5.5F Technology of the Industrial Age


AP Theme

Technology and Innovation

Learning Objective 5F

Explain how technology shaped economic production over time.

Historical Development 1

Steam and combustion engines made it possible to harness new and existing energy sources such as coal and oil. These new energy sources increased the energy available to human societies.

Historical Development 2

The second industrial revolution led to new methods in producing steel, chemicals, electricity, and precision machinery during the second half of the 19th century.

Historical Development 3

Railroads, steamships, and the telegraph made exploration, development, and communication possible in interior regions globally, which led to increased trade, migration, and conquest.


The Industrial Revolution occurred in phases and was not one event. The technologies of the first stage led to the mechanization of textile manufacturing and the invention of the steam engine. The second stage resulted in more efficient energy sources like internal combustion and stronger building materials like steel. Together these innovations revolutionized communication and transportation technologies.

Phase 1 (1750s – 1860s)
Phase 2 (1870 to 1920)
  • Water and steam power
  • Early use of the factory system
  • Internal combustion and electric power
  • Mass production of heavy industry like rail networks

Industrial Revolution 1.0: Mechanization and the Steam Engine

Main idea

There were two periods in the early Industrial Revolution (pre-1900). The first Industrial Revolution focused on simple mechanization and stream power. The earliest innovations were in the textile industry.

The first stage of the Industrial Revolution started with simple mechanization powered by hand or water wheels in the textile industry. In the 19th century, steam engines increasingly powered factories.    

The spinning jenny: James Hargreaves (1720 – 1778) invented the spinning jenny in 1764. It was one of the earliest industrial innovations. This machine allowed one person to turn a wheel by hand to spin eight spools of yarn at once. Previously a single individual had only spun one spool of yarn at a time.

The water frame: In 1769, Richard Arkwright patented the water frame that used a water wheel to power a threading machine that could thread 128 threads simultaneously.

The cotton gin: American inventor Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin. The machine worked by turning a wheel and feeding raw cotton through the machine to remove the seeds. This one machine eliminated one of the most labor-intensive parts of cotton production.

The steam engine and steam power

The steam engine replaced water as the primary power source for factories after the invention of the steam engine. James Watt (1736 – 1819) created the first commercially successful steam engine design in the late 18th century after improving on the ideas of earlier inventors. Watt’s steam engine worked by burning coal to heat water. The steam from the boiling water went into a pressurized tube. A valve released the built-up pressure to turn turbines that powered factory machines. Watt’s steam engine became the primary power source in industrial factories that produced paper, flour, cotton, iron, and textiles. Watt became a very wealthy man.

Impacts of the steam engine on factory production: The steam engine was the most significant advance in the industrial factory system up until that point. Steam led to the following changes:

Freed from the need for animal, water, or wind power to move machine parts, factories could open in more locations.

Factories became more complex as steam power allowed industrialists to build more complex machines.

More complex machines could produce more goods more quickly.

As production increased, industrial goods’ prices decreased, making industrial goods available to people with smaller incomes.

The steam engine in transportation: Steam power also revolutionized transportation technologies.

  • Steam locomotives: Early steam locomotives worked the same way as the basic steam engine. The engines burnt coal to heat water, which produced steam. The pressure of the trapped steam turned a mechanism that turned the train’s wheels. British engineer Richard Trevithick (1871 – 1833) invented the steam locomotive in 1803 for mining operations. Another British engineer, George Stephenson (1781 – 1848), created the first commercial passenger train in 1825. His technology powered the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, which opened in 1830, and was the first intercity passenger train.
  • Steamboats: European and American inventors created the earliest steamboat designs in the late 18th American. Robert Fulton (1765 – 1815) developed the first commercially successful steamer, the North River Steamboat (the Clermont). Service on the steamboat began in 1807 and sailed on the Hudson River between New York City and Albany, New York. Within a few decades, steamboat use spread across the Eastern and Midwestern United States. Passenger steamboats also quickly spread across European rivers. The first transoceanic steamer was the SS Savannah, which made its first journey across the Atlantic in 1819.

The 2nd Industrial Revolution

Main idea

The second Industrial Revolution focused on innovations in more complex machines. Significant innovations were made in metals production, chemical manufacturing, the internal combustion image, transportation, telecommunications, and electrification.

The second Industrial Revolution began in the 1880s and improved upon earlier industrial technologies. Major advances included:

New energy sources to power more advanced engines

New manufacturing technology was capable of the mass production of infrastructure systems like the telegraph, electricity, and railroad networks.

Internal combustion power

In the late 19th century, internal combustion technology became available. Internal combustion works by igniting its fuel source inside the engine, leading to less heat and energy loss than when the fuel source ignites outside the engine. Internal combustion engines were also smaller and could use petroleum-based fuel sources that traveled easier than coal. This engine revolutionized transportation technology and led to the development of automobiles and airplanes. 

Significant milestones in the development of the internal combustion engine include: 

  • 1859: Belgian inventor Etienne Lenoir (1822 – 1900) invented the first commercially successful internal combustion.
  • 1885: German engineer Gottlieb Daimler (1834 – 1900) created the first gasoline-powered internal combustion engine.
  • The 1890s: Rudolf Diesel (1858 – 1913) further innovated the internal combustion engine with his diesel engine, which was more energy efficient. The diesel engine soon became one of the primary power sources of large industrial machines and trains.


In the second half of the 19th century, the production of steam locomotives and ships increased. As a result, ticket prices decreased, allowing more people to travel vast distances more quickly.

Rail: By the 1870s, rail lines crisscrossed the United States and Europe. The first rail line opened in newly industrializing Japan in 1872. Even non-industrialized countries like India had begun building train networks by 1900. This explosion in rail was possible only after steel production rapidly increased in the 1860s. Across the industrialized world, trains became the primary method of moving goods and people—journeys across continents that used to take months were shortened to days. Cities also began investing in building public rail networks for travel within cities. The London Underground was the world’s first underground train system, which opened in 1863 and became electrified in 1890. It is still in operation today, moving an average of 2 million Londoners every day.  

Steamships: By the 1870s, industrial nations had built steam-powered passenger liners and naval vessels.

  • Steel and steam battleships: The first modern battleships appeared in Great Britain in the 1870s when the British Royal Navy built the Devastation-class turret ships. These ships had a steel frame design and massive guns on top of the vessel. The boat had no sails and moved under the power of two steam engines. The United States launched its first steel and steam warship, the USS Boston, in 1884. These ships allowed industrial nations to quickly project their military strength anywhere in the world.  
  • Trans-oceanic passenger steamships: The 1870s also saw the first steam-powered ocean liners for transoceanic transportation. Based in Liverpool, England, White Star Lines operated shipping and transportation routes to multiple international locations. In 1871, their ship, the RMS Oceanic, revolutionized maritime passenger transport by adding electrification and running water. The RMS Oceanic and other vessels like it held thousands of passengers. It was on these boats that millions migrated to the Americas between the 1870s and 1920s.

The automobile: The internal combustion engine’s small size and energy efficiency allowed inventors to design and produce smaller transport vehicles like the automobile.

  • Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz (1844 – 1929) invented the first motorcycle powered by an internal combustion engine. The companies they founded later became Daimler-Benz (Mercedes) in 1926.

  • In 1886, Benz patented the Motorwagen, which looked like a three-wheeled bicycle with an engine.

  • The first American automobile manufacturing company was the Duryea Motor Wagon Company, founded in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1893.

By 1910 the automobile industry in Europe and America was hundreds of thousands of automobiles annually.

Metals (iron and steel)

Throughout the 19th century, scientists significantly improved iron and steel production by increasing the quality of the metals and decreasing their production costs.

Bessemer and Siemens processes: The mass production of strong steel became possible after Sir Henry Bessemer (1813 – 1898) created the Bessemer steel production process. This technique removed iron’s excess carbon and mineral impurities, strengthening iron into steel. The Siemens-Martin process further improved steel production in the 1860s.

  • Impacts of steel: The availability of cheap steel reshaped urban areas as the metal was used to construct larger bridges, railroads, and skyscrapers. The availability of steel cables and sheet steel also led to the construction of larger and more powerful machines capable of producing new consumer goods like cars. Militarily, more powerful weapons like machine guns, tanks, and armored fighting vehicles became possible.


The invention of electrification was called “the greatest engineering achievement of the 20th Century” by the American nonprofit National Academy of Engineering. It revolutionized how people lived their lives. Electrification refers to the multi-step process of producing power and delivering it to a user. The process requires power generation, energy transmission, and energy storage. These different pieces of electrification arrived slowly throughout the 19th century before being put together into the first electric lighting systems. However, not until the 1920s did electrification become common in at least half of homes—and only in the industrialized world.

  • 1821:  Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867) discovered that electric current flows through the coil of a copper wire when a magnet is moved inside the coil. This discovery led to the later invention of electric motors.

  • 1838: Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872) demonstrates sending electrical signals over a wire using his Morse Code machine.  

  • Late 1870:  Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931) built a commercially viable (profitable) electric generator to power his electric lamps.  

  • 1878: Joseph Swan (1828 – 1914) demonstrated the first electric lightbulb a few months below Edison.|

  • 1883: Thomas Edison and Joseph Swan partner to form the Edison and Swan Electric Company.

  • The 1880s: The first public electricity systems are built in industrial countries. Early power generation provided light in public spaces and powered electric street cars.


The earliest telecommunications devices were the telegraph and the telephone.

The telegraph: American Samuel Morse invented Morse code and the telegraph after getting the idea while traveling through Europe. The machine sends electrical signals across a wire in patterns that match letters in the alphabet to form messages.

  • Telegraph networks: England’s first telegraph network opened in 1837. The Atlantic Telegraph Company was formed in London in 1856 to construct a commercial telegraph cable across the Atlantic Ocean. The company completed the construction of the line in 1866. By the end of the 19th century, telegraph cables crisscrossed the world’s oceans. Communication that used to take days, weeks, or months to travel across great distances could now happen in minutes.

The telephone: The next significant telecommunications innovation was the telephone, patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell. Bell also produced the first successful commercial telephone system. He later started the Bell telephone company in 1877. Today, the Bell telephone company is known as AT&T.    

Chemical manufacturing

Chemical manufacturing increased food production and the availability of new products made with artificial materials.  

Agricultural fertilizers:  John Bennet Lawes (1814 – 1900) pioneered using synthetic (artificial) fertilizers in agriculture. Industrial fertilizers increased food production with fewer workers, allowing more people to move to urban areas and take non-agricultural jobs. In 1843, Lawes opened Rothamsted Research, one of the oldest agricultural research institutes in the world.

Rubber and plastic: Chemistry also supplied new materials to industrial manufacturers. In 1839, American Charles Goodyear (1800-1860) invented a new process for the mass production of strong, durable, and elastic rubber. Rubber found its way into hoses, tires, industrial bands, and shoes. Three decades later, in 1869, John Wesley (1837-1920) created the world’s first synthetic plastic. Plastics are the most widely used materials in the modern production of consumer products.

Modern factory processes

Factory processes are the ways that factories produce their products. During the second Industrial Revolution, factory production turned into a science. Factories began changing production methods based on observations. The goal was to increase production speed,  lower costs, and increase profits.

Henry Ford and the assembly line: The assembly line works by moving a product between multiple stations where workers add one piece toward the completion of a finished product. By having many people build a product in numerous steps, workers specialize in their tasks and get fast at completing them. Henry Ford of the Ford Motor Company used the assembly line to mass-produce cars. Ford’s assembly line worked by moving the vehicle down a conveyer belt between workstations. This production process allowed Ford to create the world’s first mass-production car, the Model T.