The second industrial revolution, which lasted from the late 19th century to the early 20th century, brought with it a deluge of new technologies and inventions that led to dramatic changes in the economy and the way people in Europe, Britain and lived and worked in the United States in particular.
Steel mills, chemical plants, and giant factories pumped out huge amounts of consumer goods, electric light, and power, and new forms of transportation and communication connected people more than ever. Mechanized agricultural implements transformed the way we produce food and turned agriculture into a large industry.
It was also a time when innovators dared to dream big and take big risks, either developing new inventions or finding ways to make existing products more efficient. As a result, some made enormous fortunes.
“One of the reasons for this period of ingenuity in the 1870s and 1920s was the increasing complexity and interdependence of production processes, which enabled designers and engineers to identify key bottlenecks and inefficiency points that slowed or blocked progress,” explains Philip Scranton , Professor Emeritus of Industrial and Technology History at Rutgers University and author of Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925. “Successfully addressing these challenges could lead to patents, profits and serious incentives for a solution.”
Here are eight major inventions from the second industrial revolution.
The air brake
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Trains were invented before the second industrial revolution, but accidents were frequent because slowing down and stopping was a cumbersome process. Then came George Westinghouse, a largely self-taught engineer who dropped out of college after three months because he was too busy inventing things. In 1872 he was granted a patent for a sophisticated system that used air pressure to keep the train brakes off. When the train engineer reduced the pressure, the brakes slowed the wheels and the train stopped precisely. Westinghouse air brakes have helped enable the rapid growth of railroads as a safe and reliable means of moving people and goods across the country.
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The light bulb
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Thomas Edison, perhaps the most famous inventor in American history, created many of his numerous innovations during the second industrial revolution, from the phonograph to the film camera to the alkaline storage battery. But perhaps his most influential breakthrough was his invention and marketing of the first lightbulb that was durable and practical for widespread use.
Edison came up with the idea of sticking a carbonized bamboo filament in a vacuum bulb and then heating it to create light. He kept tinkering with his creation and eventually improved his lightbulbs so much that they could last 1,200 hours. Edison’s “electric lamp,” which he patented in January 1880, lit homes and businesses across the country and helped create an indoor culture that defined its days by the clock rather than sunrise and sunset.
READ MORE: When Thomas Edison turned night into day
In the early 1900s, William Burton, chemist and executive with Standard Oil Co. of Indiana, developed a process in which crude oil was placed in a container and heated until it reached a temperature of over 700 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature the oil broke down into simpler, more useful by-products. Burton “gave us a number of distillates ranging from heating oil to gasoline to petrochemical basics,” explains Scranton. “No cracks, no highways.”
The QWERTZ typewriter keyboard
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Like many modern inventions, the typewriter was not the result of a single genius, but was gradually developed by a number of visionaries from the middle of the 18th century. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first really practical typewriters were put on sale. In 1878, the writing visionary Christopher Latham Sholes, a former journalist and customs inspector, came up with the idea of equipping a typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard, the arrangement of the letters should slow the typists’ fingers slightly and prevent the typewriters from jamming.
The QWERTY keyboard prevailed against other key layouts and became the popular system of choice. Mark Twain used the system to write his 1883 novel Life on the Mississippi, possibly the first literary work composed on a typewriter.
READ MORE: How the Second Industrial Revolution Changed People’s Lives
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The Chicago Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, was the first modern metal-framed skyscraper that allowed for a taller building without the enormous weight of traditional masonry. Engineer and architect William Le Baron Jenney created the design using steel I-beams that were rolled at Carnegie Mill in Pittsburgh.
It was the first use of steel in a building in the United States and marked the beginning of an age when tall office buildings and office towers would emerge in urban downtown areas across the country. This shift changed the appearance of cities dramatically, making it possible for a much larger number of people to live and work in them.
READ MORE: 10 Surprising Facts About The Empire State Building
Before the advent of mechanized agriculture, farmers had to use part of their acreage for grain production to feed horses and mules, as these animals helped them cultivate the land. Farmers were already using steam powered machines by the 1890s, but the machines were awkward and dangerous as a spark from the boiler could set a field on fire.
But an Iowa inventor named John Froelich came up with a solution. With the help of his mechanic Will Mann, Froelich replaced the steam apparatus with a gasoline-powered single-cylinder engine. After trying the modified machine in the great fields of South Dakota, he showed it to some of Iowa businessmen who started the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. It took business a while to get going, but by 1914 the Waterloo Boy Tractor Model R was a best seller, according to the Froelich Tractor Museum. Gas-powered tractors were key to increasing agricultural productivity and enabling American farmers to feed a growing population.
Back when the only choice for men to shave was a straight razor that required regular sharpening with a strap, growing just a beard was safer and more convenient.
But in 1895 a traveling salesman named King Gillette came up with the idea of a razor with a handle that used a tiny, disposable metal blade that could be thrown away in the trash and replaced when it eventually got boring. Initially, metallurgists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told him the idea wouldn’t work, but eventually he found a same university-trained engineer, William Emery, who was able to make the blade. In 1901, Gillette and Nickerson founded the American Safety Razor Company, and Gillette was granted a patent for the disposable razor in 1904.
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The invention of the telegraph in 1844 made it possible for people to communicate instantly over long distances for the first time, but they were still limited by the need to install miles of wire to connect the transmitter and receiver.
From the mid-1890s, an Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi developed a better method – transmitting messages over radio waves. Marconi wasn’t very encouraged in his own country, so he moved to England and started a wireless telegraph company. By 1899, Marconi’s technology was able to send messages over the English Channel and from ships.
In 1901 he achieved another, even more spectacular, success when a wireless telegraph station in Cornwall, England successfully transmitted a message across the Atlantic to another of its stations in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Marconi’s breakthrough marked the beginning of global communication, which resulted in the modern world’s cell phones and internet connecting billions of people.
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