3 Key Elements of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S.

Transportation, Industry, and Electrification Transformed the Nation

Clermont steamship
Clermont, the first steam ship, designed by Robert Fulton, 1807. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The Industrial Revolution in the U.S. transformed the nation during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The technological advancements made during this period changed lives, made vast fortunes, and positioned the nation for its rise to global superpower.

What is the Industrial Revolution?

There were actually two Industrial Revolutions. The first occurred in Great Britain in the mid 17th and early 18th centuries as that nation became an economic and colonial powerhouse.

The second Industrial Revolution occurred in the U.S. at the turn of the next century. 

Britain's Industrial Revolution saw the emergence of water, steam, and coal as abundant sources of power, helping the U.K. dominate the global textile market during this era. Other advancements in chemistry, manufacturing, and transportation helped Britain become the world's first modern superpower, and its colonial empire ensured its many technological innovations spread.

The Industrial Revolution in the U.S. began in the years and decades following the end of the Civil War. As the nation rebuilt its bonds, American entrepreneurs were building on the advancements made in Britain. In the coming years, new forms of transportation, innovations in industry, and the emergence of electricity would transform the nation as the U.K. had in an earlier era.

Transportation

The nation's westward expansion in the 1800s was aided in no small part by its vast network of rivers and lakes.

In the early decades of the century, the Erie Canal created a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes thereby helping stimulate the economy of New York and making New York City a great trading center. 

Meanwhile, the great river and lake cities of the Midwest were thriving thanks to the reliable transportation afforded by the steamboat.

Road transit was also beginning to link parts of the country together. The Cumberland Road, the first national road, was begun in 1811. This eventually became part of the Interstate 40. 

Railroads were of supreme importance to the increase in trade throughout the United States. By the start of the Civil War, railroads already linked the most important Midwest cities with the Atlantic coast, fueling that region's industrial growth. With the advent of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 at Promontory, Utah, and the standardization of rail gauges in the 1880s, the railroad quickly became the dominant form of transit for both people and goods.

It became a virtuous cycle; as the nation expanded, so too did the railroads (with plenty of government subsidies). By 1916, there would be more than 230,000 miles of rails in the U.S., and passenger traffic would continue to grow until the end of World War II when two newer transit innovations gained dominance and would fuel new economic and industrial changes: the car and the airplane.

Electrification

Another network--the electrical network--would transform the nation even more rapidly than railroads had. Notable experiments with electricity in the U.S. go back to Ben Franklin and the colonial era.

At the same time, Michael Faraday in the U.K. was studying electromagnetism, which would lay the foundation for modern electrical motors. 

But it was Thomas Edison who really gave light to the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. Building on work done primarily by a British inventor, Edison patented the world's first practical incandescent light bulb in 1879. He quickly began promoting the development of an electrical grid in New York City to power his invention.

But Edison relied on direct-current (DC) power transmission, which couldn't send electricity over anything but short distances. Alternating-current (AC) transmission was far more efficient and was favored by European innovators working at the same time. George Westinghouse, Edison's business rival, modified, improved on the existing AC transformer technology and established a rival electrical network.

Aided by innovations developed by Nikola Tesla, Westinghouse would eventually best Edison. By the early 1890s, AC had become the dominant means of power transmission. As with railroads, industry standardization allowed electrical networks to spread rapidly, first among urban areas and later into less populated regions. 

These electrical lines did more than just power light bulbs, which allowed people to work in the dark. It also powered the light and heavy machinery of the nation's factories, further fueling the nation's economic expansion into the 20th century.

Industrial Improvements

With the great advances of the Industrial Revolution, inventors continued to work throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th century on ways to make life easier while increasing productivity. By the end of the Civil War, innovations such as the cotton gin, the sewing machine, the reaper and the steel plow had already transformed agriculture and textile manufacturing. 

Industry was transformed in the second Industrial Revolution by Henry Ford's pioneering use of the assembly line in the manufacturing process, which advanced on the development of another innovation, the automobile, first invented in 1885 by German Karl Benz. At the same time, public transit was exploding with electric streetcars aboveground and the first U.S. subway, in Boston, in 1897.

As the second Industrial Revolution advanced, metallurgists would develop alloys making steel (another 19th-century innovation) even stronger, allowing for the construction of the first skyscraper in 1885 in Chicago. The invention of the telegraph in 1844, the telephone in 1876, and the radio in 1895 would all have profound impacts on how the nation communicated, further enhancing its growth and expansion.

All of these innovations contributed to the urbanization of America as new industries lured people from farm to city. Labor would also change, particularly in the first decades of the 20th century, as workers gained new economic and political power with major unions like the American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886.

A Third Industrial Revolution?

It could be argued that we're in the midst of a third industrial revolution, particularly in the field of telecommunications. Television built on the advances of radio, while advances in the telephone would lead to the circuits that are in today's computers. Innovations in mobile tech in the early 21st century suggest the next revolution is just beginning.

Important Inventors, Inventions, and Events of the Industrial Revolution

Cotton and Cloth

In 1794, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin which made the separation of cotton seeds from fiber much faster. The South increased its cotton supply sending raw cotton north to be used in the manufacture of cloth. Francis C. Lowell increased the efficiency in the manufacture of cloth by bringing spinning and weaving processes together into one factory.

This led to the development of the textile industry throughout New England.

In 1846, Elias Howe created the sewing machine which revolutionized the manufacture of clothing. All of a sudden, clothing began to be made in factories as opposed to at home.

Interchangeable Parts

Eli Whitney came up with the idea to use interchangeable parts in 1798 to make muskets. If standard parts were made by machine, then they could be assembled at the end much more quickly than before. This became an important part of American industry and the Second Industrial Revolution.

From Agriculture to Cities

As industries and factories arose, people moved from farms to cities. This led to other issues including overcrowding and disease. However, advances were made in agriculture too including better machines and cultivators. For example, Cyrus McCormick created the reaper which allowed quicker and cheaper harvesting of grain.

John Deere created the first steel plow in 1837 helping speed up farming across the Midwest.

Communication and the Industrial Revolution

With the increased size of the United States, better communication networks became ultra important. In 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse created the telegraph and by 1860, this network ranged throughout the eastern coast to the Mississippi.

Transportation

The Cumberland Road, the first national road, was begun in 1811. This eventually became part of the Interstate 40. Further, river transportation was made efficient through the creation of the first steamboat, the Clermont, by Robert Fulton. This was made possible by James Watt’s invention of the first reliable steam engine.

The creation of the Erie Canal created a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes thereby helping stimulate the economy of New York and making New York City a great trading center.

Railroads were of supreme importance to the increase in trade throughout the United States. In fact, by the start of the Civil War, railroads linked the most important Mid West cities with the Atlantic coast. Railroads further opened the west and connected raw materials to factories and markets. A transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869 at Promontory, Utah.

With the great advances of the Industrial Revolution, inventors continued to work throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th century on ways to make life easier while increasing productivity. The foundations set throughout the mid-1800's set the stage for inventions such as the light bulb (Thomas Edison), telephone (Alexander Bell), and the automobile (Karl Benz).

Further, Ford's creation of the assembly line which made manufacturing more efficient just helped form America into a modern​ industrialized nation. The impact of these and other inventions of the time cannot be underestimated.