19th Century

The19th century included the years from 1800-1899.  During those years, improvements in transportation, communication, and technology were so rapid and great that we call them a revolution. A revolution is a noteworthy or important change. The era, or period of years, in the mid to late 19th century became known as the Industrial Revolution, and the changes were remarkable!

Not all changes were good changes, however.  The revolution also brought many problems. There was a new demand for sources of energy and fuel.  Factories and new forms of transportation brought pollution and some new dangers.


A revolution in transportation took place during the 19th century on land and waterways. The building of the Erie Canal had improved transportation and growth in New York State.  It was not long however, before the canal barges were replaced.


In 1807, Robert Fulton launched the world's first steamboat.  It could move a boat against the current in a river by a large paddle wheel that turned in the water. The paddle wheel attached to the back of the boat was powered by a steam engine aboard the boat.  Fulton's first steamboat, the Clermont, traveled at a speed of 5 miles an hour.  Soon Fulton was providing regular passenger service on the Hudson River, from New York City to Albany.

As steamboats became faster and more powerful they became more and more popular.  Soon they were replacing the horse and mule-powered barges on the canals.  Steamboat businesses sprang up all along the waterways of New York State. By 1830, steamboats were the most popular way to travel on the rivers and waterways throughout the United States.


The invention of the steam locomotive again changed the way goods and people traveled. Products could be moved more cheaply and much faster by this new method of transportation. Train cars could also haul heavier loads than boats or wagons.

Railroads for steam powered trains were introduced in the United States in the 1830's. Within five years many small local railroads were operating, most only going a short distance of only a few miles. By 1840, railroads crisscrossed the state of New York.  Many small railroads joined together to connect their tracks and form larger companies.   

In 1869, the first transcontinental railroad, a railroad that crossed the entire country, was completed. By the end of the 19th century, several more transcontinental railroads had been built.  Trips that once took months, now took less than a week.  People could travel, ship goods, or send mail quickly.  Railroads tied the country together and sped the growth of the United States. 


In the early 1800's communication, the sending and receiving of messages or information, was difficult and very slow.  People depended on hearing news from each other.  Many adults did not know how to read or write well.  People who could read and write wrote letters or messages that were delivered by messengers, usually on horseback.  Mail was sometimes lost or stolen.  A revolution in communication came during the middle of the 1800's. The inventions of the telegraph and telephone made communication easier and faster.


[Telegraph Key]

The telegraph was invented by Samuel F. B. Morse in 1844.  With this new method of communication messages could travel over telegraph lines and be received in seconds.  Telegraphs made sending and receiving messages much quicker, but there were also problems.  Telegraphs needed to be sent and received by trained people in telegraph offices.  Not every town had its own office, and sending messages was expensive.  Telegraphs improved communication, but it was not easy for everyone to use.


Alexander Graham Bell

The invention of the telephone greatly changed the daily lives of ordinary people. In 1876 this new faster form of communication was patented by Alexander Graham Bell, a teacher at a school for the hearing impaired.  His invention allowed people to talk to each other over telegraph wires.  The first phone call made over wires was carried just eight miles. Within a year calls were placed over one hundred miles away and the Bell Telephone Company was established.  By the end of 1880, almost 50,000 telephones were in use in the United States. 

Inventions and Technology

There were two eras of industrial revolution in the 19th century.  The first began in the 1840's when steam power came into use.  Factories used steam to power the machines that made the goods they produced. Factories were generally small and employed small numbers of workers. 

The second Industrial Revolution began in the early 1870's, when electricity came in to use.  During this era  many new factories were built.  They were large and hired many employees.   They produced large quantities of goods quickly and more cheaply with machines powered by electricity.  Many people who had been living on farms, or in small towns came to work in factories in large cities. The Industrial Revolution helped change the American way of life. The once rural nation of farmers became an urban nation of industry. 

Electric Lighting

Thomas Edison
Thomas Edison c.1879

In the mid 1800's, homes, buildings and streets in cities and towns across America were lit by gas. Gas lights were an improvement over the oil lamps and candlelight of earlier years, but they were smelly and sometimes dangerous. In 1879, Thomas Edison developed a light bulb that was safe and inexpensive. Although he did not invent the light bulb, his improvement made electric lighting reliable.  The 1879 lamp could only burn for a few hours, but by 1880, he had produced a bulb that lasted for months. By the end of the 19th century, electric lights were replacing gas lights in homes.

Cotton Gin

Scene of women picking cotton

The invention of the cotton gin ("gin" is short for engine) in the early 1800's by Eli Whitney, had a great effect on life in the United States. By 1850, most of the world's cotton was grown in the southern United States.  It was a huge money crop, most of it being sold to factories in the north where it was made into cloth.  Large plantations  owners in the south, and factory owners in the north became wealthy, while the factory workers and field laborers made very little money.  Enslaved Africans and African Americans labored in the cotton fields of the south, growing and harvesting the cotton. Conditions were also harsh in many of the textile factories in the northern states where workers turned the cotton into cloth.  Children worked long hours, along side men and women on dangerous machines for low wages.



revolution:  a noteworthy or important change
patent:  a right to ownership of an invention
era:  a period of years
employed:  hired
employee:  a worker
rural: in the country, away from cities
urban: cities and suburbs around the cities
industry:  a business, factory or trade
money crop:  crops grown to sell for profit
plantation:  large farms, especially in the southern states
textile:  cloth or fabric
wages money paid for doing a job

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