History of manufacturing in America
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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1782-1789: Oliver Evans invents bulk material handling
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.
1790: Samuel Hopkins receives the first patent
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.
1790: Samuel Slater builds America’s first factory
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.
1794: Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin
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.
1798: Eli Whitney begins working with interchangeable parts
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.
1804: Oliver Evans invents the amphibious digger
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.
1807: The Clermont sets sail
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.
1830s-1840s: The Industrial Revolution changes how things are made
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.
1830: The steam locomotive is born
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.
1846: Elias Howe patents the sewing machine
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.