The world’s population can be broadly categorized into two groups: those who live in industrialized nations and those who do not. The manufacturing revolution that evolved over more than two centuries is the force that created that divide. Manufacturing—the process of converting raw materials into usable goods—launched the United States as a superpower at the turn of the 20th century just as it launched China’s economy into the 21st. There is a direct correlation between a country’s ability to produce quality goods quickly and cheaply and its ability to wield power on the world stage.
There was a time where virtually everything was individually custom made. Hand-made, one-of-a-kind products are slow to build and expensive to buy. The era of manufacturing, however, gave people and companies the power to churn out an unprecedented number of those shoes, clothing, guns, and furniture—and most anything else, for that matter—at speeds never before possible. The history of manufacturing involves radical innovations like factories, assembly lines, sewing machines, cotton gins, steam-powered diggers, trains, coal, iron, and steel—but it’s also a story of people.
Some of the key players in the history of manufacturing were brilliant and dynamic individuals—inventors, engineers, builders, and titans of industry who are still household names today. Millions of others, however, labored in the mills, factories, sweatshops, and mines, living and dying anonymously. The manufacturing movement created countless jobs and cost countless lives. Amazing developments like steam-powered trains and boats saw early use as tools of industry, but went on to change the human experience far beyond the necessity of moving heavy raw materials from ports to factories. Using a variety of sources, Stacker compiled a timeline that highlights key moments in the history of manufacturing in America. Keep reading to learn about the innovations and inventions that transformed the United States into the greatest manufacturing powerhouse the world has ever seen.
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The birth of modern manufacturing can be traced to the early 1780s, when American inventor Oliver Evans began experimenting with the first automated flour mill. He developed the concept of continuous process milling, which relied on five so-called bulk material handling devices. His machines and processes soon caught on across the country because they reduced manpower by 25% while increasing output—the era of automation had begun.
On April 10, 1790, President George Washington signed a bill that created the U.S. patent system. Later that year, Philadelphian Samuel Hopkins received the country’s first patent, which he earned for his new method of making a fertilizer ingredient. For the first time, inventors could safeguard the legal rights to their ideas, creations, and intellectual property.
Also in 1790, a British-born former industrial spy named Samuel Slater revolutionized not only the textile industry, but the future of manufacturing. While living in Rhode Island, Slater built a water-powered cotton-spinning mill that workers first powered by walking on a treadmill. Human workers were now using a machine to dramatically increase their productivity and consistency in spinning cotton into thread.
In the late 18th century, Southern planters were facing soaring demand for cotton, which would soon motivate the textile revolution in the North and in Europe—and all of it was picked and cleaned by hand. In 1794, Eli Whitney patented his invention of the cotton gin, which separated cotton fiber from its seeds automatically. A monumental shift took place, as the huge labor force dedicated to cleaning cotton—virtually all enslaved—could now be tasked with planting and picking much, much more of the global cash crop.
As the 19th century approached, Eli Whitney landed a massive contract to produce guns for the U.S. government. After much experimentation, Whitney developed—or at least dramatically improved upon—the concept of making identical machines that could swap identical, interchangeable parts. For the first time, each gun—or any mechanical product, for that matter—no longer had to be custom made.
Nearly 20 years after he developed bulk material handling, Oliver Evans invented a 17-ton, high-pressure dredge that was powered by steam. Called the “amphibious digger,” it was used to deepen key portions of the Delaware River. It displayed the awesome practical possibilities of steam-generated power, which would fuel the coming Industrial Revolution.
Steam wasn’t only good for digging a single scoop of dirt with the power of thousands of handheld shovels, a fact that American engineer and inventor Robert Fulton made clear in 1807. That year, Fulton invented and built a boat designed to be fitted with a British steam engine. Called the Clermont, his boat made the 150-mile trip from New York to Albany on the Hudson River in a record 32 hours. The invention turned rivers into highways for ferrying raw materials, supplies, products, and, eventually, people.
The monumental developments that came in the preceding decades would reach a critical mass in America in the mid-1800s as the Industrial Revolution took shape. The era of making, sorting, processing, and refining individual products by hand was over. Now, coal, water, and steam were used to power machines, tools, and factories that turned massive amounts of raw materials into products at record speeds.
Decades before trains revolutionized how people traveled, they changed the way materials and products were moved from port to factory, factory to warehouse, warehouse to distributor facility, and beyond. It all started in 1830 with the creation of Tom Thumb, America’s first steam locomotive. Tom Thumb was built specifically to convince the owners of the newly formed Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad to use steam-powered engines instead of horses to pull cars on their rails.
In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire seared into the American consciousness images of endless rows of seamstresses working long hours for low pay in bleak, dangerous, death-trap factories. The massive clothing and shoe industries that would lead to that tragedy were officially born in 1846, when American inventor Elias Howe patented the world’s first cheap, practical lockstitch sewing machine.
Cornelius Vanderbilt—a self-made man who dominated American industry and died one of the richest men in the world—epitomized the American dream for many in the mid-19th century. He made his first fortune as a steamship entrepreneur before turning his attention to the next revolution of overland transportation technology: railroads. He was the first of a new breed of industrialist titans and his legacy would spawn generations of giants with names like Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller.
By 1879, Thomas Edison had produced and patented a working lightbulb with a carbonized filament that could burn for more than 14 hours straight. The impact it had on society—from street lamps to department stores—is well documented, but what might just be the most significant change brought about by the arrival of electric light is often overlooked. Now that workers could see in the dark, factories could run 24 hours a day: the night shift was born.
Fledgling labor unions had come and gone in the past, but the founding of the AFL in 1886 proved to be a benchmark for the American working class. Throughout much of the Industrial Revolution, human workers were as expendable, disposable, and replaceable as the tools they wielded. The AFL was the start of the modern organized labor movement, a bloody and consequential era that pitted powerful corporations and their political backers against average workers demanding fair pay, decent conditions, and job security.
By the end of the 19th century, monopolies dominated the industries that served as the lifeblood of American manufacturing: oil, coal, railroads, and steel. The 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act was the nation’s first significant antitrust legislation, which banned companies from conspiring to fix prices, eliminate competition, and otherwise corner the market. The greatest trust-buster in American history, President Theodore Roosevelt, would wield the Sherman Act as a powerful weapon against these corporations during his presidency.
Banking magnate J.P. Morgan co-founded U.S. Steel in 1901 by merging the steel empire built by Andrew Carnegie’s Carnegie Steel with the Federal Steel Company and National Steel Company. The result was a corporate juggernaut––worth tens of billions of dollars in today’s money––that shaped the nation and transformed the nature of manufacturing. It produced nearly two-thirds of all steel at its peak, and its finished product was used to build everything from skyscrapers to cars to trains.
Henry Ford produced 15 million identical Model Ts between 1908-1927. The way they were made, however, is arguably the most important innovation in the history of manufacturing. By 1913, Ford had broken down the production of the Model T into 84 distinct steps, and each worker was trained on just one of these steps along a moving line which brought the work to the workers. Using Eli Whitney’s concept of interchangeable parts and the conveyor belt systems he had seen used in grain mills, Henry Ford invented the modern assembly line.
Throughout the history of manufacturing and up to the end of the Great Depression, corporations generally sought to extract as much labor for as little money as humanly possible from the workers who toiled in the factories, mills, mines, and sweatshops that fueled the Industrial Revolution. People, including small children, worked for 10-16 hours a day in terrible and dangerous conditions, six or even seven days a week, for starvation wages with virtually no recourse. In 1938, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which mandated standards like the 40-hour workweek, the minimum wage, and child labor restrictions. It remains the bedrock of American labor law today.
When the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, America mobilized for war—and the charge was led by the country’s massive manufacturing industry. From Maytag to Rolls-Royce, American companies stopped producing consumer goods and retrofitted their factories and assembly lines to produce tanks, planes, fighter engines, and other military necessities. It was big business: the American military-industrial complex was born.
The emergence of computer-aided design (CAD) in the 1950s and 1960s allowed machine tools to make precise and consistent cuts not through the skill of talented tradespeople, but by direction received from computer software programs. The emergence of CAD, which is still widely in use today, signaled the start of manufacturing in the digital age.
For American workers, 1970 represented the greatest leap forward in labor protections since the FLSA in 1938. The Occupational Safety and Health Act requires employers to create and maintain workplaces that are safe from known hazards like extreme temperatures, untethered work at heights, toxic chemicals, excessive noise, and unsanitary conditions. Those and other conditions had plagued, and often killed, generations of manufacturing workers.
The year 1979 represented the pinnacle of U.S. manufacturing, with 19.4 million Americans working in the sector. By early 2010, fewer than 11.5 million manufacturing jobs existed, despite steep population gains over the previous three decades. Thanks to automation, robotics, and the arrival of computer technology, however, output has actually increased.
IBM began marketing the first practical personal computer in 1981. The moment signaled the greatest transformation in front-office management in the history of manufacturing. From employee records and sales slips to invoices and order manifests, the personal computer instantly relegated the paper ledger to the dustbin of history.
For generations, traditional processes of casting, forging, tooling, and machining—the heart of manufacturing—were achieved by removing layers of raw materials, like steel, until the desired cut or shape was achieved. 3D-printing, which can now produce everything from firearm receivers to boat hulls, dramatically increases speed and reduces waste by instead adding materials layer by layer, with the help of CAD software, to create three-dimensional products. The concept can be traced to the 1970s, but 3D printing came of age in 1992, when 3D Systems developed the stereolithographic apparatus (SLA).
At the dawn of the new millennium, the Enterprise Integration Act laid the groundwork for the era of smart manufacturing that drives the sector today. It authorized the sprawling National Institute of Standards and Technology to collaborate with major manufacturing industries in developing and implementing standards for enterprise integration in the 21st century.
The first robots appeared on American assembly lines in the 1980s, but they were a far cry from the artificial intelligence and automation that is steadily overtaking modern manufacturing in the digital age. One of the most exciting, yet controversial, innovations in generations, automated (or “smart”) manufacturing uses advanced robotics, big data, and sophisticated computer software to complete tasks much faster and more precisely than their human counterparts ever could.
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