Inventors of the Age

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1870, John D. Rockefeller founds Standard Oil; a photograph of Rockefeller is shown. In 1873, Andrew Carnegie founds Carnegie Steel, and the Panic of 1873 triggers extended depression; a drawing of the Carnegie Steel factory is shown. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patents the telephone; a photograph of Bell is shown. In 1877, the Great Railroad Strike lasts forty-five days; a drawing of the strike is shown. In 1879, Thomas Edison invents the light bulb; a diagram of Edison’s incandescent light bulb is shown. In 1886, a labor rally at Haymarket Square erupts in violence, and the American Federation of Labor is founded; an engraving depicting the Haymarket violence is shown. In 1892, the Homestead Steel Strike occurs; a magazine cover with a drawing of the newly surrendered strikers is shown.

The late nineteenth century was an energetic era of inventions and entrepreneurial spirit. Building upon the mid-century Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, as well as answering the increasing call from Americans for efficiency and comfort, the country found itself in the grip of invention fever, with more people working on their big ideas than ever before. In retrospect, harnessing the power of steam and then electricity in the nineteenth century vastly increased the power of man and machine, thus making other advances possible as the century progressed.

Facing an increasingly complex everyday life, Americans sought the means by which to cope with it. Inventions often provided the answers, even as the inventors themselves remained largely unaware of the life-changing nature of their ideas. To understand the scope of this zeal for creation, consider the U.S. Patent Office, which, in 1790—its first decade of existence—recorded only 276 inventions. By 1860, the office had issued a total of 60,000 patents. But between 1860 and 1890, that number exploded to nearly 450,000, with another 235,000 in the last decade of the century. While many of these patents came to naught, some inventions became lynchpins in the rise of big business and the country’s move towards an industrial-based economy, in which the desire for efficiency, comfort, and abundance could be more fully realized by most Americans.

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