Significant Eras of the American Industrial Revolution

Transportation, Industry, and Electrification Transformed the Nation

The milling workshop in the Creusot factory, France, illustration of Dietrich from LIndustria, Rivista tecnica ed economica illustrata, Milan, 1890

 De Agostini / Icas94/Getty Images

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. beginning in the mid-1800s, transforming and positioning America for its rise to a global superpower. 

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 ensured Britain became the world's first modern superpower, and its colonial empire allowed its many technological innovations to spread around the world.

The American Industrial Revolution began in the years and decades following the end of the Civil War. As the nation re-solidified 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 in much the same way the U.K. had transformed in an earlier era.

The Colonial Era: Cotton Gin, Interchangeable Parts, and Electricity

Cotton gin

 Tom Murphy VII/Wikimedia Commons

Although the American Industrial Revolution wouldn't take full effect until the middle of the 1800s, one colonial innovator did make his mark upon the young nation. 

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 cloth manufacture by bringing the spinning and weaving processes together into one factory. This led to the development of the textile industry throughout New England. 

Whitney also 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. This became an important element of American industry and the second Industrial Revolution.

Another innovator and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, was busy experimenting with electricity during this era, which resulted in the invention of the lightning rod. At the same time, Michael Faraday in the U.K. was studying electromagnetism, which would lay the foundation for modern electrical motors. 

1800-1820: Transportation and Expansion

River Lock along the Mohawk River/Erie Canal in central NY State.

 jerryhopman/Getty Images

The young U.S. wasted no time expanding westward following independence. 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 and eventually became part of Interstate 40. 

1820-1850: The Rise of the Middle Class

Cargo train platform with freight train container at depot use for Import,

 Prasit photo/Getty Images

As western cities began to spring up along major water networks, industry also grew. The first freight railroads began appearing in the mid-1820s along the Erie Canal and other industrial centers. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad began offering regular passenger service in 1830.

The invention of the telegraph in 1844 would also transform the nation as news and information could now be shared within seconds. As the rail system grew, telegraph lines inevitably followed, with relay offices in train stations along major routes. 

As industry expanded, the middle class began to grow. For the first time, a critical mass of Americans had disposable income and some leisure time thanks to early industrialization. This gave rise to new machines that for both factory and home. In 1846, Elias Howe created the sewing machine which revolutionized clothing manufacture. Factories could achieve new levels of output, while housewives could create clothes for the family in far less time.

1850-1870: Impact of the Civil War

Manassas Cannons

Brian W. Downs/Getty Images

By the start of the Civil War, railroads were of supreme importance to increased trade throughout the United States. Lines linked the most important Midwestern cities with the Atlantic coast, fueling the Midwest'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 for the rest of the 19th century.

The Civil War transformed other technologies. Photography, first invented about 1830, had become sophisticated enough that horse-drawn mobile darkrooms and semi-portable cameras made documenting the war possible by photographers such as Matthew Brady. These images were reproduced as engravings in newspapers large and small, which along with the telegraph allowed the news of the nation to spread easily across long distances. Medicine also advanced as doctors devised new means of treating trauma and the first anesthetics were used.

Another discovery, this one in 1859, would have consequences not just for the Civil War, but the nation beyond. That discovery was oil in Titusville, Pa., the first major deposits located in the U.S. Pennsylvania would soon become the center for the nation's oil drilling and refining industry.

1870-1890: Electricity, Telephones, Steel, and Labor

Inventor Thomas Edison (1847-1931) in his laboratory

 De Agostini / Biblioteca Ambrosiana/Getty Images

As the nation rebuilt in the decades after the Civil War, the electrical network would transform the nation even more rapidly than railroads had. Building on work done primarily by a British inventor, Thomas 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. George Westinghouse, Edison's business rival, promoted alternating-current (AC) transmission transformer technology and established a rival electrical network.

Often, the same poles supporting the new electrical lines would also support lines for another new invention, the telephone. That device, pioneered by a number of inventors including Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, was unveiled in 1876, the same year the U.S. celebrated its 100th birthday.

All of these innovations contributed to urbanization as new industries lured people from farm to city. As the American Industrial Revolution advanced, metallurgists would develop alloys making steel (another 19th-century innovation) even stronger, allowing for construction of the first skyscraper in 1885 in Chicago.  

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.

1890 and Beyond: Assembly Line, Mass Transit, and the Radio

1900s INTERSECTION OF FAIR...

American Stock/ClassicStock/Getty Images 

Aided by innovations developed by Nikola Tesla, George Westinghouse would eventually best Thomas 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 lightbulbs, 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. 

American Industry was transformed again 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.

Mass communication would change again with the invention of the radio in 1895. It would have profound impacts on how the nation communicated, further enhancing its growth and expansion.

American Industrial Revolution Key Takeaways

Interior of the Mueller textile factory (today an industrial museum),

De Agostini / S. Vannini/Getty Images 

By the end of World War I, the American Industrial Revolution had utterly transformed the nation. Growth fueled development in a virtuous cycle as the nation expanded. 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.

It could be argued that we're in the midst of a new Industrial Revolution today, 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 that the next revolution may just be starting.

Sources: