Patricia has a Ph.D. in Progress, History and Culture as well as a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies. She has taught heritage of the western world and U.S. history.
What Was the Industrial Revolution?
The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in 1750. At the beginning of the 19th century, America was mostly an agrarian (agricultural) society. Approximately six out of seven workers were involved in some type of farming. In 1820, the United States started to shift from an agricultural society to one based on wage labor, which was called the American Industrial Revolution. As the number of states increased from 16 to 34 in 1860, the percentage of farmers decreased to half of the workforce.
During the same decade, the population soared from five million to 30 million. The main influences for industrialization were the Embargo Act of 1807 and the War of 1812. The Embargo Act was enacted by Congress to cease the export of American goods and restrict the importation of certain British products. This created a greater need for America to produce goods domestically. Also, when America and Great Britain went to war with each other in 1812, the lack of adequate transportation and communication caused great difficulties for both sides.
Industrialization in the United States began by borrowing technology from English inventors and innovators. The first textile factory to use a water-powered spinning machine was started by Samuel Slater, a British immigrant, in 1790. Soon, American technology surpassed the British machines they had copied. Besides an influx of British technology, several other key features led to the manufacturing boom after 1860.
The use of large deposits of coal in states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia created a source of fuel for factories. Innovations in railroad technology and communication contributed to the creation of more jobs and allowed goods to be sold to the greater market. The increase in factories led to a higher demand for workers. Competition between businesses to cut costs and win customers led to a drop in prices overall. The money supply could not keep up with the production, which ultimately caused high interest and less credit availability.
The Railroad Industry
The need for better transportation was essential for the United States. Miles of roads and new canals were built to connect the vast open areas of America. The steamboat was an important means of transportation in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River. However, the railroad quickly overshadowed the steamboat in the transportation revolution.
In 1830, the U.S. only had an estimated 100 miles of track. The railroads expanded rapidly after that. By 1860, 27,000 miles of track were built, and by 1900, 193,000 miles of track were completed. Importantly, these new tracks connected the eastern and western United States, made selling goods more affordable, and allowed a network of national supply distribution.
Railroad entrepreneurs competed ruthlessly with each other. For example, Jay Gould of the Union Pacific Railroad was often depicted as a greedy villain for his business practices. In order to keep his profits up, he drove many smaller railroad companies out of business, cut rates for large companies, offered rebates to powerful clients, and gave free passes to political leaders.
These unsavory business practices hurt small farmers and business owners who often paid excessive rates to make up for the rebates given to the wealthy. The federal government responded by enacting the Interstate Commerce Act in 1887. This legislation outlawed monopolies, rebates, and short-distance rates and established a committee to police the railroad industry.
The Steel Industry
Since the rapid growth of the railroad industry required large amounts of steel tracks, the steel industry also profited during the Industrial Revolution. Andrew Carnegie was involved in the expansion and streamlining of the American steel industry. A Scottish immigrant who moved to the U.S. in 1848, his first job was bobbin boy in a textile factory. He eventually became one of the wealthiest men of the 19th century.
By investing his earnings in the railroad industry, Carnegie made enough money to build his own steel mill. His mill operated on the principle of controlling every aspect of production to ensure maximum cost efficiency and output. By 1900, Carnegie Steel was the largest industrial corporation the world had ever seen.
In 1794, American inventor Eli Whitney's cotton gin sped up cotton production in the South by efficiently separating the seeds from the fiber. In 1798, Whitney was the first person to use interchangeable parts to make muskets. The standardized parts could be produced by equipment and would only require laborers to assemble the final product. The introduction of interchangeable parts made the American system more cost-effective and productive.
A string of other inventions occurred in the 1870s. For example, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 and perfected the design of the light bulb in 1879. Edison became one of the most noteworthy inventors in American history. His research laboratory, located in Menlo Park, New Jersey, turned out inventions such as the motion picture camera and the microphone.
The spread of electricity caused great changes in society. As the capacity to illuminate private homes and businesses spread, people were no longer constrained to daylight hours. People could work or shop after the sun went down.
The Industrial Factory
The workers required to run the ever-growing number of American factories came from rural areas. Women found work in the new factories, making up about 80% of the labor force in the textile industry. Most of the men and women who found work in the factories were considered unskilled laborers. Because of this, factory owners invested in machines that could be operated by a mostly untrained workforce.
Unlike farming, which required different hours, the factory system was more time-sensitive. The new workers who were unaccustomed to this lifestyle needed rules and discipline in order to function in industry. Laborers endured long hours with no benefits or job security. In the beginning, factories lacked any health or safety regulations. If a worker was hurt or killed on the job, he or she received little or no compensation. Industrial America had no regulations on child labor. During the late 19th century, it was not uncommon for a nine-year-old boy to work in the coal mines or the cotton mills.
The American Industrial Revolution was a shift from an agricultural society to one based on wage labor. In the beginning, the U.S. borrowed technology from Great Britain, but quickly surpassed its inventions. The need for better communication and transportation lines spurred the industrialization process. Gradually, canals and steamboats were replaced by vast tracks of railroads that crossed the entire country and united the eastern and western U.S. The steel industry grew along with the railroads.
Among the most influential inventions of the late 19th century were interchangeable parts and the cotton gin, both pioneered by Eli Whitney; the telephone, invented by Alexander Graham Bell; and the light bulb, perfected by Thomas Edison. Above all, the Industrial Revolution led to a shift in labor that is still a part of modern society. The advent of the factory system caused a change from farming to a disciplined, time-sensitive, and wage-focused work environment.
When you are done, you should be able to:
- Discuss how the Industrial Revolution altered American society forever
- Recall the reasons the Industrial Revolution began in America
- List the industries that spurred the Industrial Revolution
- Identify some of the most important innovations to come from the Industrial Revolution
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