The Industrial Revolution was a major event in history which had an enormous impact on the way the world functioned. It 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. 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. To name a few, Richard Arkwright used his water frame to usher the factory system which transformed the textile industry; James Watts’ steam engine powered locomotives and ships during the revolution; Henry Bessemer invented a process that allowed for mass production of steel; Thomas Edison patented a practical electric light bulb which would revolutionize indoor lighting; and the Wright Brothers initiated the age of aviation through their work in the field. Here are the 10 most important inventors of the Industrial Revolution who contributed significantly in laying the foundations of the modern world.
#1 Sir Richard Arkwright
Lifespan: December 23, 1732 – August 3, 1792
Born in Lancashire, England into a poor family, Richard Arkwright went on to become the “cotton king“ and is considered among the fathers of the Industrial Revolution. During his time the textile business was a cottage industry. Making textiles, especially cotton which was in high demand, was a long and laborious process. There was a race to find a mechanical solution to this problem and Arkwright knew he could make a fortune with the right kind of invention. Arkwright was a barber by profession but his entrepreneurial mind soon pushed him into the wig making business. In 1775, Arkwright made improvements to Lewis Paul’s Carding machine which converted raw cotton buds into a continuous skein of cotton fibres. He then took out a patent for it. A few years later, working on ideas of Lewis Paul and Thomas High, he patented the water frame which harnessed power from water to spin stronger cotton. In 1771, he set up a large water powered mill on the banks of the River Derwent in Cromford, Derbyshire. Arkwright is not remembered for his mechanical innovations which are anyway suspect. His contribution was the highly disciplined and profitable factory system he set up at Cromford through which he generated fabulous wealth for himself and his country.
#2 James Watt
Lifespan: January 30, 1736 – August 25, 1819
James Watt was born in Greenock on the south-west coast of Scotland. He wanted to be a mathematical instrument maker. At the age of 17, he took some training and opened a shop in Glasgow University in 1757 making mathematical instruments. In 1763, Watt was asked to repair a model Newcomen engine belonging to the university. For almost 50 years now, Newcomen’s engine was being used without any improvements. After experimentation, Watt realized that about three-quarters of the thermal energy of the steam was not being utilized as the engine cylinder was being heated and cooled in every cycle. Watt came up with a solution by designing a separate condensing chamber for the steam engine; and to maintain the temperature of the cylinder at the same temperature as the injected steam, he surrounded it with a “steam jacket.” His first patent in 1769 covered this device and other improvements on the Newcomen engine. By 1776, Watt had teamed up with Matthew Boulton, who urged him to convert the reciprocating motion of the piston to produce rotational power. The sun and planet gear was patented in 1781 and the following year he patented the double acting engine, in which the piston pushed as well as pulled. Watt’s steam engine went on to power machinery, locomotives and ships during the Industrial Revolution. It is considered the defining innovation of the early Industrial Revolution.
#3 George Stephenson
Lifespan: June 9, 1781 – August 12, 1848
George Stephenson was born to Robert and Mabel Stephenson near Newcastle in Britain. Unable to attend school due to the finances of his family, he was driving horses that carried coal carriages by the age of 10. At the age of 17, he became an engineman at Water Row Pit in Newburn. In 1811, a steam engine was damaged and George offered to repair it. He was so successful in his effort that he was quickly made responsible for maintaining and repairing all the colliery engines. Solving numerous problems, Stephenson became an expert in steam driven technology. In 1813, George Stephenson was invited to a neighbouring colliery to repair the “steam boiler on wheels“ constructed by John Blenkinsop to haul coal out of the mines. Stephenson thought that he may do better and in 1814, aged 33, Stephenson combined the tramways and the steam engines to make the first commercially viable locomotive named “Blucher“. Its engine could draw eight loaded wagons uphill carrying 30 tons of coal at 6 km per hour. There were challenges with the Blucher but Stephenson kept on improving his invention. In 1815, Stephenson applied for patent for his safe lamp that would burn in gaseous atmosphere. Stephenson was unrefined and came from poor background with a bucolic accent. He was accused of stealing but was later exonerated after an enquiry. In 1819, he created an eight mile railway in Sunderland; the first railway to be solely machine powered. The biggest breakthrough however came in 1825 with the opening of Stockton and Darlington Railway. It was named locomotion and hauled an 80-ton load of coal and flour 14 km in two hours, reaching a speed of 39 kilometres per hour on one stretch. It also pulled the first passenger car, carrying the first passengers on a railway with George being the driver.
#4 Eli Whitney
Lifespan: December 8, 1765 – January 8, 1825
Eli Whitney was born to a respectable farming family in Massachusetts, America. It is said Eli had an instinctive understanding of mechanisms. Aged 11, he operated a profitable nail manufacturing operation in his father’s workshop and was the country’s sole maker of ladies’ hatpins at one time. After studying at Yale and failing in attempts at being a teacher, Whitney landed at Mulberry Grove plantation on invite of Catherine Greene. Here he met Greene’s fiancé and his future partner in business, Phineas Miller, and made his famous cotton gin. The cotton gin was a mechanical device that removed the seeds from cotton, a process that had previously been extremely labour intensive. He had managed to reduce the work of weeks into a few days making cotton growing highly profitable in America. After perfecting his machine, Whitney secured a patent for his cotton gin in 1794. He and Miller went into business manufacturing and servicing the new gins. Apart from the cotton gin, Whitney developed the concept of mass production of interchangeable parts, which revolutionized the manufacturing industry in the United States.
#5 Sir Henry Bessemer
Lifespan: January 19, 1813 – March 15, 1898
Born in Charlton, England, Henry Bessemer would go on to become a highly successful inventor with a minimum of 129 patents including movable dyes, screw extruder and embossed postage stamps. However, he will always be remembered for his steelmaking process that would remain the most important technique for making steel for over a hundred years and due to which he is considered among the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. Henry Bessemer was the son of Anthony Bessemer, an engineer and inventor, who had moved to Paris where he became a member of the French Academy of Science. The inventive ways of Henry Bessemer manifested themselves at a young age and his earliest innovations were focused on the family business of typography and printing. During the Crimean War in the 1850s, Henry Bessemer worked on the problem of manufacturing cheap steel for British Navy. Cannons were traditionally made of cast iron. However the material was proving unsuitable for use in the new, rifle-style guns that fired spinning balls. It created excess pressure causing them to explode. While working on a furnace, Bessemer 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. As he refined his process, Bessemer found that his steel was lighter and easier to shape and that his process could produce far greater quantities.
#6 Samuel Morse
Lifespan: April 27, 1791 – April 2, 1872
Samuel F. B. Morse was born in Massachusetts, U.S. as the first child of clergyman Jedidiah Morse of Calvinist faith and Elisabeth Finley Morse. After graduating from Yale in 1810, Morse pursued a career in painting, studying art in Britain with several masters including Benjamin West. In 1815, he returned to America and had to shift from his romantic style with large canvases to portraits for financial reasons. In 1832, while returning from Europe, Morse met the inventor Charles Thomas Jackson, and the two got into a discussion about using electromagnetism to develop some kind of a communication system. After witnessing Jackson’s many experiments with an electromagnet, Morse was intrigued and made some sketches of a mechanical device that he believed would accomplish the task. Several attempts at a similar communicating device were being made all around the world. German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and physicist Wilhelm Weber built the first commercial electromagnetic telegraph in 1833. English inventors William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone managed to create a multi wire telegraph in 1837. In 1838, after some years of financial troubles and with the valuable help of Leonard Gale and Alfred Vail, Samuel Morse made the first demonstration of his single wire telegraph which was far simpler, more efficient and easier to use that any of its competitors. The Morse telegraphic apparatus was officially adopted as the standard for European telegraphy in 1851 and laid the foundations for future innovations of telephone, fax machine and Internet communications.
#7 Nicolaus Otto
Lifespan: June 14, 1832 – January 26, 1891
Nikolaus August Otto was born in Holzhausen an der Haide, a small village on the Rhine river in Germany. Due to political and family circumstances, Otto left high school and worked as a salesman and then as a merchant selling tea, sugar and kitchenware. In 1860, Belgian engineer Jean Joseph Lenoir patented the novel gas engine in Paris. This was the first workable internal combustion engine and it was based on the same principal as the external steam engine. In 1861, Otto along with his brother built a copy of the Lenoir engine basing it on liquid fuel and applied for a patent; but it was rejected. Perhaps dejected with the idea Otto’s brother gave up on the concept. In 1864, Otto was lucky to meet Eugen Langen, who was a technician himself and owner of a sugar factory. Langen saw that, though imperfect, Otto’s engine had possibilities. He agreed to invest in Otto and his engine. Together they formed a company named Otto and Cie to manufacture engines. In 1876, Nicolaus Otto managed to construct a four stroke compressed charge engine which is acknowledged as the “Otto” cycle engine. The term Otto cycle is applied to all compressed charge, four cycle engines. The four cycles are downward intake stroke – coal-gas and air enter the piston chamber; upward compression stroke – the piston compresses the mixture; downward power stroke – ignition of the fuel mixture by flame and later electric spark; and upward exhaust stroke – releases exhaust gas from the piston chamber. Otto’s innovation was the precursor of the modern internal combustion engine that later fired many industries including the automotive industry.
#8 Thomas Edison
Lifespan: February 11, 1847 – October 18, 1931
Thomas Alva Edison was born in Ohio, America. He dropped out of school after a few months and was taught majorly by his mother Nancy Edison, who had been a teacher. Aged 12, Edison sold fruit, snacks and newspapers on a train. In an unexpected turn of events, Edison once saved a little boy from a train and was taught how to use the telegraph by the boy’s grateful father. He briefly worked as a telegraph operator in 1863 for the Grand Trunk Railway. In 1869, Edison took out his first patent for the electric vote recorder which did not find any suitors. In 1876, he built his most famous laboratory at Menlo Park, where he created several of his great innovations. He is thus credited for the creation of the first industrial research laboratory. Edison went on to become one of America’s leading businessmen and innovators. He held 1,093 US patents in his name, as well as many patents in the United Kingdom, France and Germany. These included the phonograph, alkaline battery, universal stock ticker, a battery for an electric car, recorded music, motion pictures and, not to forget, the incandescent light bulb. His inventions had a major impact worldwide. Electric light and power utilities, sound recording and motion pictures all established major new industries across the world. They also contributed to mass communication and, in particular, telecommunications. Thomas Edison is considered by many as America’s greatest inventor.
#9 Nikola Tesla
Lifespan: July 10, 1856 – January 7, 1943
Nikola Tesla was born in the Serbian village of Smiljan in the Austrian Empire (present day Croatia). It is said that as a young boy he had a knack of making home crafting tools and mechanical appliances. He was particularly adept at solving mathematical problems and was hence sometimes accused of cheating by his teachers. In 1881, Tesla moved to Hungary and, in 1882, to Paris, to work with Continental Edison Company. Seeing his work Edison’s manager Charles Batchelor suggested that Tesla be brought to the United States to work at Thomas Edison’s Manhattan headquarters. In 1884, Tesla migrated to America and worked briefly with Edison’s company. He later claimed he was offered the sum of $50,000 to solve a series of engineering problems Edison’s company faced. Having achieved the feat, Tesla said he was then told that the offer had just been an American joke. Quitting and failing in his own start-up venture he reportedly worked as a ditch digger for $2 a day. In 1887 and 1888, he was granted more than 30 patents for his inventions and he would eventually have more than 300 of them. Throughout his career, Tesla discovered, designed and developed various ideas, many not patented by him like induction motors, radars, x rays etc. He made dozens of breakthroughs in the production, transmission and application of electric power. Nikola Tesla is now considered a brilliant and eccentric genius whose inventions enabled modern-day power and mass communication systems. He is most well-known for his Tesla coil and the alternating current electricity distribution system.
#10 The Wright Brothers
Lifespan: Wilbur (April 16, 1867 – May 30, 1912); Orville (August 19, 1871 – January 30, 1948)
Controversy have plagued the Wright Brothers as the inventors of the flying machine with many competing claims of early aviators. However, their contributions in the fields of aviation were indeed a giant leap in the formation of the modern aircraft. The development of the plane would dramatically change warfare and civil aviation; and power us into the modern world. Since 1899, Wright Brothers continuously experimented with the science and mechanics of flight taking over a thousand flights from atop Big Kill Devil Hill; designing a lightweight commercial engine; and a more efficient airplane propeller. The long efforts of the brothers would bear the first fruits on December 17, 1903 when they would partially succeed in the first powered flight. This small step would leapfrog the aviation industry. The Wright brothers knew that the key to solving “the flying problem” was to develop a reliable method of pilot control. Their fundamental breakthrough was the invention of the three-axis control, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium. This method became and remains standard on fixed-wing aircraft of all kinds.