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READ: Innovations and Innovators of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution was about more than inventions, but we can’t ignore the innovations – and innovators – that changed the world.

Innovations and Innovators of the Industrial Revolution

By Malcolm F. Purinton
The Industrial Revolution was about more than inventions, but we can’t ignore the innovations – and innovators – that changed the world.


The Industrial Revolution was more than just a bunch of technological innovations, of course. Still, one way we can study how it emerged, and how it changed the world, is by looking at some of the major inventions, and inventors, of industrialization.

Watt engine

James Watt grew up in Scotland and attended the University of Glasgow where he studied instrument making. He worked on many tools including compasses and scales, but his greatest contribution was the refinement of the steam engine. Steam engines, like the Newcomen steam engine, were very inefficient at first. They were mostly only used for pumping water from mines. In 1765, Watt decided to try to improve the engine so it would be more efficient and could be used for other things. He patented his ideas in 1766, but it would take until 1774 to build them. Watt needed skilled ironworkers who could make the parts he needed for his engine to work. He found them by partnering with a manufacturer names Michael Boulton. Over the next fifteen years Watt kept improving and selling Watt Engines, not only to mines for pumping out water, but also to paper mills, ironworks, and cotton mills. The Watt engine was one of the most important contributions to the Industrial Revolution, making it possible for factories and mills to use coal and wood instead of relying on water wheels, horses, or wind. In effect, James Watt’s engine helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.
Oh, and you might be wondering why his name is on most the world’s lightbulbs (which he did not invent – keep reading). It’s because the watt, as a unit of power, was named after James Watt for his contributions to science and industry.
A technical drawing of Watt’s steam engine. © Getty Images.

Eli Whitney and the cotton gin

Eli Whitney was born and raised in Massachusetts but his invention, the cotton gin, saw its greatest use in the southern part of the United States. Producing cotton was not very lucrative in the late eighteenth century. Even after picking it off the plant, you still had to separate seeds from the cotton fibers by hand. In 1794, Eli Whitney patented a machine that could do that second part much more efficiently. It could process more cotton in one hour than several people could in a full day of work. As a result, planters quickly started growing cotton across the South. Annual Cotton production in the United States went from 73,000 bales in 1800 to 2,136,000 bales in 1850.
With the introduction of the cotton gin, growing and cultivating cotton became very profitable. But the expansion of the cotton industry created a demand for more workers for the non-mechanized part of the process – picking the cotton. The number of enslaved people working the fields in the American South increased. Though Whitney’s invention had made processing cotton much more efficient, it led to the demand for more people to plant, cultivate, and harvest the crops. Cotton became so important that it was known as “King Cotton” in the southern states, and the United States became the largest producer in the world.
Eli Whitney’s first cotton gin, 1794. © Getty Images.

Henry Bessemer and steel

In 1856, Henry Bessemer took out a patent in England for a new process that would help purify iron to make high quality steel. Prior to this, it was very difficult to make strong steel that would not break. Bessemer developed an inexpensive and rapid process to produce high-quality steel at an industrial scale. The Bessemer process removed all of the impurities in molten iron by blowing oxygen through it. This process, known as oxidation, raises the temperature of the iron so high that it burns off all the impurities, like carbon and phosphorus, while keeping the metal molten. The steel that was created was a double success because it was very high quality and could be produced much faster. By the 1870s, Andrew Carnegie was using the Bessemer process in his steel mills in the United States. This high-quality, mass-produced steel made miles of railroad tracks, girders in skyscrapers, machine parts, farm equipment, and more, more, more.
Here we see an illustration of the furnaces that would be used for the Bessemer process for making high-quality steel. Notice how large they are in comparison to the workers. © Getty Images.

Louis Pasteur

Louis Pasteur was instrumental in how we think of and treat diseases today. In the late 1850s the French scientist discovered that alcohol was produced by single-celled microorganisms known as yeast. He found that the yeast cells would ingest sugar and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This meant that fermentation was actually a biological process and not a purely chemical one.
Pasteur built on this knowledge. Through experimentation, he learned that by heating substances like milk and beer very quickly he could kill these microorganisms and sterilize the liquids. This process is now called pasteurization and keeps many substances, including milk and beer, from spoiling quickly. This innovation helped to safely feed the growing population of industrial workers.
In the 1870s, Pasteur kept up his interest in how microorganisms can affect substances and people, leading him to develop his germ theory of disease. He developed vaccines for several deadly animal diseases, including, anthrax – which had been devastating to local sheep and cattle herds – as well as chicken cholera and rabies.
Left: A painting of Louis Pasteur in his laboratory in 1885. © Getty Images. Right: Thomas Edison sitting with an early version of his phonograph that could record voices and play them back. Courtesy of the Library of Congress. Public domain.

Thomas Edison – Lights, camera, inventions!

Thomas Edison was one of the most influential inventors of his time. His impact is felt even today. His early life in the 1860s was spent working on the telegraph, a new form of long-distance communication. Eventually, he made his way to Boston where he worked at the Western Union office and worked on his own inventions. In 1869 he filed his first patent, which was for an electric voting machine. He was 21.
Edison moved to New York City and began inventing improvements to the telegraph and to Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, eventually developing an automatic telegraph machine. Those experiments led to his invention of the phonograph in 1877. Edison then focused on electric light systems, inventing and marketing a long-lasting incandescent light bulb in 1879. (This is “watt” we hinted at in that first section.) Soon after, in 1882, lower Manhattan had its own electric light system and Edison founded several companies to produce and sell electric lights and light systems.
In the late 1880s Edison worked on inventing an early movie camera called a Kinetograph and a viewer called a Kinetoscope. Kinetoscope parlors opened in several American cities during the 1890s, precursors to modern movie theaters. Overall, Edison’s inventions and improvements to technology with over one thousand patents during his lifetime make him one of the most successful and important American inventors in history.
These inventors, and their inventions, represent just a small selection of the many innovations that made the Industrial Revolution possible. Around them, the work of millions of laborers and changes in the organization of society made their work possible. But even while studying these broader transformations, it is important to also recognize the way scientists and innovators helped to drive industrialization, whether that was their intention or not.
Author bio
Malcolm F. Purinton is a part-time lecturer of World History and the History of Modern Europe at Northeastern University and Emerson College in Boston, MA. He specializes in Food and Environmental History through the lens of beer and alcohol.

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