Top 10 Industrial Revolution Inventions

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Loading of iron ore

Mass producing iron drove the mechanization of other inventions during the Industrial Revolution and even today. Where does iron mining reside on our list?


Top 10 Industrial Revolution Inventions

The Industrial Revolution -- an innovative period between the mid-18th and 19th centuries -- thrust people from a predominantly agricultural existence into a more urban lifestyle.

Although we label this era a "revolution," its title is somewhat misleading. The movement that first took root in Great Britain wasn't a sudden burst of advancement, but rather a buildup of breakthroughs that relied on or fed off one another.

Just as the dot-coms were integral to the 1990s, inventions were what made this epoch unique. Without all those soaring, ingenious minds, many of the basic goods and services we use today wouldn't exist. Whether adventurous souls dared to tinker with existing inventions or to dream of something brand-new, one thing's for sure -- the revolution changed the lives of many people (yours included).

Charles Babbage's brain

He looks ready to plumb the brain of the father of computers, on display at the British Royal College of Surgeons in 2002.

Sion Touhig/Getty Images

10: Difference and Analytical Engines

For some of us, the phrase "put your calculators away for this exam" will always elicit anxiety, but those calculator-free exams give us a taste of what life was like for Charles Babbage. The English inventor and mathematician, born in 1791, was tasked with poring over mathematical tables in search of errors. Such tables were commonly used in fields like astronomy, banking and engineering, and since they were generated by hand, they often contained mistakes. Babbage longed for a calculator of his own. He ultimately would design several.

Of course, Babbage didn't have modern computer components like transistors at his disposal, so his calculating engines were entirely mechanical. That meant they were astoundingly large, complex and difficult to build (none of Babbage's machines were created in his lifetime). For instance, Difference Engine No. 1 could solve polynomials, but the design called for 25,000 separate pieces with a combined weight of around 15 tons (13.6 metric tons) [source: Computer History Museum]. Difference Engine No. 2, developed between 1847 and 1849, was a more elegant machine, with comparable power and about one-third the weight of its predecessor [source: Computer History Museum].

Impressive as those engines were, it was another design that led many people to consider him the father of modern computing. In 1834, Babbage set out to create a machine that users could program. Like modern computers, Babbage's machine could store data for use later in other calculations and perform logic operations like if-then statements, among other capabilities. Babbage never compiled a complete set of designs for the Analytical Engine as he did for his beloved Difference Engines, but it's just as well; the Analytical Engine would have been so massive that it would have required a steam engine just to power it [source: Science Museum].

bike ice sculpture

Dunlop would have been horrified by those tires made of ice. Not comfortable in the slightest!

Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

9: Pneumatic Tire

Like so many of the era's inventions, the pneumatic tire simultaneously "stood on the shoulders of giants" while ushering in a new wave of invention. So, although John Dunlop is often credited with bringing this wondrous inflatable tire to market, its invention stretches back (pardon the pun) to 1839, when Charles Goodyear patented a process for the vulcanization of rubber [source: MIT].

Before Goodyear's experiments, rubber was a novel product with few practical uses, thanks, largely, to its properties changing drastically with the environment. Vulcanization, which involved curing rubber with sulfur and lead, created a more stable material suitable for manufacturing processes.

While rubber technology advanced rapidly, another invention of the Industrial Revolution teetered uncertainly. Despite advancements like pedals and steerable wheels, bicycles remained more of a curiosity than a practical form of transportation throughout most of the 19th century, thanks to their unwieldy, heavy frames and hard, unforgiving wheels.

Dunlop, a veterinarian by trade, spied the latter flaw as he watched his young son bounce miserably along on his tricycle, and he quickly got to work on fixing it. His early attempts made use of inflated canvas garden hose that Dunlop bonded with liquid rubber. These prototypes proved vastly superior to existing leather and hardened rubber tires. Before long, Dunlop began manufacturing his bicycle tires with the help of the company W. Edlin and Co. and, later, as the Dunlop Rubber Company. They quickly dominated the market, and along with other improvements to the bicycle, caused bicycle production to skyrocket. Not long after, the Dunlop Rubber Company began manufacturing rubber tires for another product of the Industrial Revolution, the automobile.

Like rubber, the practical use for the next item wasn't always apparent, but we should all be thankful that changed.

man at dentist

That guy is so relaxed at the dentist that his eyes are closed. Thank you, anesthesia -- and Horace Wells.


8: Anesthesia

Inventions like the light bulb dominate the history books, but we're guessing that anyone facing surgery would nominate anesthesia as their favorite product of the Industrial Revolution. Before its invention, the fix for a given ailment was often far worse than the ailment itself. One of the greatest challenges to pulling a tooth or removing a limb was restraining the patient during the process, and substances like alcohol and opium did little to improve the experience. Today, of course, we can thank anesthesia for the fact that few of us have any recollection of painful surgeries at all.

Nitrous oxide and ether had both been discovered by the early 1800s, but both were seen as intoxicants with little practical use. In fact, traveling shows would have volunteers inhale nitrous oxide -- better known as laughing gas -- in front of live audiences to the amusement of everyone involved. During one of these demonstrations, a young dentist named Horace Wells watched an acquaintance inhale the gas and proceed to injure his leg. When the man returned to his seat, Wells asked if he'd felt any pain during the incident and, upon hearing that he had not, immediately began plans to use the gas during a dental procedure, volunteering himself as the first patient. The following day, Wells had Gardner Colton, the organizer of the traveling show, administer laughing gas in Wells' office. The gas worked perfectly, putting Wells out cold as a colleague extracted his molar [source: Carranza].

The demonstration of ether's suitability as an anesthesia for longer operations soon followed (though exactly who we should credit is still a matter of debate), and surgery has been slightly less dreadful ever since.

1846 daguerreotype

This mother and daughter got decked out in crinoline and ringlets for their 1846 daguerreotype.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

7: Photograph

Numerous world-changing inventions came out of the Industrial Revolution. The camera wasn't one of them. In fact, the camera's predecessor, known as a camera obscura, had been hanging around for centuries, with portable versions coming along in the late 1500s.

Preserving a camera's images, however, was a problem, unless you had the time to trace and paint them. Then along came Nicephore Niepce. In the 1820s, the Frenchman had the idea to expose paper coated in light-sensitive chemicals to the image projected by the camera obscura. Eight hours later, the world had its first photograph [source:].

Realizing eight hours was an awfully long time to have to pose for a family portrait, Niepce began working with Louis Daguerre to improve his design, and it was Daguerre who continued Niepce's work after his death in 1833. Daguerre's not-so-cleverly-named daguerreotype generated enthusiasm first in the French parliament and then throughout the world. But while the daguerreotype produced very detailed images, they couldn't be replicated.

A contemporary of Daguerre's, William Henry Fox Talbot, was also working on improving photographic images throughout the 1830s and produced the first negative, through which light could be shined on photographic paper to create the positive image. Advancements like Talbot's came at a rapid pace, and cameras became capable of taking images of moving objects as exposure times dropped. In fact, a photo of a horse taken in 1877 was used to solve a long-standing debate over whether or not all four of a horse's feet left the ground during a full gallop (they did) [source:]. So the next time you pull out your smartphone to snap a picture, take a second to think of the centuries of innovation that made that picture possible.

Now That's Dedication, Edison!

Of all his many inventions, Edison held a special fondness for his phonograph. He claimed to have spent 20 hours a day, seven days a week tinkering with the machine in an attempt to properly record the word "species" [source: Dwyer]. And while he might have been exaggerating a bit, we do know that he ended up spending 52 years working to perfect the machine [source: National Park Service].

6: Phonograph

Nothing can quite replicate the experience of seeing your favorite band perform live. Not so long ago, live performances were the only way to experience music at all. Thomas Edison changed this forever when, working on a method to transcribe telegraph messages, he got the idea for the phonograph. The idea was simple but brilliant: A recording needle would press grooves corresponding to sound waves from music or speech into a rotating cylinder coated with tin, and another needle would trace those grooves to reproduce the source audio.

Unlike Babbage and his decades-long endeavor to see his designs constructed, Edison got his mechanic, John Kruesi, to build the machine and reportedly had a working prototype in his hands only 30 hours later [source: Library of Congress]. But Edison was far from finished with his new creation. His early tin-coated cylinders could only be played a handful of times before they were destroyed, so he ultimately replaced the tin with wax. By this time, Edison's phonograph wasn't the only player on the market, and over time, people began to abandon Edison's cylinders in favor of records, but the basic mechanism remained intact and is still in use today. Not bad for an accidental invention.

steam engine illustration

A piston steam engine, pictured here, is pretty typical in locomotives.


5: Steam Engine

Like the revved-up V-8 engines and high-speed jet planes that fascinate us now, steam-powered technology once was cutting-edge, too, and it played a giant role in supporting the Industrial Revolution. Before this era, people used horse-and-buggy carriages to get around, and mining practices were also labor-intensive and inefficient.

James Watt, a Scottish engineer, didn't develop the steam engine, but he did dream up a more efficient version in the 1760s, adding a separate condenser and forever changing the mining industry. (Want to know more? Read "How Steam Technology Works.")

At first, some inventors used the steam engine to pump and remove water from mining holes, which led to better access to resources below. As these engines gained popularity, engineers wondered how they could be improved. Watt's version of the steam engine didn't have to cool down after each stroke, which enhanced mining practices at the time.

Others wondered: Rather than transporting raw materials, goods and even people by horse, what if a steam-powered machine could get the job done?

Similar thinking inspired inventors to explore the potential of steam engines outside of the mining world. Watt's modification of the steam engine led to other developments of the Industrial Revolution, including the first steam-powered locomotives and boats.

Our next invention may be lesser known, but it certainly packs a punch.

tin cans

Enjoy a nice can of soup for lunch? You have the Industrial Revolution to thank for the process that made that meal possible.


4: Food Canning

Open your kitchen cabinets and you're bound to find a particularly useful Industrial Revolution invention. It turns out the same period that brought us the steam engine also altered how we store food.

After spreading from Great Britain to other parts of the world, inventions continued to fuel the Industrial Revolution at a steady rate. One case involved a French chef and innovator named Nicolas Appert. Devising ways to preserve foods without stripping them of their flavor or freshness, Appert tested several methods to store food in containers. Remember, storing food required drying or salt -- treatments that didn't bode well for flavor.

Appert also thought storing food in containers would be useful to sailors suffering from malnutrition at sea. Driven to succeed, he worked on boiling techniques that consisted of adding food to a jar, sealing it and then boiling it in water to create a vacuum-tight seal. He achieved this by developing a special autoclave for food canning in the early 1800s.

The basic concept took hold, and today we enjoy canned goods ranging from Spam to SpaghettiOs.

Guglielmo Marconi, telegraph

Who needs a smartphone when you have this impressive telegraph on your yacht, as Italian inventor and radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi did in the 1930s?

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

3: Telegraph

Before the age of smartphones and laptops, people still used technology to communicate -- albeit at a slower pace -- with an Industrial Revolution invention called the telegraph.

Through an electrical system of networks, the telegraph could transmit messages from one location to another over long distances. The receiver of a telegraph message would interpret the markings produced by the machine, which were encrypted in Morse code.

The first message sent in 1844 by Samuel Morse, the telegraph's inventor, indicates his excitement. He transmitted "What hath God wrought?" with his new system, expressing he had discovered something big. That he did! Morse's telegraph allowed people to communicate almost instantaneously without being in the same place.

Information sent via telegraph also allowed news media and the government to share information more quickly. The development of the telegraph even gave rise to the first wire news service, the Associated Press. Eventually, Morse's invention also connected America to Europe -- an innovative and global feat at the time.

spinning jenny

Hargreaves' spinning jenny had a big impact on textiles.

2: Spinning Jenny

Whether it's the contents of your sock drawer or the most fashionable article of clothing, advancements in the textile industry during the Industrial Revolution made mass production possible.

The spinning jenny had a big part in these developments. Once raw materials such as cotton or wool were gathered, they had to be spun into yarn -- an often laborious task for people.

James Hargreaves had pity on those poor souls. Accepting the challenge of the British Royal Society of Arts, Hargreaves developed a device that exceeded the contest's requirements to spin more than six threads simultaneously. He constructed a machine that spun eight threads at once, dramatically increasing the efficiency of the activity.

Hargreaves' device consisted of a spinning wheel that controlled the flow of material. One end of the machine held the spinning material in place while another spun it into thread by manually spinning a wheel.

Up next: a revolutionary metal.

1: Ways to Mine Iron

Building the infrastructure to support the Industrial Revolution wasn't easy. The demand for metals, including iron, spurred industries to come up with more efficient methods for mining and transporting raw materials.

Over the course of a few decades, iron companies supplied an increasing amount of iron to factories and manufacturing companies. To produce the metal cheaply, mining companies would supply cast iron rather than its expensive counterpart -- wrought iron. In addition, people began to use metallurgy, or the deeper investigation of materials' physical properties, in industrial settings.

Mass producing iron drove the mechanization of other inventions during the Industrial Revolution and even today. Without the iron industry's assistance in the development of the railroad, locomotive transportation may have been too difficult or expensive to pursue at the time.

Interested in more industrial innovations? Check out the resources on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesSources
  • Carranza, F. A. "The Discovery of Anesthesia: The Tragic History of Wells and Morton." University of California Los Angeles. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Computer History Museum. "The Babbage Engine." 2008. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Dwyer, Frank Lewis. "Edison: His Life and Inventions." Kessinger Publishing. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Exploratorium. "The Wheel." (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Hardy, Rob. "Ether Day: The Strange Tale of America's Greatest Medical Discovery and the Haunted Men Who Made It." The American Journal of Psychiatry. Dec. 1, 2001. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Library of Congress. "The History of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph." (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Inventor of the Week: Charles Goodyear." (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Inventor of the Week: John Dunlop." 2008. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Inventor of the Week: Thomas Alva Edison." (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • National Museum of American History. "The Development of the Bicycle." (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • National Park Service. "Thomas Edison: Frequently Asked Questions." Nov. 5, 2011. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Peckham, Matt. "Who Really Invented the Computer." Time Techland. Nov. 10, 2011. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • The Science Museum. "Babbage." (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • Thomas, Roger K. "Crawford W. Long's Discovery of Anesthetic Ether: Mesmerism, Delayed Publication, and the Historical Record." 2003. (Jan. 27, 2012)
  • University of California Los Angeles. "From the Amazon to the Indianapolis 500." (Jan. 27, 2012)