The Second Industrial Revolution, which lasted from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, saw a surge of new technology and inventions that led to dramatic changes in the economy and how people lived and worked in Europe, Great Britain and especially the United States.
Steel mills, chemical plants and massive factories pumped out vast quantities of consumer goods, electric light and power advanced and new forms of transportation and communication connected people more than ever before. Mechanized farm equipment changed how food was produced, and transformed agriculture into a big industry.
It also was a period when innovators dared to dream big and take great risks, either by devising new inventions or finding ways to make existing products more efficiently. As a result, some made enormous fortunes.
“One of the reasons for this period of great inventiveness from the 1870s-1920s, was the growing complexity and interdependence of production processes, which allowed designers and engineers to identify key bottlenecks and points of inefficiency that slowed or blocked progress,” explains Philip Scranton, emeritus professor of the history of industry and technology at Rutgers University, and author of Endless Novelty: Specialty Production and American Industrialization, 1865-1925. “Tackling those challenges successfully could yield patents and profits, serious incentives for taking a shot at a solution.”
Here are eight significant inventions from the Second Industrial Revolution.
The Air Brake
Trains were invented before the Second Industrial Revolution, but there were frequent accidents because slowing and stopping them 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 obtained a patent for an ingenious system that used air pressure to keep train brakes off; when the train’s engineer reduced the pressure, the brakes slowed the wheels and the train came to a precise stop. Westinghouse’s air brakes helped make possible the rapid growth of railroads as a safe, reliable means to transport people and goods across the country.
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The Light Bulb
Thomas Edison, perhaps the most famous inventor in American history, created many of his numerous innovations, from the phonograph and the movie camera to the alkaline storage battery, during the Second Industrial Revolution. But perhaps his most influential breakthrough was his invention and marketing of the first incandescent light bulb that was long-lasting and practical for wide use.
Edison came up with the idea of putting a carbonized bamboo filament inside a vacuum bulb, and then heating it to produce light. He kept tinkering with his creation and eventually improved his bulbs so much that they could last for 1,200 hours. Edison’s “electric lamp,” for which he obtained a patent in January 1880, illuminated homes and businesses across the nation, and helped create an indoor culture that defined its days by the clock rather than by sunrise and sundown.
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In the early 1900s, William Burton, a chemist and executive for the Standard Oil Co. in Indiana, developed a process in which crude oil was placed inside 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 byproducts. Burton “gave us the array of distillates that runs from fuel oil to gasoline to petrochemical basics,” explains Scranton. “No cracking, no interstate highways.”
The QWERTY Typewriter Keyboard
Like many modern inventions, the typewriter wasn’t the result of a single genius, but was gradually developed by a succession of visionaries starting in the mid-1700s. But it wasn’t until the 1870s that the first really practical typewriters went on sale. In 1878, typing visionary Christopher Latham Sholes, a former journalist and customs inspector, came up with the idea of equipping a typewriter with a QWERTY keyboard, whose arrangement of letters was designed to slow typists’ fingers slightly and prevent typewriters from jamming.
The QWERTY keyboard triumphed over other arrangements of keys, and became the popular system of choice. Mark Twain used the system to type his 1883 novel Life on the Mississippi, which may have been the first literary work composed on a typewriter.
Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, completed in 1885, was the first modern skyscraper with a metal frame, which allowed for a taller building without the enormous weight of traditional brickwork. Engineer and architect William Le Baron Jenney devised the design, which utilized steel I-beams rolled at the Carnegie mill in Pittsburgh.
It was the first use of steel in a building in the United States, and marked the start of an age in which tall office buildings and office towers would rise in urban downtowns across the nation. This shift dramatically altered the look of cities and made it possible for much larger numbers of people to live and work in them.
Before the advent of mechanized agriculture, farmers had to devote a portion of their acreage to raising grain to feed horses and mules since these animals helped them to work the land. By the 1890s, farmers were already using steam-powered machines, but the machines were cumbersome and dangerous, since a spark from the boiler could set fire to a field.
But an Iowa inventor named John Froelich devised a solution. With the help of his mechanic, Will Mann, Froelich replaced the steam apparatus with a single-cylinder gasoline-powered engine. After trying out the modified machine in South Dakota’s big fields, he showed it to some Iowa businessmen, who formed the Waterloo Gasoline Traction Engine Company. The business took a while to get in gear, but by 1914, its Model R Waterloo Boy Tractor became a big seller, according to the Froelich Tractor Museum. Gas-powered tractors proved pivotal in boosting agricultural productivity and enabling American farmers to feed a growing population.
The Safety Razor
Back in the days when men’s only choice for shaving was a straight razor that had to be regularly sharpened with a strap, it was safer and more convenient just to grow a beard.
But in 1895, a traveling salesman named King Gillette got the idea for a razor with a handle that used a tiny, disposable metal blade that could be discarded in the trash and replaced when it eventually got dull. Initially, metallurgists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told him the idea wouldn’t work, but eventually, he found an engineer trained at the same university, William Emery, who was able to create the blade. In 1901, Gillette and Nickerson formed the American Safety Razor Company, and Gillette obtained a patent for the safety razor with disposable blades in 1904.
The invention of the telegraph in 1844 made it possible for people to communicate for the first time instantaneously over long distances, but they still were limited by the need to have miles of wires installed to connect the sender and the receiver.
But starting in the mid-1890s, an Italian inventor named Guglielmo Marconi developed a better method—transmitting messages through radio waves. Marconi didn’t get a lot of encouragement in his own country, so he moved to England and formed a wireless telegraph company. By 1899, Marconi’s technology was capable of sending messages across 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 Ocean to another of his stations in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Marconi’s breakthrough was the start of global communications that led to the modern world’s mobile phones and the Internet connecting billions of people.