How the Industrial Revolution Shaped America

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
For hundreds of years, manufacturing was done on a small scale in people’s homes. The scant tools and machinery available made for time-intensive and physically taxing projects. This inefficiency, and the increasing development of manufacturing technologies, combined to make the 18th and 19th centuries into an industrial boom. Americans used their creativity to invent technologies that revolutionized life in the country, and these newly invented machines forever altered how products were made. This is how the Industrial Revolution shaped American history. 

Setting the Framework for a Revolution

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the mid-18th century, but didn’t cross the Atlantic to the colonies until the 1790s. Samuel Slater, who opened the first industrial mill in the United States in 1790, is largely considered as the first American to have inspired the revolution. His model was based on the British mill. With a few minor improvements, Slater’s mill increased the rate at which cotton could be spun into yarn. He began seeing profits almost immediately, and manufacturers across the nation began opening their own mills.  
However, improved efficiency in machinery wasn’t the only factor in creating a more streamlined production process. All new mills needed workers to run those machines. Looking for the best modes of productivity, a system known as the “outwork system” was adopted. Here, small portions of the overall process were done in the homes of individuals. This revolutionized the shoe making industry, allowing bulk quantities of supplies to be produced, then assembled later in the process. When this idea was carried out on a larger scale, it became known as the “factory system,” and was an enormous breakthrough for American industries.

Samuel Slater.By the early 1800s, the stage for the Industrial Revolution was almost set, but to be successful, there were two more elements needed. The first was a kind of credit system. This would allow bankers and investors to engage in risky ventures with the potential for enormous profit. The second was improving the transportation system to effectively move raw materials to mills. To make both of these factors a reality, state governments stepped in. Combined, these two are loosely referred to as the market revolution. Alexander Hamilton devised an intricate banking system that allowed banks to open in major cities across the nation. Likewise, one of the greatest achievements in improved transportation was the construction of the Erie Canal in New York, which made moving goods between inland United States and the Atlantic Ocean more efficient. 
Effects of the Industrial Revolution
Manufacturing and trade were forever altered with the Industrial Revolution. Accompanying the increased production of goods was a school of thought called the classical school of economics. This way of thinking allowed business owners to project the growth of trade and revenue based on patterns in the marketplace. Adam Smith’s revolutionary book The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, gave rise to the idea that the wealth of a country is determined by its national income. Classical economists were in favor of free markets, and viewed each state as having a responsibility to the common good with the increased profitability of its trade. These were new ideas for industry in America, as previous generations had favored protectionism, a method of trade that heavily restricted the quantity of goods being imported and exported. 
With the improved transportation that was demanded by the market came widespread urbanization. People were able to move further and establish consistent work with a livable wage. Cities like New York City and Chicago saw steadily increasing numbers of workers migrating for work. This quickly solved any trouble with labor shortages at the time. Steamboats and new railways allowed manufacturers to send their goods far and wide at previously unseen speeds. All of this gave way to the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. 

America’s Second Round of Industrial Revolution

America’s Second Industrial Revolution is synonymous with the American Technological Revolution. Throughout the late 19th century and into the early 20th century, the country experienced another stretch of enormous economic growth. What marked this revolution were the technological advancements. Examples included the machine tool, a method of cutting and shaping products with ease, and interchangeable parts, machines with completely identical pieces to fit into all assemblies of the same type.

An etching of an early mill.Machinery wasn’t the only new technology to hit the market. The telegraph, sewage, gas and water supplies, electrical power, and telephones were all invented and began appearing in the homes of Americans with some regularity. An abundance of steel production allowed more than 75,000 miles of railroad track to be built in the 1880s, which in turn increased the ease of transportation for both goods and people. Petroleum production began in 1848, when a young Scottish chemist created a small business refining crude oil. Soon, the method had gone global. Kerosene lighting followed this, proving a much cheaper way of creating light that vegetable oils, tallow, and whale oil. After 1914, gasoline, the discarded byproduct of oil refining, was used to power automobiles. 
Rubber, bicycles, cars, ships, and science were all places that witnessed incredible advancement thanks to the second wave of the Industrial Revolution. Fertilizer was invented in 1837 when German scientists Justus von Leibig discovered how ammonia could help plants grow. The first set of telecommunications was installed in the Tower of London in 1837. This was a rapid success that resulted in telecommunications systems appearing all over the world. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell used this technology, combined with minor modifications, to invent the telephone. 

How the United States Changed

Improved sewage systems meant improved public health. The number of disease cases dropped dramatically. Similarly, the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869 meant Americans could travel nearly anywhere in the United States will relative ease. The Gilded Age saw a rise in people like J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, with their massive holds on important industries in the American economy. With the increasing rate of production, there was an increase in jobs. For the first time in American history, work was plentiful and available for both men and women. The Second Industrial Revolution came to a peak around the turn of the century, finally ending in 1914. 
Many of today’s modern technologies and manufacturing processes can be traced back to an invention from the Industrial Revolution. During this time, new standards were set, and new technologies created that set the tone for future decades. Improved efficiency in production allowed America to become a leader in the global marketplace. Human creativity and ingenuity made all this possible. The Industrial Revolution transformed America and allowed the country to grow into the nation witnessed today.