn it off when the toast looked done. Charles Strite invented the modern timed, pop-up toaster in 1919.

In the Workplace 

Johan Vaaler, a Norwegian, invented the paperclip in 1899. This was a small achievement compared to the fax machine. Inventor Alexander Bain beat the paperclip with his first fax by almost 60 years. He received a British patent for his invention in 1843. 

James Ritty, along with John Birch, invented what was nicknamed the "Incorruptible Cashier" in 1884. It was the first working, mechanical cash register. His invention came with that familiar bell sound referred to in advertising as "the bell heard round the world.” 

Where Would We Be Without…

John Walker brought the power of Prometheus to our fingertips in 1827 when he invented matches, although phosphorous itself was actually discovered in 1669. Walker discovered that if he coated the end of a stick with certain chemicals and let them dry, he could start a fire by striking the stick anywhere.

Joshua Pusey invented the matchbook in 1889, calling it a “flexible.” The Diamond Match Company created a similar matchbook with the striker on the outside – Pusey’s was on the inside. The business ended up purchasing Pusey's patent. 

Walter Hunt invented the safety pin in 1849. Not to be outdone, Whitcomb Judson came up with the zipper in 1893 – except it wasn’t called a zipper at the time, but rather a “clasp locker.” 

As for that flashlight you grabbed when the lights went out, credit British inventor David Misell with that. He sold his patent rights to Eveready Battery Company. This happened in the later years of the 19th century and there was some dispute over whether he actually invented this common household device or if someone else beat him to it. 

Equipment and Industry 

Business and industry abounds with the need for “more, better and faster.” In the agricultural sector, Cyrus H. McCormick, a Chicago industrialist, invented the first commercially successful reaper in 1831. It was a horse-drawn machine intended to harvest wheat. Some 11 years later, the first grain elevator was built in Buffalo, New York by Joseph Dar, a Main Street retail merchant. 

Edward Goodrich Acheson invented carborundum in 1893, the hardest man-made surface ever and necessary to bring about the industrial age. In 1926, the U.S. Patent Office named carborundum as one of the 22 patents most responsible for the industrial age. According to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, "without carborundum, the mass production manufacturing of precision-ground, interchangeable metal parts would be practically impossible." Acheson went on to discover that carburundum produced an almost pure and perfected form of graphite that could be used as a lubricant when it was heated to a high temperature. He patented his graphite-making process in 1896.


A long list of inventors take credit for the discovery of fiber optics, but John Tyndall was the first to demonstrate to the Royal Society in England in 1854 that light could be conducted through a curved stream of water, proving that the light signal could be bent.

The seismograph was invented in 1880 by John Milne, an English seismologist and geologist. 

Alexander Graham Bell invented the first crude metal detector in 1881. Radar can be credited to a physicist named Heinrich Hertz who began experimenting with radio waves in his German laboratory in the late 1880s. 


The Pullman sleeping car for trains was invented by George Pullman in 1857. George Westinghouse further advanced the railroad industry with his invention of air brakes in 1868. Rudolf Diesel gets credit as the inventor of the first internal combustion engine in 1892. 

Honorable Mentions 

The first soda fountain was patented in 1819 by Samuel Fahnestock. 

The first rubber balloons were made by Professor Michael Faraday in 1824. No one intended them to amuse children back in those days – they were used in Faraday's experiments with hydrogen at the Royal Institution in London. Balloons were initially made from animal intestines. 

Samuel Morse developed telegraph wires and the Morse code, an electronic alphabet, and patented it in 1840. The first telegraph transmitted read "What hath God wrought!"

Thomas Edison invented the electric chair while he was in competition with Westinghouse in 1888.

In 1891, Jesse W. Reno created a new novelty ride at Coney Island that became known as the escalator.

The game of basketball was invented and named in 1891 by James Naismith

Edison’s kinetoscope, the precursor to the motion picture industry, was introduced in 1891 as well. 

Here’s a timeline of 19th century inventions for easy reference if you want to know more.