The Industrial Revolution was a great period of innovation. People started looking for ways to automate production through better machines, more powerful transportation, and more reliable energy sources.
The discoveries during the Industrial Revolution paved the way for many of the modern technology that we enjoy today. Here are some of the top 20 inventions of the Industrial Revolution.
1733: The flying shuttle
Necessity is the mother of invention. One of the earliest machines of the Industrial Revolution was the flying shuttle, which is essentially an automatic loom that allowed the weaver to make wider fabrics in a shorter amount of time. It was invented by English inventor John Kay, and led to France and England becoming one of the world’s biggest producers of fabric in the 1700s.
The flying shuttle was particularly significant because it created a Domino effect. While the loom automated weaving, other stages in cloth production—from preparing raw materials to spinning thread—were still done by hand.
Thus, to meet the potential for sales and production, inventors began working on machines that could automate the rest of the textile industry (as well as other industries that could generate profit). This desire for automation eventually became the impetus for the Industrial Revolution.
1764: The Spinning Jenny
Traditionally, raw materials like yarn and cotton had to be hand-spun, one thread at a time. This process was often done at home and involved the entire family. Children would clean the raw materials, and adults would spin and pack the thread. However, the time it took to make a single ball of yarn often led to a gap between supply and demand.
Then in 1764, a carpenter named James Hargreaves developed a metal frame with eight spindles operated by a single wheel. Later Spinning Jenny models had as many 120 spindles that were powered by steam, but these were too large to fit into a small home. Production shifted from the home to factories that employed hundreds of workers.
1769: Watt steam engine
A steam engine is a machine that uses steam power to do mechanical work. While Thomas Newcomen is credited for inventing the first steam engine in 1712, it used atmospheric pressure, which required a lot of heat. This made it too expensive and impractical for commercial use.
James Watt made several improvements to the Newcomen engine, such as adding cooling cylinders and condensers, and sealing the piston to prevent heat loss. His model was more compact and used half the coal while producing more power.
Soon, the Watt steam engine was adapted by factories from every industry, and used to power machines, boats, and later steam cars that travelled over railroads.
The use of steam power had a big impact on society. Previously, people relied on wind or water energy which could not be stored. However, steam power used fuel like coal that could be transported. Factories could be built everywhere, and goods could be shipped faster and over longer distances. Industrialization and trade went “full steam ahead.”
For this alone, the steam engine is clearly one of the top 20 inventions of the industrial revolution.
1790: Factory and assembly line system
As industries turned to more and more machines for their processes, it became necessary to create a system for production and quality control. This led to the birth of the factory system.
John Lombe already built a silk mill as early as 1721, but the “modern factory”—which included several machines and workers performing different coordinated tasks—is credit to Richard Arkwright.
His Cromford Mill used the “latest” water-powered cotton mills and employed more than 200 workers. He enforced structures like shifts and work quotas, checked attendance, and had different levels of pay depending on skill and experience.
However, Arkwright (and many other owners of factories that had sprouted across the continent) often employed child workers, and held gruelling 12-hour shifts.
This drew a lot of public criticism and controversy; in fact, Engels (who worked with Marx to write Das Kapital) was the son of a textile magnate, and his essay The Condition of the Working Class in England played an important role in the development of their socio-political theory.
1794: Cotton Gin
One of the goals of the Industrial Revolution was to automate repetitive, laborious, and time-consuming tasks.
For example, cotton harvesting required the removal of small seeds from fiber. This was slow and tedious work that significantly slowed down the process. However, the invention of the Spinning Jenny had increased the demand for cotton, and it was impractical to hire more laborers for such a simple (and seasonal) task.
Growing and cultivating cotton became a lucrative and less labor-intensive cash crop, contributing immensely to the rise of cotton production in the Deep South. This, in turn, led to an increase in the number of slaves and slaveholders, and to the growth of a cotton-based agricultural economy in the South.
Then in 1794, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Based on the brushes that workers used to remove the seeds, the machine ran the cotton through a revolving cylinder and then passed it through iron mesh that were too small for seed to pass through.
The machine was simple, effective, and could be operated by workers or a waterwheel. However, it had historical impact: since cotton was now an easier and more lucrative crop, cotton production became the dominant industry in the south. This led to an increased in slavery, which later became one of the key factors in the American Civil war.
1800: Electric battery
Alessandro Volta invented the world’s first electric battery in 1800. It was the first device that could produce continuous electrical current, and was instrumental in the study of electromagnetism and the development of more complex electrical equipment.
Volta’s battery consisted of alternated copper and zinc discs plates immersed in chemicals, which was later called the Voltaic pile or the Voltaic cell. While his prototype could only generate a weak charge, it sparked much excitement in the scientific community—pushing forward critical research in electromagnetism and the essential principles of electricity.
Eventually, other scientists were able to improve the battery cell to hold larger charges, but the cost of production meant that it was only viable for commercial use (i.e, telegraphs and street lamps).
Over the next century, various engineers would work on a safe, portable and affordable battery. In 1802, William Cruickshank designed a battery that could be mass produced, in 1859 Gaston Plante invented the first rechargeable battery that used lead acid. The first batteries for home use appeared in the late 1890s, and were used to power telephones.
1810: Tin can
The principle of canning—or preserving food by heating it and then sealing it in an air-tight glass jar—was developed by French chef Nicholas Apert, in response to Napoleon’s offer of prize money to anyone who could find a way to safely preserve food to feed his massive army.
Apert published his findings in 1810, which opened the door for other inventors to apply his process for commercial use.
Less than a year later, Peter Durand invented the first tin can: thin sheets of tin-plated iron that were soldered together into a cylinder. The cans were less fragile, cheaper to produce, and easier to transport than glass bottles.
In 1813, John Hall and Bryan Dorkin opened England’s first food canning factory—though the technology spread quickly across Europe and North America. Originally, the cans were hand-made at the snails’ pace of 6 cans an hour. Then in 1846, Henry Evans developed a machine that could make 60 tin cans an hour, the first step towards mass production of processed food.
Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented the world’s first working camera. He was able to take the first picture in 1816, but it produced a negative image and the image would quickly fade. A negative image is black where it should be white, and vice versa.
Over the next ten years, he experimented with the camera design and different chemical fixes. By 1827, he was able to create a long-lasting (albeit blurry) black and white image.
Niépce passed away in 1833, but his work was continued by his research partner Louis Daguerre. By 1839, Daguerre had developed a camera that could produce a positive, permanent image.
His first prototypes had very long exposure times, but after a few years he was able to shorten it enough to allow family portraits.
In 1839, Alphonse Giroux had developed a commercial consumer camera that cost 400 francs (the equivalent of $7,000 today). The price, long exposure times, and difficulty of developing a plate made it too prohibitive for household use.
Then in 1888, George Eastman invented the first film camera called the Kodak, which cost only $25 and used film. Photography was finally something that anyone could do any day.
Many great inventions are actually built on the findings and developments of several people, especially when it deals with a complex scientific concept.
For example, the first electromagnet—which harnesses the charges or power found in the interaction of electrically charged particles —Is credited to William Sturgeon. However, he drew from the discoveries of Hans Christian Oersted, Andre-Marie Ampere, Dominique Francois Jean Arago, and many more.
However, Sturgeon was able to figure out how to increase the magnetic field, by inserting a wire coil and bending iron to create the iconic “U” shape so the poles would be in closer proximity. His invention.
That opened up new and practical applications. Now that people had a specific, concrete way to concentrate magnetic energy, it could now be incorporated into machines. In fact, electromagnets were integral to the telegraph, electric motor, and other modern technology.
1824: Portland cement
The Industrial Revolution led to an increase of trade, production, and urbanization. People left the countryside to find work in the cities.
This led to an increase of construction: factories, mass housing, and even roads and bridges to promote the transport of raw materials and finished goods. Thus, a lot of research was done on cost-effective construction materials such as cement.
Joseph Aspdin invented a new grade of cement from mixing limestone, shale and clay. He called it Portland cement, because it resembled building stones found in the Isle of Portland just off the British Coast.
Portland cement had numerous benefits: it was durable, set faster, used readily-available materials, and could be used for many construction projects from small buildings to large dams. Even today, it is still one of the most commonly construction materials.
1825: Steam locomotive and public railway
The concept of steam locomotives actually dates back to the 1770s, when James Watt secured the patent for the design. However, it was never commercially produced, and other inventors could only experiment and innovate on his work after his patent expired in the early 1800s.
In 1803, Richard Trevithick was able to create a working model. His invention was able to pull 10 tons of coal over 10 miles. Though his locomotive was not powerful enough for commercial use, he introduced the idea of using rails.
Many tried to come up with their own versions of locomotives, including George Stephenson. As early as 1814, he designed one that could haul up to 30 tons of coal up a hill at a rate of 4 miles per hour.
Stephenson was later hired to build 16 more locomotives in the area, including the historic railway line between Liverpool and Manchester. This was the world’s first inter-city steam-powered railway, which kicked off a flurry of construction across Britain and the rest of the world.
By the time Stephenson died—after leading many railway projects in Britain—the country had over 2,440 miles of rails that served 30 million passengers.
Stephenson’s innovations, and his involvement in the development of the railway system, would later earn him the distinction of being the “Father of Railways.”
William Burt invented the first typewriter in 1829, but it didn’t look anything like the keyboards we use today. It looked like a box, and had a lever which you use to bring a letter to the desired printing point. To move to the next line, you had to move the printing mechanism—not the paper.
As clunky as it was, Burt’s invention did spark others to improve on the design. IN 1867, Christopher Latham Sholes developed the first “modern” typewriter with a keyboard. However, letters were alphabetically arranged, and quickly typing frequently-used letters that were next to each other would cause the keys to jam. To solve this, Sholes released the QWERTY keyboard in 1872
1830: Sewing machine
The history of the sewing machine is quite interesting. The first working machine was invented in Barthélemy Thimonnier, a French tailor. It could produce a simple chain stitch, and was functional enough for him to win a contract to make uniforms for the French army.
However, an angry mob of tailors afraid of losing their livelihood broke into his factory and destroyed all his machines. This happened twice, and Thimmonier—who never had an opportunity ti use his invention—eventually died in bankruptcy.
In 1846, Elias Howe developed a sewing machine that produced faster and more consistent stitching then even the best seamstress (he even held a Man vs Machine challenged to prove it).
However, because of a combination of bad business partners and bad luck—his wife fell ill, and he had to pawn many of machines and patent papers to raise funds—Howe was not able to immediately take advantage of his invention. In the meantime, copycat machines proliferated, and he took them to court.
In 1861, Isaac Singer developed a different sewing machine, but needed Howe’s permission to use his patented eye-pointed needle. Singer went on to become the world’s leader in household sewing machines, and Howe died a millionaire just form his earnings from the needle patent.
1831: Electric generator
The Industrial Revolution was driven by a need for automation: more machines that could do more work with less time and at lower cost. However, those machines needed power.
The steam engine helped supply some of the power, but it was not always accessible. A scientist named Michael Faraday wanted to harness electromagnetic energy, but with larger capacities than the battery.
Thus, he invented the generator, which converts mechanical energy (or the motion of a magnetic moving back and forth) into electrical energy. It was a scientific breakthrough, and one of the top 20 inventions of the industrial revolution.
Though the early prototypes did not generate a lot of energy, Faraday’s principles are still being used today. In fact, every kind of electrical power—where it is sourced from oil, hydropower, wind power, nuclear power, or solar power—will drive a generator to create current.
Samuel Morse is credited with inventing the world’s first long-distance communication device: the telegraph. The machine used electrical pulses to transit and record letters and numbers, which were represented by dots and dashes.
Morse had the machine ready by 1838 but needed funding and support to refine the technology and set up telegraph lines. On May 24, 1844, he demonstrated its possibility with a historic exchange of messages. He was in Washingon DC, and his associate was in Baltimore. He typed out, “What hath God wrought?” Just a few seconds later, his associate replied in verbatim.
Until then, long-distance communication could only be done through letters (which was slow) or crude signaling with flags, drums, or smoke (which was limited to simple codes). The demo showed the telegraph’s capacity to exchange complex messages instantly and accurately—and immediately gained public support.
By 1849, over 21,000 miles of telegraph lines stretched across the United States. By 1851, all the major cities were connected. The first transatlantic cable and transcontinental cable were up by 1858 and 1861, respectively.
The telegraph played a critical role in domestic and international trade, and even helped lead to a boom in the newspaper industry. Whether it was business instructions, sales appointments, or the latest celebrity gossip, the telegraph meant that information could now be shared in minutes instead of days.
1847: Rotary Press
The first printing press was invented by Johannes Gutenburg in 1440. However, printing was still an expensive and labor-intensive process. Workers had to manually feed paper into the machines, and cut the paper into smaller sheets.
In 1847, Richard Hoe invented a four-cylinder press that could automatically feed large rolls of paper, print on both sides, and then cut them with a serrated edge. It could print up to 8,000 pages an hour—increasing production ten-fold, while cutting down on labor costs.
The invention significantly lowered publishing costs, which paved the way for a boom in newspapers, books, and magazines.
Agricultural technology increased food production and required less manual labor—which was very important during the Industrial Revolution, when booming populations pushed up the demand for food, while more people were leaving farming jobs to pursue more profitable work in the city.
In 1859, Thomas Aveling fashioned the world’s first tractor. He took a portable engine that was originally designed to be pulled by horses into an automized, self-propelled engine.
Over the next few decades, tractor designs would be more powerful and easy to use, largely because of the invention of the internal combustion engine, and more sensitive steering technology.
More machines and construction meant higher demand for coal (which was used to produce steam energy) and building materials. Initially either black powder or nitroglycerin was used to blast through mines and quarries. However, black powder was dangerous when inhaled and hard to control, and nitroglycerin could explode without any kind of warning.
In 1860, the famous Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel—yes, the man behind the Nobel Prize—invented dynamite. It was the first explosives that were safe, stable, and easy to manage.
1860: Internal Combustion Engine
Cars, boats, trains, planes—almost every form of modern transport was only made possible with the invention of the internal combustion engine.
Combustion is a chemical process when fuel and air mix and then release energy. Internal combustion engines (IECs) take this energy, and then uses it to move piston, turbines, rotors, or nozzles to activate any device the engine is installed on.
Étienne Lenoir invented the first commercially viable IECs in 1860. However, his invention was the culmination of discoveries from the 1790s, such as John Barber’s gas turbine and Thomas Mead’s gas engine.
Lenoir’s work was also enhanced by the refinements made by other engineers in the 1860s and 1870s. In 1879, Karl Benz was able to develop a two-stroke IEC gasoline engine and began the world’s first commercial production of motor vehicles.
1879: Incandescent light bulb
While Thomas Edison may be remembered as the man who invented the lightbulb, you could say that several other inventors lit the way for him.
This included Alessandro Volta who made the voltaic pile that could generate electricity, Sir Humphrey Davy who made an electric lamp by attaching voltaic piles to charcoal electrodes, and Joseph Swan who introduced carbonized paper filaments.
Edison improved Davy’s filament by replacing carbonized paper with carbonized bamboo, which had a higher electrical resistance and could burn for 1,200 hours. And thus, the world’s first commercial lightbulb was born.
Lightbulbs had a big (and bright) impact on society. The lights improved productivity and allowed early morning or late evening shifts; it reduced the risk of fire from candles and the pollution caused by oil lamps.
And with the lightbulb, came the night life: entertainment venues that operated around the clock, theaters that used lighting for dramatic effect, evening soirees and parties.