By Dave Roos
The Gilded Age was a time of sweeping changes. From roughly 1870 to 1900, the United States transformed from a largely agrarian society of farmers and small producers to an industrial economy based in large cities. During those few short decades, there was also an explosion of innovation in the fields of engineering, chemistry and technology, which brought us some of the modern world’s most groundbreaking inventions.
1. Telephone (1876)
As early as 1860, an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci demonstrated a “talking telegraph” that he called a telettrofono, an electromagnetic device that could transmit speech over electrical wires. But Meucci, who had immigrated to the United States, fell on hard times and wasn’t able to renew a temporary patent for his device, which expired in 1874.
By 1876, two more inventors, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, were racing to develop a patentable design for the telephone. According to Patent Office records, Bell’s lawyers filed his patent application just hours before Gray on February 14, 1876. Both Gray and Meucci sued Bell for stealing their idea, but the Scottish inventor—who fought off hundreds more court challenges to his patent—retained sole credit.
WATCH: “Alexander Graham Bell: Voice of Invention” on HISTORY Vault.
2. Phonograph (1878)
Thomas Edison was by far the most prolific and well-known inventor of the Gilded Age, and his fame started with the phonograph, the first machine for recording and playing back sound. In the 1870s, Edison invented a device that could record telegraph messages by making indentations on a scroll of tape that corresponded with the telegraph’s electrical impulses.
Edison’s next goal was more ambitious. He wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Bell’s telephone by recording telephone calls the same way that he recorded telegrams. Edison figured out that he could use a flexible diaphragm to capture the vibrations of sound waves and then etch them into a sheet of paraffin wax using a needle-like embossing point.
When Edison’s crude prototype worked, he had a “eureka” moment. This new device didn’t need a telephone at all. It could be used to record, and even play back, all types of sounds: music, audio books, language lessons and more.
Throughout the summer of 1877, Edison refined the design and experimented with different recording media, ultimately choosing a spinning metal cylinder coated with a thin sheet of aluminum foil. He received a patent for the phonograph on February 19, 1878, and launched the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company a month later.
While not a huge commercial success, Edison’s phonograph led to the later development of the gramophone and was the spark of genius that ultimately launched the music recording industry.
READ MORE: 6 Key Inventions by Thomas Edison
3. Incandescent Light Bulb (1879)
After the phonograph, Edison dedicated himself to the quest for a practical, long-lasting electric light bulb. The first incandescent “arc lamps” were demonstrated way back in 1803, but decades of experimentation had failed to find the ideal filament material that would glow for hours without overheating, blackening the bulb with soot or simply burning out.
At his new research laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey—the first research facility of its kind—Edison and his team methodically tested thousands of filament materials to make his bulbs burn cleaner and longer, following his own mantra: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”
In 1879, Edison patented his new light bulb, which could burn for 14.5 hours using a carbonized cotton thread as the filament. When Edison replaced the cotton filament with bamboo, his light bulbs could burn for a whopping 1,200 hours.
Beyond inventing the first commercially successful light bulbs, Edison went on to design the first urban electric grid in New York City, including a power generation plant and central power station.
READ MORE: When Edison Turned Night Into Day
4. Automobile (1886)
German engineer Carl Benz is credited with patenting the first gas-powered automobile, the three-wheeled Patent Motor Car No. 1, in 1886. It was the culmination of decades of European experimentation with the internal combustion engine, a smaller and lighter alternative to the heavy steam engines already powering trains and ships.
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Earlier inventors had mounted gas-powered engines to wheeled vehicles decades before Benz, but their creations never took off. Benz’s timing was better—he introduced his Patent Motor Car No. 1 during the height of the bicycle craze, when there was strong public interest in lightweight, self-propelled vehicles.
Benz’s first tricycle-shaped automobile was propelled by a four-stroke, 0.75-horsepower engine that could reach a top speed of less than 10 m.p.h. It had three, steel-spoked wooden wheels with thin rubber tires, leather-padded brakes and a crank-operated vertical steering column.
To drum up publicity for the third model of the Patent Motor Car, Benz’s wife Bertha took their two teenage sons on the first long-distance automobile journey, a 121-mile round trip to her mother’s house in 1888.
WATCH: “Henry Ford” on HISTORY Vault.
5. Kodak Camera (1888)
Photography was already decades old when George Eastman was born in 1854, but the American inventor and entrepreneur put the power of photography into the hands of everyday people with the revolutionary Kodak Camera, patented in 1888.
Before Eastman’s invention, photographs were taken using large, expensive cameras loaded with fragile glass plates that could only be developed by professional photographers.
The original Kodak Camera, which sold for $25, was a handheld box that came preloaded with a 100-exposure roll of flexible paper film. (They moved to a celluloid material later, after years of lawsuits with the inventor of that technology.) Kodak owners simply aimed the lightweight box at their subject, pushed the shutter button, and cranked a key to wind the film roll to the next frame. When the roll was done, they mailed the entire camera to the Kodak factory. For $10, customers received 100 prints, negatives and a fresh roll of film.
Kodak’s motto was “You press the button, we do the rest.”
The small, circular snapshots of daily life captured by the Kodak Camera changed the nature of photography from stodgy and serious to casual and fun.
6. Electric Streetcars (1888)
Starting in the 1830s, horse-drawn streetcars and trolleys became the first urban mass transit systems in the United States and Europe. Then, in 1881, the German engineer Werner von Siemens built the first electric-powered streetcar in the suburbs of Berlin. The streetcar’s 10-horsepower engine received power from overhead cables and could transport 50 passengers at a top speed of 12 m.p.h.
Siemens had dreams of an elevated electric streetcar line in Berlin, but it was American engineer Frank Sprague who is credited with building the first full-scale electric trolley system in Richmond, Virginia in 1888.
The Richmond Union Passenger Railway became the prototype for more than 110 electric trolley systems built worldwide in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Sprague’s system, which used overhead electrical cables powered by central generators, convinced a skeptical public that electric trolleys were safe and effective.
Electric trolley lines changed the design and layout of cities, with homes and businesses built along streetcar lines, which offered easy access to downtown amenities from a ring of suburbs.
7. Airplane (1903)
Wilbur and Orville Wright, two bachelor brothers from Dayton, Ohio, both without a college degree, were an unlikely pair to change the world. But the Wright brothers were visionary engineers obsessed with succeeding where others had failed to become the first to achieve powered flight.
The Wright brothers built upon groundbreaking glider experiments done by Samuel Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and the German engineer Otto Lilienthal, who died in a violent glider crash. In their Dayton bicycle shop, the Wright brothers built wind tunnels to test dozens of wing designs to maximize lift and control.
Next, they built full-scale glider prototypes and transported them to the coastal dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, home to some of America’s stiffest and most consistent winds. For two years, they built and tested (and occasionally crashed) increasingly larger gliders that could eventually carry an engine powerful enough to turn two large wooden propeller blades.
On the morning of December 17, 1903, Orville Wright laid on his stomach next to the sputtering engine of the brothers’ experimental “flyer.” As the propellers picked up speed, the flyer rolled 45 feet down a short track, and then it happened: Orville and his machine were airborne. After only 12 seconds in the air, he gracefully landed the flyer just 120 feet from where it began.
It took the Wright brothers years to convince the world of their achievement, but the discovery of manned, powered flight soon ushered in an entire new era of transportation.