America: Pathways to the Present

by Andrew Cayton

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What led to the rise of industrialization in the US in the late 1800s?

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The main factors that led to the rise of US industrialization were new technologies like steam engines, railroads, and telegraphs that made communication and transportation easier. The ability to source and transport materials across the country with ease turned many local businesses into national companies. Workplace innovations, such as the assembly-line method of production, then allowed these companies to produce goods on a mass scale.

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First, we should be clear about the nature of the industrial boom that occurred in the wake of the Civil War. It was the rise of heavy industry and the production of capital goods that characterized the early phases of industrial growth during this period, and by far the biggest factor contributing to growth was the expansion of the railroads.

Railroads expanded exponentially after the Civil War, and their rapid spread facilitated and spurred industrial growth in several ways. They led to a demand for coal, timber, and especially steel, the most important commodity in this new industrial age. They connected markets, enabling businesses like the meatpacking industry to rapidly increase distribution and production. Moreover, their corporate structures formed a paradigm and a model for other industries.

In addition to this new industry, which spawned many others, industrialization was fueled by the massive influx of immigrants from Europe and elsewhere that provided a large industrial labor force. Another factor was the rapid proliferation of new technologies, a cause and an effect of industrial development. Electric light, assembly lines, the Bessemer steel process, and the telephone were just a few of the myriad innovations that helped spur industrial growth.

A final, often-overlooked factor contributing to industrialization was the role played by the federal government. In the wake of the Civil War, the government spurred the growth of railroads by setting aside massive grants of land, providing subsidies, and other measures. The government also established high tariffs and created a generally pro-business economic climate that facilitated industrial growth.

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The stage was set for industrialization in the late 1800s in several ways in the United States, leading to incredible development. First and foremost, the technology for industrialization was available. With developments like the steam engine, the telegraph, and an increase in the use of steel, technology was faster and better than ever. This advancement gave the United States new technologies to implement.

In addition to experiencing an increased availability of technology, the United States was in a period of massive reconstruction. The entire nation was being overhauled as a result of the Civil War—money was being spent on reparations, which created railroads and new industries to work in. Additionally, with the freedom of millions of formerly enslaved people in the South, new technology was being used to cope with the amount of free labor that was lost.

Finally, rapid westward expansion contributed greatly to industrialization. In the American West, there was a wealth of resources to mine and use for industry, and there was a need for faster travel, better communication, and more to facilitate the growth. All of these factors came together to create an unprecedented era of industrialization.

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In the late 1800s, technology began to advance at a faster rate than it had ever done in the past. In a span of 30 years, beginning in 1960, over 500,000 patents were issued for inventions, mainly involving new forms of energy. Electricity and lighting changed the way that Americans worked and allowed a boom in industrial production.

Steel production improved due to technological advances too. This led to improvements in transportation when railroads and bridges could more easily be built. With these improvements in transportation came more opportunities for industry to grow, as supplies could more readily be delivered and products shipped. Communication improvements brought about with all of the inventions of the era, such as the telephone, improved the way that industries operated.

All of these technological advances changed the way that American industry did business. Having started from small family-owned businesses, American industry began to quickly transform in the late 1800s. Industries grew into large national companies.

Lastly, industrialization benefited when more immigrants began to arrive in this time period, providing a cheap labor force that assured the large industries had a plentiful workforce.

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During the 1800s, United States experienced numerous changes that aided the industrialization process.

First and foremost, the mechanization of labor in the manufacturing industry was cost efficient and had a ripple effect in terms of production of cheaper goods which were in turn sold in large volumes. Alongside this, the division of labor which facilitated specialization saw the rate of production increase. During the second half of the 1800s, there was an influx of immigrants in America that provided both a ready market for the manufactured goods and labor that was required in the thriving industries. The use of machines also enabled the invention and manufacture of new products including the typewriter, telephone and gasoline powered automobiles.

Secondly, the construction of the transcontinental railroad network that connected the entire United States played a critical role in the industrialization process. Raw materials were ferried to manufacturing sites as finished products were distributed throughout America fast. This stimulated economic growth tremendously.

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During the second half of the 19th century, a new wave of industrialization spread throughout the U.S. There were several factors spurring this technological movement on. First, several new technologies were developed and improved in rapid succession. Railroads, steam engines, telegraph lines, and the internal combustion engine all became more readily available. More and more Americans found themselves depending on industrial technologies for communication and for economic and social activities.

Another factor that led to the industrialization of the 1900s was the Reconstruction Era. As northern companies worked to rebuild southern infrastructure, they also began industrializing where there had once been no industry. For many southerners, the vision of the “New South” included a local industrial base that would help it compete with northern interests and make it more self-reliant.

This industrialization of the south also continued out west. As America spread toward the Pacific, western towns began installing communication and economic technologies which kept the shrinking frontier connected to the east. Rail and telegraph lines were the most common, but there was also a demand for dynamos, furnaces, and other necessities which helped modernize the west.

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American industry grew in the late 19th century due to several factors. One was the Westward Expansion of the nation, facilitating the growth of railroads that allowed the country's markets to be interlinked with one another, allowing transport, trade, and business growth to emerge. Another reason why industry grew in this time period was due to technology and innovative ways to pry oil from the ground and develop steel at a low cost. The Bessemer process increased steel production, while oil tapping became a process that grew all over the nation. As inventions such as the telephone and typewriter grew, the nation was becoming larger and smaller simultaneously, allowing commerce to flourish in a manner that perpetuated economic growth for many. The assembly line method, introduced earlier in American history, became the model for more factories, increasing production and material acquisition. Finally, Ford's automobiles and the Wright Brothers' plane created a revolution in transportation that, once again, interlinked market centers. The influx of immigrants to America from Europe at the end of the century gave industrialists a willing and able labor pool that allowed greater wealth to be generated, as well.

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