Top 10 Industrial Revolution Inventions

The Industrial Revolution, an innovative period between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries, shifted people in Europe and the U.S. from a predominantly agricultural existence into an urban, industrialized lifestyle. Goods that had been produced by hand, one at a time, became mass-produced in factories, while transportation and other industries greatly advanced [source: History].

Although we label this era a “revolution,” that title is somewhat misleading. The movement, which first took root in Great Britain, wasn’t a sudden burst of advancement, but rather a buildup of breakthroughs that relied on or fed off one another. Some of the main breakthroughs came via the use of new materials such as iron and steel; new energy sources like coal and steam; new machines such as the power loom; the novel factory system of labor; and new means of transportation, like trains and boats powered by steam engines [sources: Brittanica, History].

Eventually, these innovations made their way to other corners of the world and additional countries began embarking upon their own industrial revolutions. By the late 19th century, the U.S. actually began a second Industrial Revolution — one which lasted until about 1914 and gave birth to the modern assembly line and other important inventions [source: Brittanica]. But the Second Industrial Revolution is a topic for another article.

Bottom line: Just as the dot-coms were integral to the 1990s, it was the particular inventions during the first Industrial Revolution that made this epoch unique. Without all of the period’s ingenuity, many of the basic goods and services we use today wouldn’t exist. So whether that era’s adventurous souls dared to tinker with existing inventions or to dream of something brand-new, one thing’s for sure — the Industrial Revolution changed the course of human history. Here are 10 Industrial Revolution inventions that changed the world forever.

10: Difference and Analytical Engines

For some of us, the phrase “put your calculators away for this exam” will always elicit anxiety, but those calculator-free exams give us a taste of what life was like for Charles Babbage. The English inventor and mathematician, born in 1791, was tasked with poring over mathematical tables in search of errors. Such tables were commonly used in fields like astronomy, banking and engineering, and since they were generated by hand, they often contained mistakes. Babbage longed for a calculator of his own. He ultimately would design several.

Of course, Babbage didn’t have modern computer components like transistors at his disposal, so his calculating engines were entirely mechanical. That meant they were astoundingly large, complex and difficult to build (none of Babbage’s machines were created in his lifetime). For instance, Difference Engine No. 1 could solve polynomials, but the design called for 25,000 separate pieces with a combined weight of around 15 tons (13.6 metric tons) [source: Computer History Museum]. Difference Engine No. 2, developed between 1847 and 1849, was a more elegant machine, with comparable power and about one-third the weight of its predecessor [source: Computer History Museum].

Impressive as those engines were, it was another Babbage design that led many people to consider him the father of modern computing. In 1834, Babbage set out to create a machine that users could program. Like modern computers, Babbage’s machine could store data for use later in other calculations and perform logic operations like if-then statements, among other capabilities. Babbage never compiled a complete set of designs for the analytical engine as he did for his beloved difference engines, but it’s just as well; the analytical engine would have been so massive that it would have required a steam engine just to power it [source: Computer History Museum].

9: Pneumatic Tire

Like so many of the inventions during the Industrial Revolution, the pneumatic tire simultaneously “stood on the shoulders of giants” while ushering in a new wave of invention. So although John Dunlop is often credited with bringing this wondrous inflatable tire to market, its invention stretches back (pardon the pun) to 1844, when Charles Goodyear patented a process for the vulcanization of rubber [source: Lemelson-MIT].

Before Goodyear’s experiments, rubber was a novel product with few practical uses — thanks, largely, to its properties changing drastically with the environment. Vulcanization, which involved curing rubber with sulfur and lead, created a more stable material suitable for manufacturing processes. Vulcanization allowed rubber to be flexible enough to hold its shape in hot or cold weather.

While rubber technology advanced rapidly, another invention of the Industrial Revolution teetered uncertainly. Despite advancements like pedals and steerable wheels, bicycles remained more of a curiosity than a practical form of transportation throughout most of the 19th century, thanks to their unwieldy, heavy frames and hard, unforgiving wheels. (The wheels had rubber tires on them but they weren’t filled with air, making for a tough ride.)

Dunlop, a veterinarian by trade, spied the flaw as he watched his young son bounce miserably along on his tricycle, and he quickly got to work on fixing it. His early attempts made use of inflated canvas garden hose that Dunlop bonded with liquid rubber. These prototypes proved vastly superior to existing leather and hardened rubber tires. Before long, Dunlop began manufacturing his bicycle tires with the help of the company W. Edlin and Co. and, later, as the Dunlop Rubber Company. They quickly dominated the market and, along with other improvements to the bicycle, caused bicycle production to skyrocket. Not long after, the Dunlop Rubber Company began manufacturing rubber tires for another product of the Industrial Revolution, the automobile [source: Automotive Hall of Fame].

8: Anesthesia

Great inventions like the light bulb dominate the history books, but we’re guessing that anyone facing surgery would nominate anesthesia as their favorite product of the Industrial Revolution. Before its invention, the fix for a given ailment was often far worse than the ailment itself. One of the greatest challenges to pulling a tooth or removing a limb was restraining the patient during the process, and substances like alcohol and opium did little to improve the experience. Today, of course, we can thank anesthesia for the fact that few of us have any recollection of painful surgeries at all.

Nitrous oxide and ether had both been discovered by the early 1800s, but both were seen as intoxicants with little practical use. In fact, traveling shows would have volunteers inhale nitrous oxide — better known as laughing gas — in front of live audiences to the amusement of everyone involved. During one of these demonstrations, a young dentist named Horace Wells watched an acquaintance inhale the gas and proceed to injure his leg. When the man returned to his seat, Wells asked if he’d felt any pain during the incident and, upon hearing that he had not, immediately began plans to use the gas during a dental procedure, volunteering himself as the first patient. The following day, Wells had Gardner Colton, the organizer of the traveling show, administer laughing gas in Wells’ office. The gas worked perfectly, putting Wells out cold as a colleague extracted his molar [source: Haridas].

The demonstration of ether’s suitability as an anesthesia for longer operations soon followed (though exactly who we should credit is still a matter of debate), and surgery has been slightly less dreadful ever since.

7: Photograph

Numerous world-changing inventions came out of the Industrial Revolution. The camera wasn’t one of them. In fact, the camera’s predecessor, known as a camera obscura, had been hanging around for centuries, with portable versions coming along in the late 1500s.

Preserving a camera’s images, however, was a problem, unless you had the time to trace and paint them. Then along came Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. In the 1820s, the Frenchman had the idea to expose paper coated in light-sensitive chemicals to the image projected by the camera obscura. Eight hours later, the world had its first photograph [source: Harding].

Realizing eight hours was an awfully long time to have to pose for a family portrait, Niépce began working with Louis Daguerre to improve his design, and it was Daguerre who continued Niépce’s work after his death in 1833. Daguerre’s not-so-cleverly-named daguerreotype generated enthusiasm first in the French parliament, and then throughout the world. But while the daguerreotype produced very detailed images, they couldn’t be replicated.

A contemporary of Daguerre’s, William Henry Fox Talbot, was also working on improving photographic images throughout the 1830s and produced the first negative, through which light could be shined on photographic paper to create the positive image. Advancements like Talbot’s came at a rapid pace, and cameras became capable of taking images of moving objects as exposure times dropped. In fact, a photo of a horse taken in 1877 was used to solve a long-standing debate over whether or not all four of a horse’s feet left the ground during a full gallop (they did) [sources: International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum, Shah]. So the next time you pull out your smartphone to snap a picture, take a second to think of the centuries of innovation that made that picture possible.

6: Phonograph

Nothing can quite replicate the experience of seeing your favorite band perform live. Not so long ago, live performances were the only way to experience music at all. Thomas Edison changed this forever when, working on a method to transcribe telegraph messages, he got the idea for the phonograph. The idea was simple but brilliant: A recording needle would press grooves corresponding to sound waves from music or speech into a rotating cylinder coated with tin, and another needle would trace those grooves to reproduce the source audio.

Unlike Babbage and his decades-long endeavor to see his designs constructed, Edison got his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build the machine and reportedly had a working prototype in his hands only 30 hours later. Edison tested the machine by speaking “Mary had a little lamb” into the mouthpiece and was elated when the machine played back his words [source: Library of Congress].

But Edison was far from finished with his new creation. His early tin-coated cylinders could only be played a handful of times before they were destroyed, so he ultimately replaced the tin with wax. By this time, Edison’s phonograph wasn’t the only player on the market, and over time, people began to abandon his cylinders in favor of records. But the basic mechanism remained intact.

5: Steam Engine

Like the revved-up V-8 engines and high-speed jet planes that fascinate us now, steam-powered technology once was cutting-edge, too, and it played a giant role in furthering the Industrial Revolution. Before this era, transportation was by horse-and-buggy carriages, and certain industries, like mining, were labor-intensive and inefficient. The creation of the first steam engine (and later the steam-powered locomotive) was about to dramatically change all of that.

The origins of the steam engine actually go back to Heron of Alexandria, who in the first century C.E. created the aeolipile, a steam turbine that caused a sphere to revolve. Heron’s invention was just a curiosity; it wasn’t used for any purpose. It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that various inventors began looking to the aeolipile’s technology to begin patenting steam-powered devices that were far more than a toy [source: History].

In 1698, Thomas Savery created a pump running on steam power to raise water from mines; in subsequent decades, Thomas Newcomen and Scottish engineer James Watt improved and embellished his device. Watt collaborated with Matthew Boulton to create a steam engine with a rotary motion, which allow steam power to be used in industries [source: History].

Other inventors wondered if a machine running on steam power could be used to transport people, goods and raw materials. This led to the development of the first steam-powered locomotives and boats in the 1830s. The steam-powered locomotive, in particular, dramatically changed life in the U.S. and beyond, as it marked the first time that goods were transported over land by a machine, not an animal or human. And while steam locomotives were eventually replaced by diesel trains, that didn’t happen until the 1950s [source: WorldWideRails].

4: Food Canning

Open your kitchen cabinets, and you’re bound to find a particularly useful Industrial Revolution invention. It turns out the same period that brought us steam engines also altered how we store our food.

In 1795, Frenchman Nicolas Appert was working as a chef, candymaker and distiller when he heard about a monetary prize being offered to someone who could uncover a way to preserve food for transport. The prize was prompted by the wealth of spoiled food regularly seen by chefs in the French army. Intrigued, Appert spent the next 14 years trying to solve this puzzle [source: Brittanica].

While foods could be preserved via methods such as drying and fermenting, these methods didn’t preserve flavor and they weren’t 100 percent effective. Reasoning that he should be able to preserve food like wine, Appert worked on boiling techniques that consisted of adding food to a jar, sealing it, wrapping the jar in canvas and then boiling it in water to create a vacuum-tight seal. He perfected the process and won the prize. But he never knew exactly why his innovative process worked. That puzzle would later be solved by Louis Pasteur [source: Eschner].

Nevertheless, Appert’s basic concept took hold and today we enjoy canned goods ranging from Spam to SpaghettiOs.

3: Telegraph

Before the age of smartphones and laptops, people still used technology to communicate — albeit at a slower pace — with an Industrial Revolution invention called the electric telegraph.

The telegraph was developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse, in conjunction with other inventors. The group discovered that by transmitting electrical signals over wires connected to a network of stations, their new telegraph could send messages from one location to another over long distances. The messages were “written” using a code of dots and dashes developed by Morse, who assigned a specific pattern to each letter of the alphabet. The person receiving a telegraph simply decoded its Morse code markings [source: History].

The first message Morse sent in 1844, from Washington, D.C., to Baltimore, indicates his excitement. He transmitted “What hath God wrought?”, expressing he had discovered something big. That he did! Morse’s telegraph allowed people to communicate almost instantaneously without being in the same place [source: United States Senate].

Information sent via telegraph also allowed news media and the government to share information more quickly. The development of the telegraph even gave rise to the first wire news service, the Associated Press. Eventually, Morse’s invention also connected America to Europe — an innovative and global feat at the time.

2: Spinning Jenny

Besides the steam engine, this important invention of the Industrial Age might rank as the most notable where commerce is concerned. Whether it’s the contents of your sock drawer or the most fashionable article of clothing, advancements in the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution made mass production possible. The spinning jenny had a big part in these developments.

During the 18th century, cloth was being produced in England by people working from their homes – part of the popular cottage industry system. Cotton was an especially popular raw material for cloth, and textile workers would spin it into yarn via a spinning wheel — a slow task, as spinning wheels could only produce one spool of thread at a time. With fabric in high demand, cotton producers were having a hard time producing enough cloth via this labor-intensive process.

Enter James Hargreaves, a weaver and inventor. In 1764, Hargreaves created a machine, the spinning jenny, that could produce eight spools of thread at a time using just one wheel (the word “jenny” is British slang for “engine”). It wasn’t too long before others expanded upon his invention, creating ever-bigger machines that could produce as many as 50, 80 and even 120 spools of thread at a time. These become too large to fit into people’s homes, which led to the birth of the factory-based textile industry and mass production [sources: BBC, Bellis].

1: Ways to Mine Iron

Building the infrastructure to support the Industrial Revolution wasn’t easy. The demand for metals, including iron, spurred industries to come up with more efficient methods for mining and transporting raw materials.

Over the course of a few decades, iron companies supplied an increasing amount of iron to factories and manufacturing companies. To produce the metal cheaply, mining companies would supply cast iron rather than its expensive counterpart — wrought iron. In addition, people began to use metallurgy, or the deeper investigation of materials’ physical properties, in industrial settings.

Mass producing iron drove the mechanization of other inventions during the Industrial Revolution and even today. Without the iron industry providing assistance in the development of the railroad, locomotive transportation may have been too difficult or expensive to pursue at the time.

Originally Published: Jan 12, 2011

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