Inventions Change the Nation
Setting the Scene:The Patent Office had never seen a year like 1897. An average of nearly 60 patents, or licenses for new inventions, were being granted every day. By year's end, Americans had registered some 21,000 patents. This was more than the total recorded in the entire 1850s.
The United States had become a land of invention. Between 1870 and 1900, patent officers issued more than 500,000 new patents. Some went to lone inventors like William Blackstone of Indiana. In 1874, he built a machine that washed away dirt from clothes. It was the first washing machine designed for use in the home. Other inventors, like the legendary Thomas Edison, filed patent request after patent request with the government. Thousands of inventions poured from his laboratory.
A flood of invention swept the United States in the late 1800s. Some inventions helped industry to grow and become more efficient. Others made daily life easier in many American homes.
Speeding Up Communications
Better communication was vital to growing American businesses. Some remarkable new devices filled the need for faster communication. The telegraph, which had been in use since 1844, helped people around the nation stay in touch. For example, a steel maker in Pittsburgh could instantly order iron ore from a mine in Minnesota.
Communicating Across the AtlanticThe telegraph speeded up communication within the United States. It still took weeks, however, for news from Europe to arrive by ship.
Cyrus Field had the idea of laying a cable under the ocean so that telegraph messages could go back and forth between North America and Europe. He began working in 1854, making five attempts to lay the cable. Each time, the cable snapped. In 1858, two American ships managed to lay a cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. Field then arranged for Britain's Queen Victoria in London to send the first transatlantic, or across the Atlantic, message to President James Buchanan in Washington, D.C. For three weeks, Field was a hero. Then, the cable broke. But Field would not give up. In 1866, the ship Great Eastern succeeded in laying the cable. Field's transatlantic cable brought the United States and Europe closer together and made him famous. He marveled at his success:
" In five months ... the cable had been manufactured, shipped ... stretched across the Atlantic, and was sending messages ... swift as lightning from continent to continent."
Bell's "Talking Machine"The telegraph sent only dots and dashes over the wire. Several inventors were looking for a way to transmit voices. One of them was Alexander Graham Bell, a Scottish-born teacher of the deaf.
Bell had been working on his invention since 1865. In March 1876, he was ready to test his "talking machine." Bell sat in one room and spoke into his machine. His assistant, Thomas Watson, sat in another room with the receiver. "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you," Bell said. Watson heard the words faintly and rushed to Bell's side. "Mr. Bell," he cried, "I heard every word you said!" The telephone worked.
Bell's telephone aroused little interest at first. Scientists praised the invention. Most people, however, saw it as a toy. Bell offered to sell the telephone to the Western Union Telegraph Company for $100,000. The company refused - a costly mistake. In the end, the telephone earned Bell millions.
Bell formed the Bell Telephone Company in 1877. By 1885, he had sold more than 300,000 phones, mostly to businesses. With the telephone, the pace of business speeded up even more. People no longer had to go to a telegraph office to send messages. Business people could find out about prices or supplies by picking up the telephone.
An "Invention Factory"
In an age of invention, Thomas Edison was right at home. In 1876, he opened a research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. There, Edison boasted that he and his co-workers created a "minor" invention every 10 days and "a big thing every six months or so." By the end of his career, Edison had earned worldwide fame as the greatest inventor of the age.
Turning Invention Into a SystemThe key to Edison's success lay in his approach. He turned inventing into a system. Teams of experts refined Edison's ideas and translated them into practical inventions. The work was long and grueling. "Genius," Edison said, "is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
The results were amazing. Edison became known as the "Wizard of Menlo Park" for inventing the light bulb, the phonograph, and hundreds of other devices.
One invention from Edison's laboratory launched a new industry: the movies. In 1893, Edison introduced his first machine for showing moving pictures. Viewers watched short films by looking through a peephole in a cabinet. Later, Edison developed a motion picture projector, making it possible for many people to watch a film at the same time. By 1908, thousands of silent-movie houses had opened in cities across the United States.
The Power of ElectricityOne of Edison's most important creations was the electric power plant. He built the first power plant in New York City in 1882 and wired the business district first in hopes of attracting investors. With the flip of a switch, Edison set the district ablaze with light.
Within a year, Edison's power plant was supplying electricity to homes as well as businesses. Soon, more power plants were built. Factories replaced steam-powered engines with safer, quieter, electric engines. Electric energy powered streetcars in cities and lighted countless homes. The modern age of electricity had begun.
Technology Takes Command
Almost every day, it seemed, American inventors were creating new devices. As technology took command, businesses became more efficient, and life became easier and more pleasant.
The Refrigerated Railroad CarIn the 1880s, Gustavus Swift came up with an idea that transformed the American diet. Swift introduced refrigeration to the meatpacking industry. In the past, cattle, pigs, and chickens had been raised and sold locally. Meat spoiled quickly, so it could not be shipped over long distances.
Swift set up a meatpacking plant in Chicago, a railroad hub midway between the cattle ranches of the West and the cities of the East. Cattle were shipped by train to Chicago. At Swift's plant, the animals were slaughtered and carved up into sides of beef. The fresh beef was quickly loaded onto refrigerated railroad cars and carried to market. Even in summer, Swift sent fresh meat to eastern cities.
New Technologies at the Office and at HomeNew inventions also affected life at home and in the office. Christopher Sholes perfected the typewriter in 1868. This invention speeded up communication between businesses.
In 1888, George Eastman introduced the lightweight Kodak camera. No longer did photography require bulky equipment and chemicals. After 100 snaps of the shutter, the owner returned the camera to Kodak. The company developed the pictures and sent them back, along with a reloaded camera. Taking pictures became a popular pastime.
African American InventorsAfrican Americans contributed to the flood of inventions. In 1872, Elijah McCoy created a special device that oiled engines automatically. It was widely used on railroad engines and in factories. Another inventor, Granville T. Woods, found a way to send telegraph messages between moving railroad trains.
Jan Matzeliger invented a machine that could perform almost all the steps in shoemaking that had previously been done by hand. Patented in 1883, Matzeliger's machine was eventually used in shoe factories across the country.
Many African American inventors had trouble getting patents for their inventions. Even so, in 1900, an assistant in the patent office compiled a list of patents issued to African American inventors. The list, together with drawings and plans of all the inventions, filled four huge volumes.
Automobiles and the Assembly Line
No single person invented the automobile. Europeans had produced motorized vehicles as early as the 1860s. By 1890, France led the world in automaking. In the 1890s, several Americans began building cars. Still, only the wealthy could afford them.
Ford's Moving Assembly LineIt was Henry Ford who made the auto a part of everyday American life. In 1913, Ford introduced the moving assembly line. With this method of production, workers stay in one place as products edge along on a moving belt. At Ford's auto plant, one group of workers would bolt seats onto a passing car frame, the next would add the roof, and so on. The assembly line greatly reduced the time needed to build a car. Other industries soon adopted the method.
Ford's assembly line allowed mass production of cars. Mass production means making large quantities of a product quickly and cheaply. Because of mass production, Ford could sell his cars at a lower price than other automakers.
Cars for the PublicIt took a number of years for the automobile to catch on. At first, most people laughed at it. Some thought the "horseless carriage" was a nuisance. Others thought it was dangerous. A backfiring auto engine could scare a horse right off the road. Towns and villages across the nation posted signs: "No horseless carriages allowed." In Tennessee, a person planning to drive a car had to advertise the fact a week ahead of time. This warning gave others time to prepare for the danger!
Over time, attitudes toward the automobile changed. No other means of travel offered such freedom. As prices dropped, more people could afford to buy cars. In 1900, only 8,000 Americans owned cars. By 1917, more than 4.5 million autos were chugging along American roads.
Automobiles were at first regarded as machines for men only. Automakers soon realized, however, that women could drive-and buy-cars. Companies began to direct advertisements to women, stressing the comfort and usefulness of automobiles. Driving gave women greater independence.
The First Flight
Meanwhile, two Ohio bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright, were experimenting with another new method of transportation...flying. The Wright brothers owned a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio. During the 1890s, they read about Europeans who were experimenting with glider planes. The brothers were soon caught up in the dream of flying.
After trying out hundreds of designs, the Wright brothers tested their first "flying machine" on December 17, 1903, at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Orville made the first flight. The plane, powered by a small gasoline engine, stayed in the air for 12 seconds and flew a distance of 120 feet. Orville flew three more times that day. His longest flight lasted 59 seconds.
Improvements came quickly after the first flight. By 1905, the Wrights had built a plane that could turn, make figure-eights, and remain in the air for up to half an hour.
Surprisingly, the first flights did not attract much interest. No one could see any practical use for the flying machine.
It was the United States military that first saw a use for airplanes. In 1908, the Wrights demonstrated how planes could fly over battlefields to locate enemy positions. Then, they produced an airplane for the military that could reach the amazing speed of 40 miles per hour!
In time, the airplane would achieve its vast potential. It would change the world by making travel quicker and trade easier.
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