Technology and Business

The late nineteenth century saw an explosion of technological innovation. While the U.S. Patent Office issued fewer than 1,000 patents annually in the years before the Civil War, the average number was over 20,000 per year from 1866 to 1900. A simple innovation could transform entire sections of the economy, such as the introduction of barbed wire (1874) to cattle ranching and farming in the West. Technological breakthroughs could also significantly improve the way an industry operated, as demonstrated by George Pullman's sleeping car (1864) and George Westinghouse's railroad air brake (1868) and their effects on the railroad industry. Within a few decades, a host of new products — the typewriter (1867), the carpet sweeper (1876), the adding machine (1888), and the Kodak hand camera (1888) — came on the market and changed the way Americans worked and played.

Thomas A. Edison and the process of invention. While many of the technological marvels were the work of a solitary inventor, the invention process itself was changing due to the work of Thomas A. Edison and his model of collaborative research. After patenting an electric voting machine (1869) and making improvements to the telegraph, Edison brought together a group of technicians, machinists, and craftsmen at Menlo Park, New Jersey, in 1876, creating the first industrial research laboratory, a factory for inventions. Out of Menlo Park came the phonograph (1877), the first efficient incandescent light bulb (1879), and the first central power station (1882). His larger facility, established in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1887, continued to produce new inventions, including an improved motion picture projector (1897) and the alkaline storage battery (1900). Although Edison personally held more than 1,000 patents, most were the product of the research done in his laboratories.

Edison and Westinghouse. Edison ushered in the electric utility industry in 1882 when his Pearl Street Station produced electricity for 85 customers in New York City. Although the number of Edison power plants grew quickly after 1882, the direct‐current (DC), low‐voltage system that his plants used had a limited transmission range. Long‐distance transmission of electricity became possible with the alternating‐current system that George Westinghouse developed in 1886, in which the high‐voltage current is reduced or “stepped down” by transformers for household use. Although Edison believed that high voltage was too dangerous, Westinghouse eventually won the “battle of the currents.” As a result, the long‐distance transmission capabilities of AC systems allowed for the electrification and dispersement of industry, providing factories with an instant source of power so that their locations were no longer tied to natural power sources, such as water or coal.

Alexander Graham Bell and the communications revolution. In 1876, the same year that Edison opened his research laboratory at Menlo Park, Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone. A curiosity at first, the telephone quickly became an essential feature of the office and a fixture in many homes, and by 1900 there were almost 800,000 telephones in operation in the United States. The patent that Bell received was one of the most valuable ever granted, in part because his company, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, used it to monopolize the telephone's use by bringing patent‐infringement suits against competitors. By the end of the nineteenth century, the long‐distance service provider American Telephone and Telegraph Company consolidated hundreds of inter‐city phone companies.

The telephone was a technological leap beyond the telegraph, which required a trained operator to send and receive messages from the telegraph office. When messages did come in, they had to be “translated” from Morse code and then delivered by messenger, all of which took time. The communication revolution brought about by the telephone was more than just a matter of speed, however; it meant instantaneous direct communication. Moreover, while the telegraph had been used primarily by business, the telephone allowed anyone to talk to anybody about anything. Communication became more egalitarian and informal.