The Second Industrial Revolution

During the Gilded Age, America developed its mass production, scientific management, and managerial skills.

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Key Takeaways

Key PointsThe incredible economic and industrial growth of America after the Civil War became known as the “Second Industrial Revolution.”Large corporations or trusts managed the manufacturing of raw materials such as coal, iron, and oil.The Bessemer process for manufacturing steel led to America’s first billion-dollar corporation, United States Steel.Improvements in workflow, such as mass production and scientific management, contributed greatly to economic growth.Key TermsSecond Industrial Revolution: The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the “Technological Revolution,” was a phase of the larger Industrial Revolution corresponding to the latter half of the nineteenth century until World War I. It is considered to have begun with Bessemer steel in the 1860s and culminated in mass production and the production line.Bessemer process: The first inexpensive industrial process for the mass production of steel from molten pig iron.

The Second Industrial Revolution, also known as the “Technological Revolution,” was a phase of rapid industrialization in the final third of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. The First Industrial Revolution, which ended in the early-mid 1800s, was punctuated by a slowdown in macroinventions before the Second Industrial Revolution in 1870. Though a number of its characteristic events can be traced to earlier innovations in manufacturing, such as the invention of the Bessemer process in 1856, the Second Industrial Revolution is generally dated between 1870 and 1914 up to the start of World War I.

Advancements in manufacturing and production technology enabled the widespread adoption of preexisting technological systems such as telegraph and railroad networks, gas and water supply, and sewage systems, which had earlier been concentrated to a few select cities. The enormous expansion of rail and telegraph lines after 1870 allowed unprecedented movement of people and ideas, which culminated in a new wave of globalization. In the same period, new systems were introduced, most significantly electrical power and telephones.

Growth and Change in Industry

A synergy between iron and steel, and railroads and coal developed at the beginning of the Second Industrial Revolution. Railroads allowed cheap transportation of materials and products, which in turn led to cheap rails to build more roads. Railroads also benefited from cheap coal for their steam locomotives. This synergy led to the laying of 75,000 miles of track in the United States in the 1880s, the largest amount anywhere in world history.

By 1900, the process of economic concentration had extended into most branches of industry—a few large corporations, some organized as “trusts” (e.g., Standard Oil), dominated in steel, oil, sugar, meatpacking, and the manufacturing of agriculture machinery. Other major components of this infrastructure were the new methods for manufacturing steel, especially the Bessemer process. The first billion-dollar corporation was United States Steel, formed by financier J. P. Morgan in 1901, who purchased and consolidated steel firms built by Andrew Carnegie and others.


Diagram of the Bessemer converter: Air blown through holes in the converter bottom creates a violent reaction in the molten pig iron that oxidizes the excess carbon, converting the pig iron to pure iron or steel, depending on the residual carbon.

Increased mechanization of industry and improvements to worker efficiency increased the productivity of factories while undercutting the need for skilled labor. Mechanical innovations such as batch and continuous processing began to become much more prominent in factories. This mechanization made some factories an assemblage of unskilled laborers performing simple and repetitive tasks under the direction of skilled foremen and engineers. In some cases, the advancement of such mechanization substituted for low-skilled workers altogether. Both the number of unskilled and skilled workers increased, as their wage rates grew. Engineering colleges were established to feed the enormous demand for expertise. Together with rapid growth of small business, a new middle class was quickly growing, especially in northern cities.

The period from 1870 to 1890 saw the greatest increase in economic growth in such a short period as ever in previous history. Living standards improved significantly as the prices of goods fell dramatically due to the increases in productivity. This caused unemployment and great upheavals in commerce and industry, with many laborers being displaced by machines and many factories, ships, and other forms of fixed capital becoming obsolete in a very short time span. Crop failures no longer resulted in starvation in areas connected to large markets through transport infrastructure. By 1870, the work done by steam engines exceeded that done by animal and human power. Horses and mules remained important in agriculture until the development of the internal combustion tractor near the end of the Second Industrial Revolution. Improvements in steam efficiency, such as triple-expansion steam engines, allowed ships to carry much more freight than coal, resulting in greatly increased volumes of international trade.

The Second Industrial Revolution continued into the twentieth century with early factory electrification and the production line, and ended at the start of the World War I.

The Transcontinental Railroads

Completed in 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel between the East and West of the United States.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsRailroads replaced stagecoach lines and wagon trains, and provided safer, faster, and cheaper transportation for goods and passengers.Many of the workers on the railroad were army veterans and Irish and Chinese immigrants.Known as the “Pacific Railroad” when it opened, the railroad served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel and opened up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement.The sale of land grants and the transport provided for timber and crops led to the rapid settling of the “Great American Desert.”Key TermsFirst Transcontinental Railroad: A term for a contiguous railroad line constructed in the United States between 1863 and 1869 west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to connect the Pacific coast at San Francisco Bay with the existing eastern U.S. rail network at Council Bluffs, Iowa.Great American Desert: A term used in the nineteenth century to describe the western part of the Great Plains east of the Rocky Mountains in North America to about the 100th meridian. The area is now usually referred to as the “High Plains,” and the original term is now sometimes used to describe the arid region of the Southwest, which includes parts of northern Mexico and the four deserts of North America.Stagecoach: A type of covered wagon for passengers and goods, strongly sprung and drawn by four horses, usually four-in-hand. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for wagon travelers.

The First Transcontinental Railroad was built between 1863 and 1869 to join the eastern and western halves of the United States. Begun right before the American Civil War, its construction was considered to be one of the greatest American technological feats of the nineteenth century. Known as the “Pacific Railroad” when it opened, it served as a vital link for trade, commerce, and travel and opened up vast regions of the North American heartland for settlement. Shipping and commerce could thrive away from navigable for the first time since the beginning of the nation. Much of this line is still used by the California Zephyr, although some parts were rerouted or abandoned.

The construction of the railroad resulted in the end of most of the far slower and more hazardous stagecoach lines and wagon trains. The railroad also led to a great decline of traffic on the Oregon and California Trail, which had helped populate much of the West. The Transcontinental Railroad provided much faster, safer, and cheaper transportation for people and goods across the western two-thirds of the continent. It took one week to travel from Omaha to San Francisco via emigrant sleeping car at a fare of about $65 for an adult. The sale of land grants and the transport provided for timber and crops led to the rapid settling of the “Great American Desert.”


Many army veterans and Irish emigrants were the main workers on the Union Pacific, while most of the engineers were ex-army men who had learned their trade keeping the trains running during the American Civil War. The Central Pacific Railroad, facing a labor shortage in the more sparsely settled West, relied on Chinese laborers who did prodigious work building the line over and through the Sierra Nevada mountains and then across Nevada to northern Utah. The Chinese were commonly referred to at the time as “Celestials” and China as the “Celestial Kingdom.” Labor-saving devices in those days consisted primarily of wheelbarrows, horse- or mule-pulled carts, and a few railroad-pulled gondolas. The construction work involved an immense amount of manual labor. Initially, Central Pacific had a hard time hiring and keeping unskilled workers on its line, as many would leave for the prospect of far more lucrative gold or silver mining options elsewhere. Most of these Chinese workers were represented by a Chinese “boss” who acted as a translator, collected salaries for his crew, enforced discipline, and relayed orders from an American general supervisor. Most Chinese workers spoke only rudimentary or no English, and the supervisors typically only learned rudimentary Chinese. Most of the men received between $1 and $3 per day, the same as unskilled white workers; but the workers imported directly from China sometimes received less.

Building the Railroad

The track laying was divided up into various parts. In advance of the track layers, surveyors consulting with engineers determined where the track would go. Workers then built and prepared the roadbed; dug or blasted through hills; filled in washes; built trestles, bridges, or culverts across streams or valleys; made tunnels if needed; and laid the ties. The actual track-laying gang would then lay rails on the previously laid ties positioned on the roadbed, drive the spikes, and bolt the fishplate bars to each rail. At the same time, another gang would distribute telegraph poles and wire along the grade, while the cooks prepared dinner and the clerks busied themselves with accounts and records, using the telegraph line to relay requests for more materials and supplies or to communicate with supervisors. Usually the workers lived in camps built near their work site.

Tunnels were blasted through hard rock by drilling holes in the rock face by hand and filling them with black powder. Sometimes cracks were found which could be filled with powder and blasted open. The loosened rock would be collected and hauled out of the tunnel for use in a fill area or as roadbed, or else dumped over the side as waste. A foot or so advance on a tunnel face was a typical day’s work. Some tunnels took almost a year to finish; the Summit Tunnel, the longest, took almost two years. In the final days of working in the Sierras, the recently invented nitroglycerin explosive was introduced and used on the last tunnels including Summit Tunnel.

Finishing the First Transcontinental Railroad: Workers celebrating the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsMany of the new workers were unskilled laborers who performed simple, repetitive tasks.New systems of management with clear chains of command and complex bureaucratic systems began with railroad companies and spread throughout American businesses.Many new blue-collar jobs appeared in manufacturing, as well as white-collar jobs for managers.By the beginning of the 1900s, the United States had the highest per capita income and industrial production in the world, with per capita incomes double those of Germany and France, and 50 percent higher than those of Britain.Key Termsmechanization: The use of machinery to replace human or animal labor, especially in agriculture and Administration; the process or practice of running an organization.efficiency: The extent to which time is well used for the intended task.

Frederick Winslow Taylor: Frederick Winslow Taylor, a mechanical engineer by training, is often credited with inventing scientific management and improving industrial efficiency.

The Gilded Age was marked by increased mechanization in manufacturing. Businesses searched for cheaper and more efficient ways to create products. Corporate officials used various techniques, such as timing their workers with stopwatches and using stop-motion photography, to study the production process and improve efficiency. Frederick Winslow Taylor observed that the use of more advanced machinery could improve efficiency in steel production by requiring workers to make fewer motions in less time. His redesign increased the speed of factory machines and the productivity of factories while undercutting the need for skilled labor. Factories became an assemblage of unskilled laborers performing simple and repetitive tasks under the direction of skilled foremen and engineers. Machine shops, comprised of highly skilled workers and engineers, grew rapidly. The number of unskilled and skilled workers increased as their wage rates grew. Engineering colleges were established to feed the enormous demand for expertise.

Railroad Companies and Management

Railroads gave rise to the development of modern management techniques, such as the use of clear chains of command, statistical reporting, and complex bureaucratic systems. Railroad companies systematized the roles of middle managers and set up explicit career tracks. They hired young men at age 18–21 and promoted them internally until a man reached the status of locomotive engineer, conductor, or station agent at age 40 or so. Career tracks were offered to skilled blue-collar workers and white-collar managers, starting in railroads and expanding into finance, manufacturing, and trade. Together with rapid growth of small business, a new middle class was rapidly growing, especially in northern cities. Extensive national networks for transportation and communication were created. The corporation became the dominant form of business organization, and a managerial revolution transformed business operations. By the beginning of the 1900s, the United States had the highest per capita income and industrial production in the world, with per capita incomes double those of Germany and France, and 50 percent higher than those of Britain.

The Inventions of the Telephone and Electricity

The telephone and electric lightbulb are perhaps the two most influential nineteenth-century inventions.

Learning Objectives

Examine the advent of such late nineteenth-century inventions as electricity, the telephone, and the lightbulb

Key Takeaways

Key PointsAlexander Graham Bell invented the first workable telephone, basing his invention on a series of previous primitive examples.Thomas Edison, commonly credited with inventing the lightbulb, actually experimented with previous inventors’ ideas to create the first commercially successful lightbulb by perfecting the filament material.Edison founded the successful Menlo Park research lab to produce innovation.Edison and Nikola Tesla both advocated different systems of electricity delivery; eventually, Tesla’s alternating current (AC) system proved more practical.Key Termsalternating current: An electric current in which the direction of flow of the electrons reverses periodically having an average of zero, with positive and negative values; especially such a current produced by a rotating generator or alternator.Nikola Tesla: (July 10, 1856–January 7, 1943) A Serbian-American inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer, electrical engineer, and futurist who was an important contributor to the use of commercial electricity, and is best known for his contributions to the modern alternating current (AC) electrical supply current: An electric current in which the electrons flow in one direction, but may vary with time.

The Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell is commonly credited as the inventor of the first practical telephone. He was the first to obtain a patent, in 1876, for an, “apparatus for transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically,” after experimenting with many primitive sound transmitters and receivers.

Patent drawing for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, March 7, 1876: Bell’s telephone was the first apparatus to transmit human speech via machine. His work culminated in one of the most profitable and contested of all nineteenth-century patents.

Bell’s telephone transmitter (microphone) consisted of a double electromagnet, in front of which a membrane, stretched on a ring, carried an oblong piece of soft iron cemented to its middle. A funnel-shaped mouthpiece directed the voice sounds upon the membrane, and as it vibrated, the soft iron “armature” induced corresponding currents in the coils of the electromagnet. After traversing the wire, these currents passed through the receiver, which consisted of an electromagnet in a tubular metal can that had one end partially closed by a thin circular disc of soft iron. When the undulatory current passed through the coil of this electromagnet, the disc vibrated, thereby creating sound waves in the air.

The first long-distance telephone call was made on August 10, 1876, by Bell from the family homestead in Brantford, Ontario, to his assistant located in Paris, Ontario, some 10 miles away. In June 1876, Bell exhibited a telephone prototype at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia.

The telephone was instrumental to modernization and labor. It aided in the development of suburbs and the separation of homes and businesses, but also became the reason for the separation between women occupying the private sphere and men in the public sphere. This would continue to isolate women and the home.

Women were regarded as the most frequent users of the telephone. As a means of liberation, it enabled women to work in the telecommunications sector as receptionists and operators. The autonomy was celebrated as women were able to develop new relationships and nurture preexisting ones in their private lives. Social relations are essential to the access and usage of telephone networks.

The Lightbulb

Thomas Edison’s major innovation was the first industrial research lab, which was built in Menlo Park, New Jersey, and was the first institution set up for the specific purpose of producing constant technological innovation. Most of the inventions produced there were legally attributed to Edison, though many employees carried out research and development under his direction.

Edison did not invent the first electric lightbulb, but rather the first commercially practical incandescent light. Many earlier inventors had previously devised incandescent lamps, including Henry Woodward and Mathew Evans. Others such as Humphry Davy, James Bowman Lindsay, Moses G. Farmer, William E. Sawyer, Joseph Swan, and Heinrich Göbel had developed early and commercially impractical incandescent electric lamps. These early bulbs had an extremely short life, were expensive to produce, or drew a high electric current, making them difficult to produce on a large commercial scale.

By 1879, Edison had produced a new concept: a high resistance lamp in a very high vacuum, which would burn for hundreds of hours. While earlier inventors had produced electric lighting in laboratory conditions, dating back to a demonstration of a glowing wire by Alessandro Volta in 1800, Edison concentrated on commercial application. He was able to sell the concept to homes and businesses by mass-producing relatively long-lasting lightbulbs and creating a complete system for the generation and distribution of electricity.

Electric lighting in factories greatly improved working conditions, eliminating the heat and pollution caused by gas lighting, and reducing the fire hazard to the extent that the cost of electricity for lighting often was offset by the reduction in fire insurance premiums. Electric light was much brighter than that of oil or gas lamps, and there was no soot. Although early electricity was very expensive compared to today, it was far cheaper and more convenient than oil or gas lighting.


In 1831 and 1832, Michael Faraday discovered the operating principle of electromagnetic generators. The principle, later called “Faraday’s Law,” is that an electromotive force is generated in an electrical conductor that is subjected to a varying magnetic flux, as for example, in a wire moving through a magnetic field.

The improvements in electrical-generation technology increased the efficiency and reliability greatly in the nineteenth century. The first magnetos only converted a few percent of mechanical energy to electricity. By the end of the nineteenth century, the highest efficiencies were more than 90 percent.

In the early days of commercial electric power, transmission of electric power at the same voltage as used by lighting and mechanical loads restricted the distance between generating plant and consumers. In 1882, generation was with direct current (DC), which could not easily be increased in voltage for long-distance transmission. Different classes of loads (for example, lighting, fixed motors, and traction/railway systems) required different voltages, and so used different generators and circuits.

Due to this specialization of lines and because transmission was inefficient for low-voltage high-current circuits, generators needed to be near their loads. It seemed, at the time, that the industry would develop into what is now known as a “distributed generation system,” with large numbers of small generators located near their loads.

The transmission of electric power with alternate current (AC) became possible in 1881 after Lucien Gaulard and John Dixon Gibbs built what they called the “secondary generator,” an early transformer provided with 1:1 turn ratio and open magnetic circuit.

The “War of Currents”

Edison’s true success, like that of his friend Henry Ford, was in his ability to maximize profits by establishing mass-production systems and obtaining intellectual-property rights. George Westinghouse became an adversary of Edison when he promoted the direct current (DC) for electric power distribution instead of the more easily transmitted alternating current (AC) system invented by Nikola Tesla and promoted by Westinghouse. Unlike DC, AC could be stepped up to very high voltages with transformers, sent over thinner and cheaper wires, and stepped down again at the destination for distribution to users.

The problem with DC was that power plants could only deliver DC electricity economically to customers within about one and a half miles (about 2.4 km) from the generating station, so that it only was suitable for central business districts. When George Westinghouse suggested using high-voltage AC instead, as it could carry electricity hundreds of miles with only marginal loss of power, Edison waged a “War of Currents” to prevent the adoption of the AC system.

The war against AC involved Edison in the development and promotion of the electric chair (using AC) as an attempt to portray AC as having greater lethal potential than DC. Edison continued to carry out a brief but intense campaign to ban the use of AC or to limit the allowable voltage for safety purposes. As part of this campaign, Edison’s employees publicly electrocuted animals to demonstrate the dangers of AC. On one of the more notable occasions, Edison’s workers electrocuted Topsy the elephant at Luna Park, near Coney Island, after she had killed several men and her owners wanted her put to death.

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AC eventually replaced DC in most instances of generation and power distribution, enormously extending the range and improving the efficiency of power distribution. Though widespread use of DC ultimately lost favor for distribution, it exists today primarily in long-distance high-voltage direct current (HVDC) transmission systems.