Study Guide

Age of Great Inventions Introduction

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Age of Great Inventions Introduction

America's Light Bulbs Go Off

You know how at every family gathering, Grams is oohing and ahhing over your newest gadget, gizmo, whozit, or whatzit?

Like most old-timers, she'll say, "Golly gee, it's just magnificent what they can do with technology these days." As she adorably struggles with touch-screen technology, you're like, "Hold your horses, Grams. I just tweeted a stinky review on this yesterday."

Naive grandmas and lousy reviews aside, technological advances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries didn't just equate to a more comprehensive emoji catalog. Those technological advances transformed America.

During the period known as the Gilded Age, the last quarter of the nineteenth century, America had its smarty-pants on, building on the innovations of the first Industrial Revolution and the national networks of transportation and communication established by railroad track and telegraph line earlier in the century. Inventive Americans created brand new industries and tapped into a truly national market for manufactures and consumer goods. 

By 1900, the turn of the century and what historians refer to as the Second Industrial Revolution, American society was one of mass production, mass consumption, and mass marketing. 

Which means...massive amounts of money.

The nation was poised to assume the global lead in technology and industry.

In short, the United States emerged from the final decades of the nineteenth century as an increasingly urban, heavily-industrialized world power—the product of a technological transformation that profoundly altered American life and society in every respect.

What is Age of Great Inventions About and Why Should I Care?

If the Civil War violently demonstrated that the United States was one nation politically, the technology-driven events of the 1880s and 1890s would draw the nation together economically, socially, and culturally as never before.

The America we now know was molded in those years of change and the contours of the society we consider to be "modern" were established largely through the innovations of the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

Someone born into middle or upper-class society in the 1880s might very well have been a telephone-using, streetcar-riding, motion-picture-watching, Coca-Cola-drinking suburban teenager by the early 1900s.

Starting to sound familiar?

While it's hard to draw a line in history saying "modern America starts here," it's easy to see that by 1900 the historical "them" were starting to look a lot more like present-day "us."

Gram's wonderment about today's technologies may seem innocent and adorable, but if we take a step back, it should be easy to understand that we should be impressed by what technology can do. And maybe we should be minding our p's and q's when we talk to Mr. Google.

If you're a fan of your microwave, your in-flight Wi-Fi, and your group chats, pause on submitting the stinky Yelp review.

We have an age of great inventions to thank for getting us to where we are now. 

Age of Great Inventions Resources


Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000-1887 (1888)
Bellamy's classic bestseller captured the anxiety and the optimism of the Gilded Age and introduced thousands of readers to socialist economics by way of science fiction. His vision of the future seems a little creepily authoritarian now, but the book remains a foundation of American technological utopianism and spawned scores of lesser imitators.

Charles William Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (2007)
The essay by technology historian W. Bernard Carlson is probably the best 25-page summation of the subject for a quick overview of technological change (broadly defined to include techniques of organization and management) within a social and cultural context. Another great slim essay in this collection: Robert G. Barrows gives a quick account of the forces that determined and the features that characterized American urbanization, offering plenty of great figures on the development of infrastructure for anyone who has ever wondered just how quickly services from the telephone to sewage treatment spread.

Gary Cross and Rick Szostak, Technology and American Society (1995)
This one's a textbook style, go-to reference for the facts. Not much fun but does a fair job with the history and goes into greater detail about the workings of the technologies themselves than some breezier sources.

Andrea Gabor, The Capitalist Philosophers (2000)
A Times business writer, Gabor has a deep knowledge but a pretty light touch. She opens this book with an accessible, informative, and interesting take on Frederick Taylor that will give anyone a solid grounding of his ideas and immeasurable influence in just 40 easy pages.

Paul Israel, Edison: A Life of Invention (1997)
Edison was the definitive innovator of the period, and Israel is his definitive biographer. This is a long read, but understanding Edison and his career goes a long way toward understanding the process of innovation in the late nineteenth century.


Various Artists, Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, 1891-1922 (2005)
This collection, featuring pioneering African-American recording artists and musicians (as well as Booker T. Washington's Atlanta Exposition Speech), showcases the distinctive styles of post-Civil War music and offers a powerful perspective on the early recording industry.

Various Artists, The 1890s, Volume 1: "Wipe Him Off the Land" (2001)
With songs including the Edison Male Quartet's "My Old Kentucky Home," J.W. Myers' "The New Bully," and Edward Favor's "I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby," this collection hints at the rapidly changing physical, technological, and cultural landscapes of the old American frontier. The accompanying booklet, complete with old photographs and historical essays, help illustrate the decade in which each of these tracks were recorded.

Various Artists, The 1890s, Volume 2: "Wear Yer Bran' New Gown" (2002)
Volume 2 of Archeophone's series on the 1890s offers thirty original recordings from the decade that witnessed the Chicago World's Fair, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the Spanish-American War.

Various Artists, 1915: "They'd Sooner Sleep on Thistles" (2007)
This collection from the Archeophone series features sweet love tunes like Cambell and Burr's "Close to My Heart," as well as songs such as "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" and "Sister Susie's Sewing Shirts for Soldiers" that hint at growing concern over America's role in the war escalating in Europe. Be sure to check out the accompanying booklet, which is filled with interesting historical tidbits and photographs from the time.

Various Artists, 1908: "Take Me Out with the Crowd" (2004)
Another fabulous selection from the Archeophone series, "Take Me Out with the Crowd" offers a light-hearted cross-section of tunes in honor of a time when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, the London Olympics captivated the nation, and Henry Ford introduced the Model T. As with any of the Archeophone discs, the liner notes are not to be missed; each CD's booklet is filled with interesting historical tidbits and photographs from the time.


Transcontinental Railroad
The Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum site maintains a page with several photos from the ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. There are also scans of a few contemporary newspaper chronicles of the event.

Thomas Edison, America's most famous inventor, with a set of incandescent bulbs.

Looking Backward
The cover of Edward Bellamy's famous utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887 (1895 edition) with Bellamy pictured.

Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, circa 1876.

Carnegie's Mill
Andrew Carnegie's first steel mill, the Edgar Thompson Works in Braddock, PA, was among the first American mills to use the Bessemer blast furnace.

Frederick Taylor, engineer and founder of scientific management, circa 1905.

Columbian Exposition
The Chicago Historical Society has a gallery of photos taken at the site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.

Movies & TV

Hell on Wheels (2011-2016)
With this AMC television series, the transcontinental railroad meets sex, drama, and uninhibited western greed. Well, honestly, that was probably there the whole time. These are definitely fictionalized stories, but if you want to supplement your education of the Union Pacific vs. the Central Pacific with some drama, it's worth the watch. And you'll be talking in a western accent for days after watching.

Westinghouse (2008)
The Battle of the Currents: in the DC corner, we have the Thomas "Wizard of Menlo Park" Edison, and in AC corner, "Uncle George" Westinghouse. Who will be crowned the victor? The answer is not so simple, as this documentary––clearly sympathetic to the Westinghouse legacy––reveals.

3:10 to Yuma (2007)
Christian Bale is a Civil War veteran may lose his farm if he cannot find a way to pay his debts. When he is offered a large sum to detain and escort a dangerous outlaw (Russell Crowe) to a train headed to a federal court in Yuma, he must accept. Scenes in this riveting action film present the post-Civil War West as a place where life remained tough, unpredictable, and wild.

The Prestige (2006)
Christopher Nolan's ode to Victorian era magic and mystery is not—NOT—a historical document...but it is a pretty entertaining film and captures the excitement of the early electrical era, when electrification was seen as nothing short of a miracle itself. The association of electricity with magic is not an accident here. Enjoy the film and watch for David Bowie as Nikola Tesla!

EXPO: Magic of the White City (2005)
A must-see documentary, EXPO takes you on a tour of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, an event of epic proportions that, for many Americans, marked the beginning of the twentieth century. Narrator Gene Wilder (star of Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) guides you through the fairground, where guests encountered new technology, extravagant architecture, unique treats, and guilty pleasures.

Edison's Miracle of Light (2005)
Spoiler alert: Edison was the man of the hour when it came to electricity. But this PBS documentary goes deep, uncovering his revolutionizing invention while also going into his "web of personal, patent, and corporate battles."

Transcontinental Railroad (2003)
PBS goes into the massive hullabaloo it took to connect the East and the West: the politics, culture, and the labor.

Chicago: City of the Century (2003)
This is another PBS documentary. If you had to pick a city to study as a microcosm of the nineteenth century, Chicago—built by the technologies of the era—would definitely be it. The film traces the rise of the city to its position of national pre-eminence at the century's close, when it would capture the American spotlight as the site of the 1893 Columbian Exposition as well as the epicenter of violent labor unrest.

The Sound and the Science (1992)
Like The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, this television docudrama chronicles the life and work of the man who invented the telephone and dedicated himself to helping the deaf. The Sound and the Science is a slightly different interpretation, however--one that focuses much more on the relationship between Bell and his deaf wife, Mabel Hubbard.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
Actor Don Ameche stars in this 1930s film drama about the life of the great inventor, Alexander Graham Bell. The film spans several decades, beginning in 1875, when Bell was only a humble young lad experimenting with copper wires. The rest, as they say, is history… or, in this case, historical fiction.


PBS on Technology
The technology-themed section of the PBS American Experience archive is the gateway to the transcripts of several great documentaries and includes resource pages for each film. There's a surprising wealth of information—written by recognized historians—and links to some pretty cool primary documents like the entire list of Thomas Edison's U.S. patents.

Innovators' Biographies
There's also an "Innovators" section on PBS's "Who Made America" website that features biographical sketches of dozens of American inventors, links to articles their work and context, and a time line laying it all out chronologically.

Video & Audio

Edison Films
The early films by the Edison Manufacturing Co. represent one of the great historical collections from the period. You can view lots of them, sorted chronologically here.

Time & Motion Studies
The Prelinger ephemeral film archive has some of the early time and motion study films of Frank Gilbreth (a follower of Frederick Taylor) available for viewing and download. On an interesting side note, the Gilbreth family was the historical basis for the book and film, Cheaper by the Dozen. Huh.

Electrocuting the Elephant
The most bizarre episode in Thomas Edison's campaign against AC electrical power has made it to YouTube. In January of 1903, Edison agreed to electrocute (with alternating current, of course) a six-ton Indian elephant named Topsy that had killed three trainers. But uh, the last of those was reportedly drunk and fed the animal a lit cigarette. In what the New York Times dubbed a "rather inglorious affair," the animal was shocked to death at Coney Island, the famed New York amusement park, before a crowd of 1,500 onlookers. For the morbidly curious with an age-verified log in.

Historical Documents

Edison's Patents
Links to scans of Thomas Edison's original patent for his incandescent bulb lamp and a schematic of the iconic great invention (1879).

Golden Spike Reportage
Along with several photos of the ceremony marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic Museum page includes scans of a few contemporary newspaper chronicles of the event.

Looking Backward
Google Books now has the entire text of Bellamy's Looking Backward: 2000 - 1887 available on the web. Fo free.

Edison's Papers
Rutgers University has a digital collection of many of Thomas Edison's papers on the web. The document sampler link from this page provides a survey of some great materials including an exchange that led to the coining of the term "electrocution."

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