Major Economic Industries: History & Characteristics

Instructor: John Hamilton

John has tutored algebra and SAT Prep and has a B.A. degree with a major in psychology and a minor in mathematics from Christopher Newport University.

In this lesson, we discuss the history of four major economic industries. We elaborate on agriculture, manufacturing, energy, and the media from the 1700s right on through to the 21st century.

The Changing Face of the Economy

Over the past 200 years, American industry has evolved quite a bit, going from a mainly agricultural society to a manufacturing society to an energy-driven, media-obsessed internet culture. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history and defining characteristics of each of these major economic industries.


The history of agriculture can be traced to 1785 when the Philadelphia Society and other similar groups began to promote agriculture. Eight years later, in 1793, Eli Whitney patented his cotton gin, which considerably sped up the process of removing the seeds from the cotton plant. It also increased cotton yields by as much as tenfold. In 1834, Cyrus McCormick patented his mechanical reaper, which sped up the process of threshing wheat and increased bread production many times over.

The year 1862 was when the Homestead Act was passed, giving free land to those who would agree to cultivate it. In 1874, the invention of barbed wire soon ended the practice of open-range grazing by animals. In 1890, the era of the frontier settlement known as the Old West or Wild West came to an end.

In the first half of the 1930s, the Dust Bowl and drought brought about new conservation measures. In 1970, the Environmental Quality Improvement Act was signed, and in the 1980s, we saw the advent of biotechnology to improve crop yields. Finally, in 1999, we came full circle and saw the Roadless Initiative come into play, which was aimed at preserving National Forests and conserving resources instead of developing them, along with sustainability.

Barbed wire ended open grazing and created huge farms and ranches.


The American forefathers were mainly craftsmen and farmers. Many historians trace the manufacturing boom in America to Samuel Slater's textile factory in Pawtucket, Rhode Island around 1790. From then, on through the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution carried over from England to America. The aforementioned inventions of Whitney and McCormick changed not only agriculture, but also the manufacturing world. Water power displaced horse power to run mills and Fulton's steamboat changed the face of transportation.

The invention of interchangeable parts and metal tools also greatly contributed to production capabilities. At the turn of the century, Henry Ford began to manufacture automobiles with the use of faster assembly lines, and the Wright Brothers brought about the Age of Flight. Manufacturing continued to increase as immigrants flocked to America until the Great Depression. World War II ended that era as American factories were at full production to subsidize the war effort.

After the war, the 1950s saw the rise of the Space Race, and new metals and technologies began to displace steel. The new technologies advanced further in the 1970s as computers and the internet age began to take shape. Finally, in the 1990s, outsourcing began, as many of the American jobs moved overseas to other countries.

The steel industry is no longer at its peak, but it is still used to make ships and other products.


The history of energy production in America started with wood. Wood was the main energy source for about 100 years until the advent of coal. Water and wind were also used to run mills and pumps. Both had their drawbacks, as wood caused deforestation and coal caused pollution. By about 1950, oil and gas had replaced coal. They were even more portable than wood or coal and easier to store.

However, oil and gas created environmental concerns of their own. Nuclear power began to rise in the 1950s, but two reactor accidents raised grave concerns about safety. Many scientists are optimistic about renewable energy, including wind, solar, and geothermal. For example, solar power has a lot of appeal because of the availability of the sun and the lack of pollutants, but for whatever reason has still not been deployed yet on a large scale in a cost-effective manner. Finally, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and horizontal drilling are tapping oil and gas reserves that could not be reached before, although once again there are some environmental concerns.

Solar energy may one day replace nuclear energy.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 160 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create An Account