The Industrial Revolution was a period of major industrialization which began in Great Britain in the mid-18th century and spread to other European countries, including Belgium, France and Germany, and to the United States. It is regarded as a major event in history which ushered in the modern era in which we live. The driving force behind the Industrial Revolution was the inventions and innovations which continuously fuelled the event by providing better and better means to increase productivity, develop new processes and enhance distribution. Innovations like the spinning jenny, water frame and power loom transformed the cotton industry, which was the biggest driver of the revolution; James Watts’ steam engine powered locomotives and ships to revolutionize transportation; the telegraph changed the face of communication and laid the base for future innovations of telephone, fax machine and the Internet; and the light bulb stimulated a lighting industry that quickly spread through cities and towns across the world. Here are the 10 most important innovations and inventions of the industrial revolution.


#1 Spinning Jenny

Spinning Jenny of James Hargreaves
The improved spinning jenny that was used in textile mills

In 1764, British carpenter and weaver James Hargreaves invented a device which he called a spinning jenny. It accomplished the complex task of pulling and twisting the cotton cloth to make a strong thread. It is believed that Jenny was short for engine as it was a spinning engine. The machine had eight spindles to begin with and increased the workers output by eightfold. Although the thread was not strong enough, the spinning jenny could fit into a small cottage and be operated by unskilled workers, including children, and was hence extremely popular. It was also the precursor of the water frame by Richard Arkwright in 1768 which produced a stronger thread spinning around 100 spools at a time. In 1771, Arkwright installed the water frame in his cotton mill at Cromford, Derbyshire, on the River Derwent, making it the first factory that completed the process of raw material to finished cloth at a single point. This played a significant part in the ushering of the factory system as he combined power (water), machine and continuous production process with employment practices that would be emulated in the years to come.


#2 Steam Engine

Steam Engine of James Watt
A late version of a Watt double-acting steam engine

The steam engine is termed as the defining innovation of the first industrial revolution in Britain. It was the energy behind advanced inventions in textiles (power loom, spinning mule) and transport (steam powered locomotives and ships) and was one of the primary causes for the transition from human power to machine power. In 1712, British ironmonger Thomas Newcomen combined the ideas of British engineer Thomas Savery and French physicist Denis Papin to make a steam powered engine for lifting water from tin mines. The engine produced a pumping action but no rotating motion and was expensive to run. In the 1760s, James Watt, a Scottish instrument maker, worked along with some professors from the University of Glasgow to improve on Newcomen’s engine. He vastly improved the energy and cost effectiveness of the machine adapting his engine to eventually produce rotary movement and this widened its scope beyond the mining industry.


#3 Power Loom

Power Loom of Edmund Cartwright
A power loom from the 1890s

In 1784, Edmund Cartwright visited the factory of Richard Arkwright where spinning of cotton was done on a large scale. Impressed by the scale of production he deduced that once Arkwright’s patent on spinning expired many factories would spawn all around, and productions would skyrocket. The next obvious step would be to weave the cloth on a large scale. It struck him that as plain weaving required only three movements which were to follow each other in succession, there would be little difficulty in producing them and repeating them. In 1785, Cartwright filed for patent for his power loom but the machine needed improvement. Two years later the loom was powered by steam and work was being done mechanically but the problem of broken threads persisted. Power looms became hugely popular in the 1800s with the help of several adjustments and innovations. It is estimated that by 1850 there were 250,000 cotton power-looms in Britain, of which nearly 177,000 were in Lancashire.


#4 Sewing Machine

Sewing Machine of Isaac Merritt Singer
Singer Treadle Sewing Machine

Although there had been many patents given to sewing machines, most proved to be inefficient and were not successful. The first American lockstitch sewing machine was invented by Walter Hunt in 1832 but it is said he did not patent his invention thinking of the unemployment it may cause. In a lockstitch machine, the needle was pushed through the cloth and created a loop on the other side; a shuttle on a track then slipped the second thread through the loop. In 1845, Elias Howe created an efficient sewing machine patenting the lockstitch method. The first machine to combine all the disparate elements of the previous half-century of innovation into the modern sewing machine was the device built by English inventor John Fisher in 1844. This was a little earlier than the very similar machines built by Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851 which used the foot pedal and no hand crank. However, due to the botched filing of Fisher’s patent at the Patent Office, he did not receive due recognition for the modern sewing machine and Singer won the benefits of the patent. The invention of the sewing machine forever changed the way clothes were made and allowed for mass production of clothing.


#5 Telegraph

Telegraph of Samuel Morse
A printing electrical telegraph receiver, with transmitter key at bottom right

In the year 1800, Italian physicist Alessandro Volta succeeded in making a battery which stored an electric current and allowed the current to be used in a controlled environment. Twenty years later Danish physicist Hans Christian Oersted demonstrated the connection between electricity and magnetism. These two discoveries led to the innovation of the Wheatstone telegraph in 1837 by the British team of William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone. It was however American Samuel Morse who around 1836, with the valuable help of Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, made the single wire telegraph which was far simpler, more efficient and easier to use. The machine worked by transmitting electrical signals over a wire laid between stations. In addition to helping invent the telegraph, Samuel Morse developed the famous Morse code that assigned a set of dots and dashes to each letter of the English alphabet and allowed for the simple transmission of complex messages across telegraph lines. In 1844, the first telegraph service opened in US, between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. and in 1847 Samuel Morse received the patent for his telegraph. The telegraph changed the face of communication and laid the base for future innovations of telephone, fax machine and the Internet.


#6 Hot Blast and Bessemer’s Converter

Bessemer Converter of Henry Bessemer
Bessemer converter, Kelham Island Museum, England

Blast furnaces were used in India and China since ancient times to chemically reduce and physically convert iron oxides into liquid iron. During the first industrial revolution in Britain, when iron was required for galvanizing every major industry, iron making furnaces saw many innovations in Britain. The use of Hot Blast patented by Scottish foreman James Beaumont Neilson in 1828 was a major breakthrough. Neilson realized that the fuel efficiency of the furnace could be increased almost 3 times by blowing it with hot air, rather than cold air. But the most important innovation in the steel industry came from Englishman Henry Bessemer in 1856. While working on ordinary furnace, he discovered that hot air alone had converted the outsides of the iron pieces to steel. He redesigned his furnace so that it would force high-pressure air through the molten iron using special air pumps. This seemed illogical as the high pressure air would cool the iron. However, the oxygen in the forced air ignited silicon and carbon impurities in the iron, starting a positive feedback loop. This raised the temperature of the process making iron even hotter and burned off more impurities, producing a batch of hotter and purer molten iron; which converted to steel more easily. The process would go on to achieve good low cost steel and change the face of the iron and steel industry.


#7 Dynamite


Alfred Noble was the student of the famed French chemist Théophile-Jules Pelouze, who had first synthesized nitroglycerin in 1847 with his Italian pupil Ascanio Sobrero in the University of Turin. Nitro-glycerine was the first practical explosive that was stronger than black powder (gunpowder), that was invented by the Chinese in the 9th century. But it had a major drawback, it was highly volatile and impractical for any commercial use. Noble, however, remained fascinated by the substance. He experimented with various combinations of nitroglycerin and black powder without luck. He came up with a solution of how to safely detonate nitroglycerin by inventing the detonator, or blasting cap, that allowed a controlled explosion set off from a distance but the volatility problem still rendered it useless. Finally using naturally occurring sedimentary rock and fossilized algae he brought from the Elbe River near his factory in Hamburg, Noble managed to stabilize nitroglycerin into a portable explosive. Swedish born Nobel obtained patent for dynamite in 1867. With dynamite, mines could be dug deeper and more quickly, and uneconomical deposits thus became profitable. The extracted tonnage of copper, coal and iron ore increased a hundred fold. This in turn speeded up the making of roads and railways.


#8 Incandescent Light Bulb

Incandescent Light Bulb of Thomas Edison
One of Thomas Edison’s early incandescent light bulbs

In 1806, Humphrey Davy, an Englishman, demonstrated a powerful electric lamp by creating a blinding electric spark between two charcoal rods. This device, known as an “arc lamp”, was impractical for most uses. Throughout the 19th century, it was known to the scientists that electricity when passed through some materials heated them up and made them glow. The problem was that before long either the material would burst into flame or melt into a puddle. One way to stop the fire was to prevent the materials to come in contact with oxygen hence came the vacuum bulb patented by American J. W. Starr in 1845. Some historians claim there were over 20 inventors of incandescent lamps prior to Edison’s version but there is no doubt that he along with his team, especially Francis Upton, were awarded the US patent in 1880 and made the first commercially successful light bulb using Japanese bamboo burners as filaments. Light bulb had a huge impact on the industrial revolution because it allowed the workers to work longer hours at night and in dark places hence improving productivity. It stimulated a lighting industry that quickly spread through cities and towns across the world.


#9 Internal Combustion Engine

Four-Stroke Engine of Nikolaus Otto
Four-Stroke Internal Combustion Engine of Nikolaus Otto

Steam engine was the major source of engine power till the late 19th century. External combustion engines like steam required energy to be delivered to the working fluid, like pressurized water. Internal combustion engine usually refers to an engine in which combustion is intermittent, such as the more familiar four-stroke and two-stroke piston engines. In 1804, Franco-Swiss inventor Isaac de Rivaz created an internal combustion engine which is considered the first of its kind in the world. This engine was however not commercially successful. Belgian engineer Jean J. Lenoir is credited with the first commercially successful internal combustion engine in 1858. However, it was German engineer Nikolaus August Otto who, in 1876, successfully developed the compressed charge internal combustion engine which ran on petroleum gas and led to the modern internal combustion engine. The creation of the internal combustion engine and the auto-mobile had a major impact on industry and the processes used by manufacturers.


#10 Modern Assembly Line

The Modern Assembly Line
The Modern Assembly Line

An assembly line is a line of factory workers and equipment along which a product being assembled passes consecutively from operation to operation until completed. Ransom Eli Olds is considered a pioneer in the American Automotive Industry. Besides his other achievements he is credited with creating and patenting the modern assembly line in 1901. Switching to this process allowed his car manufacturing company to increase output by 500 percent in one year. Olds was the first person to use a stationary assembly line in the automotive industry before Henry Ford created his moving assembly line. The Oldsmobile brand then had the ability to create a vehicle with a low price, simple assembly and stylish features. Their car, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, was the first to be mass produced in large quantities.


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