American Industrial Revolution Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The American Industrial Revolution fostered an increase in the quantity and diversity of consumer goods produced by American businesses, though small businesses employing artisans suffered. In its second phase, the revolution grew to include new businesses mass-producing such items as electric lights, telephones, pharmaceuticals, and automobiles, and by the end of this phase, technological and business supremacy had passed from British to American companies.

For many modern scholars, the use of the term “revolution” to describe disruptively abrupt changes in science, technology, and industries is problematic. Some claim that “Industrial Revolution” is a misnomer, because technological change, with its concomitant socioeconomic influence, has been a gradual, cumulative process, rather than sudden and discontinuous. These scholars prefer to speak of an industrial evolution. Even those comfortable with the idea of an industrial revolution often disagree about where, when, and for how long such revolutions occurred.Industrial Revolution, American

For example, Lewis Mumford, a social critic and historian of technology, argued in his Technics and Civilization (1934) that the first industrial revolution occurred in medieval Europe, when extensive use was made of water and wind power. Others have found fault with the traditional view of the British Industrial Revolution, which several scholars see as extending from 1750 to 1850, for how can “revolution,” which implies sudden change, be properly applied to a process that took a century to complete? Indeed, others argue that the process of modern industrialization was not really perfected until well into the twentieth century.

Similar disagreements exist among scholars over the meaning of the American Industrial Revolution. Several analysts associate this revolution with the change from craft technologies, practiced by artisans working on farms and in small businesses, to specialized machines, operated by technicians in large factories. These analysts believe that the transformation occurred largely between 1790 and 1860. Others assert that the American Industrial Revolution encompasses the advent of the system of Mass productionmass production. They extend the duration of the revolution into the early twentieth century. Those who believe that the revolution was not completed until the mass production system was perfected extend it even further, to 1930 or to World War II.

Those who question the use of “revolution” to describe this American transformation, which took over a century and a half, have a point. However, no one has yet been able to supplant this widely used term, acceptable to ordinary people and to many scholars, to denote the radical transformation of American society from an agrarian nation to one that was increasingly urban and populated by factory workers who mass-produced goods using ever more sophisticated technologies.

From 1790 to the Civil War

The timing of the American Industrial Revolution was crucial: It began after the Revolutionary War, when the British Industrial Revolution was already well under way. Thomas Jefferson, who favored an America of self-sufficient farmers, was appalled by the dehumanizing effects of the British Industrial Revolution, but Alexander Hamilton, who favored an America of big businesses and large factories, used his “Report on Manufactures” (1791) to show that Americans were already forming businesses based on new technologies. He urged the federal government to nurture these businesses with protective tariffs.

Despite Hamilton’s examples of early American industrialization, scholars have traditionally given the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution as the Slater millSlater mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and its birth date as the early 1790’s. Samuel Slater, SamuelSlater was an immigrant from England, where he had worked in a cotton-spinning factory. Textile industryHe was able to gain entrepreneurial support from Moses Brown, a Quaker merchant, to build a water-powered cotton mill based on machinery that had been invented by the British. With the use of child labor, the Slater mill developed into a very successful business, particularly after Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793, providing massive amounts of inexpensive raw cotton to New England mills.

The Slater mill’s success stimulated the construction of other cotton mills throughout New England, and American inventors adapted British inventions in woolen mills. They also created their own technologies: For example, their water-powered shearing machines accomplished in a single day what it had taken hand shearers three weeks to do. During the early decades of the nineteenth century, water-powered textile technologies spread to the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. A congressional report in 1816 was significant, because its data indicated that factory-produced cottons and woolens had by then exceeded homespun goods.

An important event in the evolution of American textile industrialization occurred in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the 1820’s, when a successful system for turning raw cotton into finished cloth at a single site became operative. Besides pioneering comprehensive integrated industrial systems, the Lowell millsLowell mills led the way in employing women (in 1836, almost 80 percent of their nearly seven thousand workers were women). The Lowell system spread to other towns where waterpower was available, and by mid-century, American textile businesses had become serious competitors to their British rivals.

The American Industrial Revolution comprised much more than advances in textile manufacturing. Just as iron was replacing wood as a principal material in structures and certain products, steam began to replace waterpower as a principal power source. Although the steam engine had been developed in England, Americans such as Oliver Evans improved it, and entrepreneurs such as Robert Fulton, RobertFulton applied it to river transportation. Fulton’s Steamboatssteamboat service on the Hudson River was a great financial success, and other businessmen became successful in introducing steamboat service to the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes, and Chesapeake Bay.

John Stevens, who had been a builder of steamboats, became even more well known as a proponent of steam-powered Railroads;technological advancesrailroad transportation. American inventors found that they had to adapt British locomotives to the diverse and challenging landscapes of the United States. Some of their inventions, such as the T-rail, became the standard for railroads throughout the world, and their swivel truck allowed locomotives readily to navigate sharp curves. On the other hand, different railroad companies used different gauges (separations between the rails), and this lack of a uniform system hampered commerce. Nevertheless, by the time of the U.S. Civil War many more miles of railroad track existed in the United States than in all of Europe. American railroad businesses had become major employers of workers, managers, and technical people.

The success of the railroads also stimulated another American industry, iron and steel manufacturing. This industry experienced a transformation from blacksmith shops and local forges to iron mills and the large-scale factory production of iron and steel products. Steel industrySome scholars have argued that the transformation of American iron and steel businesses was more by gradual accretion than by revolution, and that its businessmen of the 1850’s were not unlike their counterparts of the 1750’s. Nonetheless, in cities such as Pittsburgh, which became known as the “Iron City of America,” new processes, such as the rolling and puddling systems, revolutionized the refining of iron, and this iron found a ready market with railroad companies and those businesses and federal armories manufacturing military weapons.

Several scholars believe that it was at such Arms industryarmories as those in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia, that an important event in the American Industrial Revolution took place. John Hall, JohnHall, working at these armories, developed the first system for manufacturing rifles with truly interchangeable parts. Hall’s “uniformity system” was based on a division of labor through which trained workers, using precision gauges and sophisticated machines, were able to manufacture a high-quality, consistently unvarying product. This American system of manufacturing spread to such private businesses as Samuel Colt’s factory in Hartford, Connecticut, which manufactured his famous revolver, and the Wheeler and Wilson Manufacturing Company, which made sewing machines.

By the time of the Civil War, the United States had more than 140,000 manufacturing businesses worth over $1 billion. These businesses produced nearly $2 billion worth of goods and employed more than one million men and 250,000 women. Although textile businesses were the largest, other companies manufactured shoes, clocks, chemicals, and many other consumer goods. The McCormick steam-powered factory in Chicago produced reapers that helped harvest the crops that fed northern soldiers during the Civil War.

American products such as the McCormick reaper and the Colt revolver won prizes at such international world’s fairs as the 1851 London Exhibition (the Crystal Palace), and these international prizes fostered the development of markets for American-made products in European and other countries. American inventors, with their “Yankee ingenuity,” were becoming famous for creating such labor-saving devices as apple-peeling machines and eggbeaters. As Hamilton had predicted in his “Report on Manufactures,” the United States had overcome its handicap of scarce labor by making increasing use of mechanical power to create a new system of manufacturing.

From the Civil War to 1914

During this phase of the American Industrial Revolution, both old and new businesses grew through industrial expansion and systematization into large corporations that used the Assembly-line productionassembly-line mass production of goods to become the most economically powerful companies in the world. Military necessity during the Civil War goaded both government and private producers to manufacture such new things as ironclad ships, breech-loading rifles, minié bullets, and machine guns. After the Civil War, new inventions continued to foster new businesses, and an expanded and systematized railroad system (which became transcontinental with the linking of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads in 1869) helped various companies and farmers distribute their products to consumers all over the United States.

Some scholars see three major new technologies as fundamental to the second phase of the American Industrial Revolution: the internal-combustion engine; devices for the generation, distribution, and use of electrical power; and the creation of many advanced chemicals, such as dyes and pharmaceuticals. During this period, steam-powered facilities replaced water-powered ones, then steam power began to be replaced by electric power. Some corporations became so powerful that their workers unionized, seeking a remedy for low wages and deleterious working conditions. Certain scholars emphasize the change from the American system of manufacturing to modern mass production as the most important transformation in this phase of the American Industrial Revolution.

Because of the large numbers and great variety of businesses that developed during this period, not all could survive in the increasingly competitive marketplace. Those that were most likely to succeed were those that created products for which there was a significant demand and that they could manufacture efficiently and market effectively. For example, a “bicycle boom” occurred at the end of the nineteenth century, and Albert A. Pope, Albert A.Pope, the founder of the American Bicycle industrybicycle industry, was able to adapt methods of the Springfield armory to make high-quality bicycles with interchangeable parts. Alexander Graham Bell, Alexander GrahamBell, who patented his telephone in 1876, initially thought that it would be primarily a business machine. It proved to be extremely popular with the public, however, and Bell’s American Telephone and Telegraph Company became so successful, largely through the creation of an efficient long-distance system, that Bell’s patent has often been called the most valuable in American history.

Thomas Alva Edison, Thomas AlvaEdison registered more than one thousand patents. Many of them led to the creation of successful businesses, and Edison became a successful entrepreneur with the formation of the Edison Electric Illuminating CompanyEdison Electric Illuminating Company of New York in 1880. He not only invented the first commercially viable incandescent lamp but also developed the first electricity generating and distribution system in lower Manhattan, which became the model for other cities such as Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and Philadelphia. The Edison company was also successful in expanding to foreign markets.

For many scholars, the culminating figure in thesecond phase of the American Industrial Revolution was Henry Ford, HenryFord. By establishing methods for making an internal-combustion-engine-powered automobile that was affordable by the growing middle class of the United States, Ford became a very important businessman. He was an advocate of interchangeability, and he devised assembly-line techniques for efficiently putting interchangeable parts together to form a product. He made his first Model T in 1908, and he opened his Highland Park facility in Detroit in 1910 to meet the enormous demand for this automobile.

Because assembly-line workers found their repetitive tasks so boring that they quit their jobs in droves, in 1914, Ford introduced the eight-hour workday and forty-hour workweek, and he increased salaries to $5 per day, far higher than what other businesses offered. So successful was the Ford Motor CompanyFord Motor Company that its techniques rapidly spread to other businesses. In this way, mass production helped foster mass consumption, and Ford established what became a defining business paradigm for the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • Hawke, David Freeman. Nuts and Bolts of the Past. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Traces the evolution of water-driven mills into steam-powered factories through case studies of such businesses as clock-making. Bibliography and index.
  • Hindle, Brooke, and Steven Lubar. Engines of Change: The American Industrial Revolution, 1790-1860. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1986. This extensively illustrated survey explores the forces behind American industrialization. Suggested readings and index.
  • Hounshell, David A. From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932: The Development of Manufacturing Technology in the United States. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984. This book, which won the Dexter Prize of the Society for the History of Technology, emphasizes the evolution of mass production technologies, particularly as experienced by businessmen, managers, and engineers. Illustrated, with a bibliography and index.
  • Hunter, Louis C. A History of Industrial Power in the United States, 1780-1930. 3 vols. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979-1991. Hunter’s massive work has been called essential reading for anyone interested in the technological and industrial development of the United States during the two phases of the Industrial Revolution. Each volume contains many maps, illustrations, charts, tables, and appendixes. Extensive notes and indexes.
  • Kasson, John F. Civilizing the Machine: Technology and Republican Values in America, 1776-1900. New ed. New York: Macmillan, 1999. Highly praised work that attempts to integrate technology, business, and culture. Index.
  • Smith, Merritt Roe. Harpers Ferry Armory and the New Technology: The Challenge of Change. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977. The primary source for an understanding of the origin and development of the American system of manufacturing. Well documented, with an index.


Automation in factories

Automotive industry

Cotton gin

Thomas Alva Edison

Ford Motor Company

Labor history

Labor strikes


Steel industry

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