Overview of the Second Industrial Revolution

Old engraved illustration of Manufacture of Steel by Bessemer's Process.
Old engraved illustration of Manufacture of Steel by Bessemer's Process. Stock Photo/Getty Images

The Second Industrial Revolution was a period of groundbreaking advancements in manufacturing, technology, and industrial production methods, particularly in the United States, from around 1870 to 1914. Developments such as steel, electricity, increased mass production, and the building of a nationwide railroad network enabled the growth of sprawling cities. This historic boost in factory output, coupled with the invention of technological marvels such as the telegraph, the telephone, the automobile, and the radio would forever change how Americans lived and worked.

Key Takeaways: Second Industrial Revolution

  • The Second Industrial Revolution was as period of tremendous economic, industrial, and technological advancement taking place between the end of the American Civil War and the start of World War I.
  • Considered to have been triggered by the invention of the Bessemer process for the cost-effective production of steel and the associated expansion of the U.S. railroad system, the period resulted in an unprecedented increase in industrial production.
  • Advancements in factory workflow, such as mass production, electrification, and automation contributed to economic growth.
  • The Second Industrial Revolution also gave rise to the first workplace safety and work hours laws, including the prohibition of child labor. 

Factory Automation

While factory automation and productivity had been improved by the limited use of First Industrial Revolution inventions such as the steam engine, interchangeable parts, the assembly line, and mass production, most late 19th century factories were still water-powered. During the c, newly developed resources like steel, petroleum, and railroads, along with the superior new power source of electricity, allowed factories to increase production to unheard-of levels. Combined with these, the development of machines controlled by rudimentary computers, gave rise to automated production. By the late 1940s, many of the assembly line factories of the First Industrial Revolution quickly evolved into fully automated factories.


Invented in 1856 by Sir Henry Bessemer, the Bessemer process allowed for the mass-production of steel. Stronger and cheaper to produce, steel soon replaced iron in the building industry. By making it cost-effective to build new rail lines, steel enabled the rapid expansion of America’s railroad network. It also made it possible to build larger ships, skyscrapers, and longer, stronger bridges.

In 1865, the open-hearth process enabled the production of steel cable, rods, plates, gears, and axels used to build the higher-pressure steam boilers needed for more powerful factory engines. With World War I on the horizon by 1912, steel made it possible to build larger, stronger, and more powerful warships, tanks, and guns.


Thomas Edison stands with big bulb.
Noted inventor Thomas Edison at the lightbulb's golden jubilee anniversary banquet in his honor, Orange, New Jersey, October 16, 1929. He is exhibiting in his hand a replica of his first successful incandescent lamp which gave 16 candlepower of illumination, in contrast to the latest lamp, a 50,000 watt, 150,000 candlepower lamp. Underwood Archives/Getty Images

In 1879, famed American inventor Thomas Edison perfected his design for a practical electric lightbulb. By the late 1880s, the first efficient commercial electrical generators made large-scale transmission of electrical power to the public possible. Called “the most important engineering achievement of the 20th century” by the National Academy of Engineering, electric lighting greatly improved working conditions and productivity in factories. By replacing the fire hazards of gaslighting, the initial cost of converting to electric lighting was quickly offset by reduced fire insurance premiums. In 1886, the first DC (direct current) electric motor was developed, and by 1920, it powered passenger railways in many cities.

Development of Railroads

Much of the explosion of economic production in America during the Second Industrial Revolution has been attributed to the expansion of the railroads.

By the 1860s, the increased availability and lower cost of Bessemer process steel finally allowed the railroads to utilize it in quantity. Early U.S. railroads had used wrought iron rails imported from Britain. However, being soft and often full of impurities, iron rails could not support heavy locomotives and required frequent repair and replacement. As a far more durable and readily available material, steel soon replaced iron as the standard for railroad rails. Not only did the longer sections of steel rails allow for tracks to be laid far faster, more powerful locomotives, which could pull longer trains, which greatly increased the productivity of the railroads.

First used to report the current location of trains, the telegraph further facilitated the growth of the railroads, as well as financial and commodity markets by reducing the cost of transmitting information within and between firms.

During the 1880s, America’s railroads laid more than 75,000 miles of new track, the most anywhere in history. Between 1865 and 1916, the transcontinental network of railroads, America’s “magic carpet made of steel,” expanded from 35,000 miles to over 254,000 miles. By 1920, rail had become the dominant means of transportation, resulting in a steady decrease in the cost of shipping lasting throughout the rest of the century. The railroad soon became the main way by which companies transported raw materials to their factories and delivered final products to consumers.

Social and Economic Shifts

Within just a few decades, the Second Industrial Revolution transformed the United States from a mainly rural agricultural society to a booming industrial economy centered in major cities. Since rural areas were now connected to large urban markets by a well-developed transportation network, unavoidable crop failures no longer doomed them to poverty. At the same time, however, industrialization and urbanization drastically reduced the share of the population engaged in agriculture.

Between 1870 and 1900, almost all industrialized nations enjoyed booming economies that led to dramatically lower consumer prices, resulting in greatly improved living conditions.    

While it was a period of unprecedented progress and innovation that propelled some people into vast wealth, it also condemned many to poverty, creating a deep social chasm between the industrial machine and the working middle class that fueled it.

Thanks to the development of sewage systems in cities along with the passage of drinking water safety laws, public health improved greatly and rates of death from infectious diseases fell. However, the overall health of the working class declined due to the many hours spent toiling in the harsh and unhealthy conditions of the factories.

For working-class families, prosperity was often followed by poverty as the availability of work rose and fell depending on the demand for goods. As mechanism reduced the demand for labor, many people who had first been drawn from farms to cities to work in the factories lost their jobs. No longer able to compete with the lower cost of mass-produced goods, many artisans and craftsmen lost their livelihoods.

Between the Civil War and WWI, over 25 million people from Europe, as well as Russia and Asia, immigrated to the United States drawn by the prospect of well-paid factory jobs. By 1900, the U.S. Census revealed that 25% of the American population was foreign-born.

Child Labor

Perhaps the most tragic negative aspect of the Second Industrial Revolution was the growth of unregulated child labor. To help their impoverished families, children, often as young as four years old, were forced to work long hours for little pay in factories under unhealthy and unsafe conditions. By 1900, an estimated 1.7 million children under the age of fifteen were working in American factories.

Child Laborers Stripping Tobacco In New York 1873.
Child Laborers Stripping Tobacco In New York 1873. Stock Photo/Getty Images

The practice of child labor remained common until 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) imposed the first nationwide compulsory federal regulation of wages and working hours. Sponsored by Sen. Robert F. Wagner of New York and signed by its ardent supporter, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the FSLA prohibited the employment of minors in “oppressive child labor,” established a mandatory minimum wage, and limited the number of hours employees should work. 

Company Ownership

The basic model of ownership of industry also underwent a major “innovation” during the Second Industrial Revolution. The oligarchical ownership of companies, if not entire industries by wealthy individual “business magnates” that had dominated during the original Industrial Revolution in the early to mid-19th century was slowly replaced by today’s model of wider public distribution of ownership through the sale of stock to individual investors and institutions such as banks and insurance companies.

The trend began during the first half of the 20th century when several European countries chose to convert basic sectors of their economies to collective or common ownership, a common characteristic of socialism. Beginning in the 1980s this trend toward economic socialization was reversed in the United States and the United Kingdom.


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Longley, Robert. "Overview of the Second Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 26, 2021, thoughtco.com/second-industrial-revolution-overview-5180514. Longley, Robert. (2021, April 26). Overview of the Second Industrial Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/second-industrial-revolution-overview-5180514 Longley, Robert. "Overview of the Second Industrial Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/second-industrial-revolution-overview-5180514 (accessed May 8, 2021).