Inventions and Innovation in 19th Century U.S.

"Lightning Express Trains Leaving The Junction" From the American Rairoad Scene series, Currier and Ives 1874

America became a leading producer of goods because a century of ingenuity produced innovation in all areas of industrial and social progress.

The 19th Century in America was a century of innovation and invention. Many factors contributed to the development of practical ideas in communication, transportation, industrial capacity, and everyday life. The agricultural nature of the United States, with an almost limitless supply of land, allowed for significant improvements in farm machinery. The Civil War, fostering a long-term relationship between government and business, led to a period of industrialization unparalleled in the western world, fueled in large part by innovation.

Expanding Agriculture Promotes Farming Innovation

Although pre-dating the 19th Century by 7 years, Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin resulted in a vast expansion of cotton production in the South, which also led to a greater demand for slavery. This was not Whitney’s intention. The Cotton Gin made the process of separating cotton fiber from the seeds easier and faster. Southern planters could now produce far more cotton and increase profits substantially.

In 1831, Cyrus McCormick invented the “reaper.” This innovation allowed farmers to cut far more acres of grain than previously possible, enabling expanded planting and swifter harvesting. In 1837, John Deere introduced the steel plow. Particularly helpful to farmers in the Midwest prairies, the plow made harvesting easier.

The growth of railroads and the building of canals also helped farmers. An expanded railroad system enabled farmers in the distant Midwest and later far West to transport products to eastern markets. Early in the century, canals, notably the Erie Canal, connected Midwestern farmers to Albany and the Hudson River, allowing commodities a faster access to the East.

Transportation Innovation Helps Build American Industry

Peter Cooper produced the first American built locomotive in 1830. It was powered by steam, another innovation dating to 1802 when Oliver Evans developed the first steam engine. Although the railroad industry boasted less than 7,000 miles of track between 1830 and 1850, the Civil War enhanced its usefulness.

By the end of the Civil War, almost 20,000 miles of track ran through the nation. By 1890, the railroad was at its height with over 70,000 miles of track. Not only were railroads freighting goods, however. In 1859, George M. Pullman developed his sleeping car, which made long-distance travel more palatable. It was a new, larger version of Pullman’s passenger car that was used in Abraham Lincoln’s funeral train from Washington to Illinois. The publicity made Pullman’s new car the most sought after passenger car in the industry.

Communication Changes in the 19th Century

In 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse developed the telegraph. Now news could travel throughout the nation at great distances virtually instantaneously. This invention helped with daily communication as well, as newspapers could print stories for their readers as they were happening. The development of the rotary printing press, in 1847 by Richard Hoe, further enhanced newspaper production.

Inventions to Improve Everyday Life in America

The 19th Century saw the invention of the sewing machine in 1846 by Elias Howe. In 1853, Elisha Otis developed the first passenger elevator. Much later, when cities began to benefit from electricity, this invention would allow architects to build the first skyscrapers. Elevators facilitated the rapid movement of people from heights never envisioned before.

A Century of Beneficial Invention

Beyond the obvious examples, the history of the 19th Century is filled with many other American achievements. In 1883, one of the first great suspension bridges was opened. The Brooklyn Bridge was the culmination of the Roebling family’s efforts, John Roebling a German immigrant. It was one of many innovations that helped to make the United States a great nation, ready to compete in the global market.


  1. Robert A. Divine ET AL, America Past and Present 8th Edition (Pearson-Longman, 2007)
  2. Page Smith, The Nation Comes of Age: A People’s History of the Ante-Bellum Years Volume Four (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981); The Rise of Industrial America: A People’s History of the Post-Reconstruction Era Volume 6 (Penguin Books, 1984)