10 Inventions of the Industrial Revolution

The Industrial Revolution (c.1760-1840) introduced many new inventions that would change the world forever. It was a time epitomised by the wide scale introduction of machinery, the transformation of cities and significant technological developments in a wide range of areas. Many modern mechanisms have their origins from this period.

1. Spinning jenny

Spinning jenny was a spinning engine invented in 1764 by James Hargreaves. Able to be operated by unskilled workers, it was a key development in the industrialisation of weaving, as it could spin many spindles at a time.

A model of spinning jenny.

2. Newcomen steam engine

In 1712, Thomas Newcomen invented the first steam engine. It was used predominantly for coal mining to pump water out from the mines which would allow the miners to dig for coal further down.

The engine would use coal to create steam which operated the steam pump. It was, however, dreadfully inefficient as it required huge amounts of coal to function.

3. Watt steam engine

During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Scottish engineer James Watt sought to improve Newcomen’s engine. He thus invented the first practical steam engine.

Watt’s engine was very similar to Newcomen’s, but it required less fuel to run and was thus much more efficient and attractive to potential buyers. It was introduced commercially in 1776 and became the basis for future developments that saw the steam engine become the main source of power for a large variety of British industries.

The Smethwick Engine was a Watt Steam engine installed near Birmingham. It is the oldest working steam pump in the world. Credit: IMechE1 / Commons.

4. The locomotive

The first recorded steam railway journey took place on 21 February 1812, when Richard Trevithick’s ‘Pen-y-derren’ locomotive carried ten tons of iron, five wagons and seventy men 9.75 miles in four hours and five minutes. The journey had an average speed of c. 2.4 mph.

Twenty five years later, George Stephenson and his son, Robert Stephenson, designed ‘Stephenson’s Rocket’, the most advanced locomotive of its day. The Rocket’s design – with its smoke chimney at the front and a separate fire box in the rear – became the template for future steam locomotives for the next 150 years.

The first passenger carriage in Europe pulled by Stephenson’s Rocket in 1830.

5. Telegraph communications

On 25 July 1837 Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone successfully demonstrated the first electrical telegraph that was installed between Euston and Camden Town in London.

The next year they installed the system along thirteen miles of Great Western Railway (from Paddington to West Drayton). It was the first commercial telegraph in the world.

Meanwhile in America, the first telegraph service opened in 1844 when telegraph wires connected Baltimore and Washington D.C.

One of the main figures behind the invention of the telegraph was the American Samuel Morse, who also went on to develop Morse Code that allowed the easier transmission of messages across telegraph lines and is still used to this day.

Samuel Morse’s original telegraph.

6. Dynamite

Dynamite was invented by Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, in the 1860s. Prior to its invention, gunpowder (called black powder) had been used to shatter rocks and fortifications. Dynamite, however, proved stronger and safer, quickly gaining widespread use.

Alfred called his new invention dynamite, after the ancient Greek word ‘dunamis’, meaning ‘power.’ He did not want it to be used for military purposes but, as we all know, the explosive was soon embraced by armies across the world

7. The photograph

In 1826, French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented the first permanent photograph of a camera image. He took it from his window using a camera obscura, a primitive camera, creating the earliest surviving photograph of a real-world scene.

The earliest surviving photograph of a real-world scene, made by Joseph Nicephore Niepce using a camera obscura.

8. The typewriter

In 1829 William Burt, an American inventor, patented the first type-writer which he called a ‘typographer’. Although it was dreadfully ineffective (actually proving slower to use than writing something out by hand), Burt is nonetheless regarded as the ‘father of the typewriter’.

It was only 38 years later, in 1867, that the first modern typewriter was invented by Christopher Sholes.

William Burt’s typographer.

9. The electric generator

The first electric generator was invented by Michael Faraday in 1831: the Faraday Disk.

Although it was not very effective, Faraday’s discovery of electromagnetic induction (the production of voltage across an electrical conductor in a changing magnetic field) soon led to improvements, such as the dynamo.

The Faraday disk generator.

10. The modern factory

With the introduction of machinery, factories began springing up first in Britain and then across the world.

The man credited with inventing the modern factory is Richard Arkwright, after he constructed Cromford Mill in 1771. It was the first water-powered cotton spinning mill and initially employed 200 workers running day and night with two 12-hour shifts.

Cromford Mill.

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