The Industrial Revolution in America: Inventions, Effects & Quiz

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Patricia Chappine

Patricia has a master's degree in Holocaust and genocide studies and 27 graduate credits in American history. She will start coursework on her doctoral degree in history this fall. She has taught heritage of the western world I and II and U.S. history I and II at a community college in southern New Jersey for the past two years.

The Industrial Revolution in America left a lasting effect on nearly every aspect of society. The shift from agriculture to industry changed social customs and led to patterns that our society still follows today. In this lesson, learn about the inventions that changed America, discuss the lasting effects of these changes, and take a quiz to summarize the key points.

We also recommend watching Urbanization During the Second Industrial Revolution in America: Effects & Problems and Immigration in Industrial America and the Rise of Nativism

Introduction

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. 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 a 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 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 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

Andrew Carnegie
Andrew Carnegie

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.

New Inventions

Eli Whitney, most noted for the invention of the cotton gin.
Eli Whitney

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.

Thomas Edison posed with his phonograph, circa 1877.
Thomas Edison Phonograph

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.

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