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A Biography of America

Industrial Supremacy – Inventions, 1868 – 1898

How did technological innovation impact the United States after the Civil War?


Airbrake invented
George Westinghouse, who would eventually hold more than 400 patents related to railroads and the development of electric power, invents the railroad airbrake and improves it in 1872. The airbrake is a revolutionary advancement in railroad safety and efficiency, making it possible to stop an entire train by pulling just one lever.


Railroads span the continent 
The Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad meet at Promontory Point, Utah, linking the United States by rail from East to West for the first time. In a “golden spike” ceremony on May 10, 1869, the final spike that links the rails is attached to telegraph wires so the blows of the hammer can be heard from coast to coast.


Electricity drives machines 
Important advances in our understanding of electricity come from Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who publishes his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism and from a 24-year old American physicist, Henry A. Rowland, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, who explores magnetic fields and alternating current. In Vienna, electricity is used to drive a machine for the first time.


New York installs first electric streetcar 
New York City installs an electric streetcar system designed by Stephen Dudley Field. The system is dangerous and ineffective, but it is a sign of major changes to come in urban transportation.

First typewriter marketed 
Remington and Sons, a New York gun manufacturing company, markets the first practical typewriter, from an 1868 patent. It has capital letters only. Thomas Edison was granted a patent for an electric typewriter in 1872, but it is not commercially viable until the 1920s. The typewriter quickly changes American office work and provides an opportunity for great numbers of women to enter the work force.


First telephone demonstrated 
Scottish-American inventor Alexander Graham Bell, a teacher of the deaf, while experimenting with “electric speech” with telegraph instruments, discovers the properties that lead to the practical development of the telephone. On March 10, 1876, the first sentences uttered over Bell’s new telephone are: “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you.”

Armour and Swift begin Chicago meatpacking

Refrigerated railroad cars developed 
Refrigerated railroad cars, primarily box cars packed with ice, are in regular use to ship meat from Chicago Stockyards to markets in the East. In 1878 meat packer Gustavus Swift hires a Boston engineer, Andrew Chase, to develop an improved refrigerated car. The refrigerated car greatly expands markets for perishable products.


Inventions showcased at Centennial Exposition 
American inventions are showcased at the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Among more than 8,000 machines displayed are Remington’s typewriter and Bell’s telephone. A giant Corliss Steam Engine symbolizes the steam power of the age. Visitors at the Centennial Exposition learn via telegraph that Colonel George Armstrong Custer has been killed fighting Indians at the Little Big Horn.

Battle of Little Big Horn


Widespread railroad strikes in “Great Uprising of 1877”

Surrender of Nez Percé and Chief Joseph


Phonograph patented 
Thomas A. Edison, a prolific inventor who will eventually accumulate more than 1300 patents for his inventions, patents the phonograph, invented the previous year. His first recording, on tin foil, is “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Edison Electric Light Company founded


Edison develops light bulb 
Thomas A. Edison develops the first practical electric light bulb. The next year he builds a generating station in London, England, to power street lights.

Carnegie begins steel production


50,000 telephone subscribers in U.S. 
The United States has 50,000 telephone subscribers, in only five years since its invention.

Railroad boom begins 
U. S. railroad building increases dramatically during the 1880s, with 70,000 miles of track laid in ten years, linking the nation in a vast rail system for transportation of people and goods.

Eastman invents dry photographic plate 
Young inventor and bank clerk George Eastman, working at home in his mother’s kitchen, invents a dry photographic plate process that will eventually lead to photographic film and the mass marketing of film and cameras.


Chinese Exclusion Acts


First electric power station in New York 
Edison’s first electric power station in the United States is built in New York City to power electric lights

First electric streetcar in Chicago

Standard Oil Trust formed


Brooklyn Bridge opens 
The Brooklyn Bridge, a major feat of engineering, links Brooklyn and New York City.

Time zones established 
The United States is divided into four time zones to bring order to the growing complexity of railroad schedules.


Fountain pen patented 
Lewis E. Waterman, a New York inventor, patents and successfully markets a fountain pen, a major innovation in the history of writing instruments.

Montgomery Ward catalog begins 
Mass marketing of goods by mail order becomes a major new industry with the issuance of a mail order catalog by Montgomery Ward of Chicago. The catalog contains 10,000 items. Two years later, Sears, Roebuck and Company in Minnesota, begins modestly by selling cheap watches by mail order. Mail order firms and department stores in major cities provide unprecedented access to goods to millions of Americans.


First gasoline-powered car demonstrated 
Karl-Friedrich Benz demonstrates the first practical gasoline-powered motor vehicle in Germany.

First operational electric trolley in Baltimore 
The first American electric trolley line becomes operational in Baltimore, Maryland. The trolley cars get their power from overhead electric wires.

Westinghouse develops AC electric power 
George Westinghouse pioneers in the development of electrical transformers. Westinghouse is the major developer of alternating current (AC) electric power. Edison’s early uses of electricity used direct current (DC). Alternating current can travel over much longer distances than direct current and make it possible to rapidly expand electric service to individual homes.

First iron-frame skyscraper built in Chicago 
The first skyscraper with an iron frame is built in Chicago. The Home Insurance Building, nine stories high when first built, becomes the model for the massive skyscrapers that grow up in Chicago, New York, and other cities as symbols of the new age of big business.


American Federation of Labor founded

Haymarket Riot in Chicago

Surrender of Geronimo


First Kodak camera 
George Eastman markets the Kodak camera for the first time. It brings photography out of the studio and into the hands of ordinary citizens. Priced at $25, the camera takes one hundred pictures, but has to be returned to Eastman’s firm in Rochester, New York, for processing and the loading of a new roll of film.

Motion picture projector invented 
Thomas Edison invents the kinetoscope, which displays motion by showing a rapid succession of single images on 35 mm perforated celluloid film. The public gets its first look in 1893, peering one person at a time into a slot in the projection box. In 1895 in France, Auguste and Louis Lumière project a film for an audience for the first time.


First electric elevator installed 
The Otis Company installs the first electric elevator in the Demarest building on Fifth Avenue in New York City.


250,000 telephone subscribers in U.S. 
The United States has 250,000 telephone subscribers, five times the amount ten years earlier.

Wounded Knee Massacre


Zipper patented 
Whitcomb Judson patents a “slide fastener” soon called the zipper. The use of zippers on fashionable clothing takes time, but within twenty years it is established as a standard feature in wide use.


Homestead steelworkers strike


Ford tests his quadricycle 
Henry Ford tests his first automobile, which Ford calls a quadricycle, or more affectionately his gasoline buggy.

World’s Columbian Exposition 
The World’s Columbian Exposition opens in Chicago, and hundreds of thousands of Americans travel from all over the country to visit it, most coming by railroad. Featured at the Exposition is a 250-foot diameter steel Ferris Wheel, the first ever built.


Pullman Strike


Duryea brothers build first practical American car 
Charles and J. Frank Duryea build the first practical American automobile and launch the first American automobile company.

Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” Address


Plessy v. Ferguson