Many of the major laws of nature that were discovered in the 19th century derived from the observation of already invented devices and their behavior rather than from the use of instruments to observe purely natural events, the process that had characterized the scientific advances of the 17th and 18th centuries. The laws of thermodynamics, the Froude number, Faraday’s laws, the Boltzmann constant, principles of electromagnetism, Ampère’s law, Ohm’s law, and numerous other significant scientific discoveries between 1790 and 1890 are ways of representing the natural laws that govern the operation of human-built machines, electrical devices, pressure chambers, and in the case of Froude, ships and ship models.
The machines were built first; then the principles that governed them were thought through. With the newly discovered principles in place, it was possible to build better machines. As James Clerk Maxwell and others reduced these principles to mathematical formulas, they provided following generations of engineers with new tools with which they could build on the findings in a more organized way, no longer simply relying on cut-and-try methods to improve equipment. By the end of the period, science was beginning to penetrate to an understanding of chemistry and electrical effects, paving the way for the next generation of breakthroughs in the understanding of the building blocks of matter at the atomic level.
In the 17th century, scientists had used instruments to discover and describe natural phenomena. In the 18th century, as technology improved, scientists began to experiment with even better and improved tools such as vacuum pumps and glassware that allowed a deeper
understanding of nature. In the 19th century, with better machining and interchangeable parts, a wide variety of useful engines and electrical equipment was produced, at first almost entirely by mechanics who were not trained in the sciences. Although discovery through improved observation equipment and methods continued, the new machinery raised new and interesting issues for scientists. Some scientists turned their talents to explaining the operation of the man-made equipment. Whereas earlier generations had used tools and equipment to broaden the accumulated wisdom of science, now some 19th-century scientists used the scientific method to understand how equipment itself worked. Thus, while science and technology remained separate enterprises and made progress in different ways, the intersections between the two progressing areas were intricate and had been very much studied in recent decades.
The interplay between science and technology, particularly in the fields of electricity and engine building, led to a host of new practical machines that changed communication, transportation, the home, the workplace, and the farm. Although many engineers in the mid- and even late 19th century were self-taught inventors and mechanics with little formal scientific training, by the end of the century, schools of engineering began to include a more scientific curriculum and to lead engineers through the recently formulated principles of electrical theory, thermodynamics, chemistry, and pneumatics, as well as the principles of scale modeling. A self-taught practical innovator, Thomas Edison, regularly employed not only mechanics and craftsmen but also college-trained chemists and engineers in his invention workshop.
Inventions and methods about which visionaries had only dreamed in prior ages were brought into reality during the era of the Industrial Revolution. The concept of interchangeable parts was discussed by French army officers in the 1790s and then pursued by several inventors such as Eli Whitney and Samuel Colt over the next decades. By the 1840s, tools developed in government-owned and -managed U.S. arsenals began to make it a reality. The historical finding that teams of workers at government facilities led the way has somewhat undermined the heroic mythology surrounding the great individualistic and entrepreneurial American inventors.
Other visionary schemes also received government aid and sponsorship. For example, the generals of the French Revolution demanded a means of communicating rapidly across the European continent, establishing a semaphore system that served as a precursor to the electric
telegraph. The French government offered a prize for a system of preserving food for troops in the field, and methods of canning meat and vegetables resulted.
In the 18th century, dreamers had visualized the day when steam engines could be used to propel ships and land vehicles. Not until after the improvements of James Watt in the 1780s did the dream come closer to realization. The firm of Boulton and Watt, holding a monopoly for 25 years, produced a wide variety of practical steam engines from 1775 to 1800, when many manufacturers sought ways to employ them in new ways. In the first two decades of the 19th century, steam was widely applied to a variety of transportation systems, from the railway to the river steamboat and including some variations such as road vehicles, farm tractors, and cable cars. With the development of screw propellers for ships, oceangoing steamships became more practical, while steam-driven paddlewheel boats remained efficient and effective on rivers and in harbors. The age of steam power changed the face of Europe, North America, and gradually the rest of the planet.
Together, the railroad and the steamship greatly reduced the time it took to travel long distances. The electric telegraph and the submarine cable by the 1860s knitted together Europe and America with instantaneous communication. With the transcontinental railroad and its parallel telegraph lines completed in 1869, it was possible in 1870 to hear of Berlin news in San Francisco within a day of the event.
By the 1880s, engineering progress was steady and regular, with a host of new inventions coming in clusters. People born in 1815 or 1820, who in their childhood had never seen a railroad engine, were exposed by age 65 to internal combustion engines, the phonograph, the telephone, the lightweight camera, refrigeration, the bicycle, the streetcar, the typewriter, and news of the first automobiles. The term Industrial Revolutionwas appropriate to describe the vast changes that had taken place as skyscrapers began to rise and the shape of life was transformed.
The social consequences of the technological advances were vast and for many people extremely disruptive. By the 1870s, the United States began to develop a single price and market system. Some identical brand-name products, from canned meats to patent medicines, were sold all over the nation. Capital-intensive industries employed workers who owned no tools and had few skills, leading to social inequalities that created new political crises. Agricultural lands opened to the national markets with the railroad net, and new farm equipment increased farmers’ productivity. However, increased productivity was
not always a blessing to farmers, as prices of basic commodities like cotton, wheat, and corn declined, catching many farmers in a squeeze between fixed mortgage payments and decreasing revenues for their crops.
By the 1880s, farmers and industrial workers represented a force for political insurgency that began to coalesce into new movements that threatened to change the nature of society. In the United States, government regulation to control railroad rates and other large enterprises was being discussed to address the growing power of bankers and railroad magnates.
Similar developments in Europe led to the rise of radical advocates of social change, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose writings urged a revolutionary outlook on the new generation of working-class people. The ideas of such men held appeal to those who feared that the new industrial arrangements were destroying human values. Others simply blamed the disruptions on the result of individual immorality, seeing greed for money, ostentation, and power as the forces that changed society for the worse.
The relationship between technological progress and social change was at heart a simple matter. Large and expensive machinery produced better products at lower cost than earlier handcraft methods. To pay for the installation of such machines required accumulations of capital, arranged by groups with access to financial resources or credit. Existing laws protecting individual property from trespass, theft, or unauthorized use by others could serve to protect the position of the owners of the new factory equipment. Even though treated in law in similar ways, however, there were some fundamental differences between personal possessions and factory equipment. Since ownership of the tools was now separated from the men and women who used the tools, the producing workers found themselves in a new position. They were simply hired to use the tools owned by others and were therefore powerless to exert choices as to their hours, their compensation, or other conditions of employment. If they did not like any aspect of a job, as free workers they were free to resign or to stop work. Of course, when they did so, they would go without pay. Like household servants, they had no claim to the tools with which they worked, since they did not own them.
The consequence was the formation of labor unions, which had very few strategies to affect the plight of the workers: either collective work stoppage or political action. The decades from the 1870s through the
early 20th century saw one disruptive strike after another and the beginning of the appeal of ideologies and reform strategies that would characterize the labor movement—agrarian reform, populism, socialism, anarchism, and progressive reformism.
Science and technology brought numerous positive social benefits, some tangible and some intangible, despite such disruptions that came with the rise of the factory system, the decline of commodity prices, and the emergence of new huge cities. Improvements in medicine, particularly the use of anesthetics and sterilization of surgical tools, meant that more patients could survive surgery. Travel was not only faster, it also was more comfortable and more available to greater numbers of people at lower prices. Refrigeration and rapid transport of food products meant a more varied diet, less dependent on local supply. The opthalmoscope made the prescription of eyeglasses more accurate and faster. Cheaper and more efficient printing stimulated and was stimulated by increasing literacy. Water supplies, sewer systems, and public lighting improved life in the cities. The sewing machine and the typewriter began to open new employment opportunities for women. All the basic necessities of life declined in real cost: clothing, food, transportation, medicine, and housing. Despite the class struggle stimulated by the Industrial Revolution, technology had brought some undeniable benefits, even to the mass of poor people.
For the middle classes, such as physicians, attorneys, engineers, academics, journalists, and managers, whose employment was less dependent on machinery and tools than on their education, the new technologies provided new sources of entertainment, comfort, and opportunities. By 1890, a person who worked in such a profession could come home, switch on the electric light, make a phone call, go to the refrigerator and take out a cold beer, light a factory-made cigarette with a safety match, then sit down to listen to a phonograph record while reading a newspaper with news of the day from all over the planet. It was a new world, for none of those experiences had been possible 40 years earlier, even to the wealthy.
Some of the developments led visionaries to foretell the technological changes that the next century might bring. Charles Babbage visualized and designed a form of computer. Alexander Graham Bell struggled to build a hearing aid for the deaf. Experiments with the internal combustion engine and with aircraft, submarines, steel ships, and electricity hinted that the dramatic era of progress of the 19th century would continue well into the 20th.