A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived

A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived

Dariusz Stusowski - March 23, 2017

Today, the world of the 19th Century seems like a completely foreign place. Images from the period make life look so primitive. Sooty factories, horse-drawn carriages, and grainy, faded photographs make the 1800s appear to be a place that has little in common with our modern, high-tech, comfortable society. A closer look, however, reveals a time in which so many of the modern advancements we take for granted today claim their origins in the 19th Century.

A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived

The Steam Engine

With so many ways to power industry and transportation today, steam engines seem like ancient technology. But in the 19th Century, the steam engine revolutionized the speed at which people traveled, and fundamentally changed how work was done and even led to the growth of urban life. In many ways, the modern era of the machine was born once the power of steam was harnessed.

While the practical steam engine was first invented in the early 1700s by Thomas Newcomen and greatly enhanced in the late 1700s by Scotsman James Watt and others, its uses were relatively limited. These engines were primarily used to facilitate mining operations. As the 18th Century came to a close, small numbers of steam engines were employed to pump water over mill wheels, allowing some factories to use the resulting power to automate procedures. By the beginning of the 19th Century, however, steam technology was poised to change world.

Experiments with steam locomotives early in the century led to the first commercial use of steam engine-powered railroads in England by 1825. The technology spread quickly and changed transportation forever. In the United States, less than 40 miles of track existed in 1830. Just 30 years later, 29,000 miles of track crossed the country. The effects on travel are hard for a modern person to imagine. Prior to railroad transportation, crossing the United States could take six months. After the completion of an American transcontinental railroad in 1869, a person could make the trip in less than a week. Similarly, the 19th Century saw the maturing of steamships, which provided enough power to transport people and cargo against currents and prevailing winds.

The use of steam engines also impacted factories themselves. No longer did factories have to be close to a running source of water. This meant that factories could be built next to rail lines or even within cities themselves, leading to great advancements in productivity and increasingly high rates of urban growth. In short, steam power shrank the world, provided exponentially more power for human endeavors, and facilitated the birth of the modern city.

A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived


It is simply not possible to imagine the modern world without electricity. Most people spend the majority of the day interacting with it in some way. It is so central to our lives that virtually everything a person owns today was either manufactured with electricity or uses electricity to function. That is why it is hard to believe that human reliance on electricity began less than two centuries ago.

In the 1830s a multitude of experiments with electricity led to the first electric motors strong enough to actually perform work. By the 1830s, an electric motor was used to carry more than dozen people across a river in Prussia. Roughly during the same time in the United States, similar motors were used to run printing presses and operate machine tools. But these early motors, though impressive, were too expensive to be commercially successful. They were still mostly just curiosities. While it took decades of experimentation, eventually factories were equipped with powerful electric motors and the first electrified trolleys were put into service by the late 1880’s. By the 1890s, modern subways and elevated trains functioned in large cities in America and Europe.

Access to powerful engines and reliable transportation that did not emit noxious fumes in itself was major breakthrough for society. But the seemingly miraculous benefits of electricity did not end there. Electricity also made artificial light possible for the first time in human history. Before electricity, only natural forms of light such as the sun or fire illuminated the world.

Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison was not the inventor of the light bulb. Russian and Canadian inventors succeeded in creating light bulbs a few years prior. However, Edison’s incandescent light bulb, patented in 1879, was the first of its type to be adequately inexpensive and sufficiently long-lasting to be useful, though his power plants could only supply electrical current for roughly a mile, which limited the light bulb’s usefulness. This changed in the 1890s, when development of alternating current (AC) transformed electricity into the modern marvel we know today, able to electrify entire cities miles away from a power source, helping to make the world safer, more comfortable, and recognizably modern.

A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived
Guglielmo Marconi. QSL.net

Electrical Communication

Technological and engineering breakthroughs occurring in the 19th Century revolutionized even common aspects of life. For instance, a person living 2,000 years ago would communicate with others in virtually the same way as a person living 200 years ago. Communication was achieved either by directly speaking with someone, or by the act of physically writing down whatever was needed. On rare occasion a horn, drum, mirror, or smoke signal would facilitate communication. Still, modes of communication did not significantly change for millennia. This too changed during the 19th Century.

Building upon earlier experiments with electrical impulses, in 1838 Samuel Morse invented a practical version of the telegraph in the United States. By 1844, the technology was able to send signals almost instantaneously over a distance of 40 miles from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore. This was a stunning development, as sending a letter between these two cites would take a horse and carriage half a day to travel the same distance, if the road was good. With the telegraph, the modern era of rapid communication was born.

Communication wonders even greater than the telegraph were just a few years away. Though many contributed to the science involved in the creation of the telephone, the first American patent was issued to Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. Just two years later, people in New Haven, Connecticut could buy a telephone and call other subscribers within their city, in a fashion that was fundamentally the same as we do today.

By the end of the century, yet another breakthrough was made in electrical communication, when in 1896 Italian Guglielmo Marconi received a patent for the first commercially viable radio. Just a year later, he established the first radio station in Britain. For the first time in human history, wireless electrical communication was available to anyone with a radio receiver.

Today, electronic and wireless communication is central to modern life. All of the virtually instantaneous communication we enjoy begins not with the advent of computers or satellites in space, but with humble and relatively primitive machines invented before the 20th Century even began.

A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived
Camille_Pissarro, The Factory at Pontoise, 1873. Google Art Project

Mass Production

Today, the term “mass production” often conveys a negative sentiment, evoking feelings of commonality and generic indistinguishability. While this may often be true, mass production in the modern era also greatly benefited humanity in a variety of ways. This process greatly reduced the price of common goods, allowing even the poorest people access to a wide variety of goods and services only the wealthy could afford in the generations prior to its implementation. By lowering the cost of production and increasing the availability of a wide variety of items, access to higher standards of living were not far behind.

History records examples of mass production before the 19th Century, but these instances tended to be rare and isolated. It was not until the 1800s that the idea of creating interchangeable parts in rapid succession and then assembling them in a compartmentalized and orderly fashion led to the prosperous world in which we live. As is often the case with technological breakthroughs, early success with mass productions came as a result of military needs. Though the British Royal Navy made great advancements with aspects of shipbuilding in the early 1800s, the United States achieved full interchangeability of parts for gun manufacturing by mid-century.

The idea of full interchangeability quickly spread to other businesses. Soon, everyday items like glass jars and tin cans were being manufactured in massive quantities, greatly reducing the price of basic yet vital items for rich and poor alike.

The positive effects of mass production did not just make items cheaper, it raised living standards in other ways as well. Many of the hardest, most physically exhausting jobs for people and animals alike were replaced by relatively simple steam or electrical machines that completed the most undesirable jobs. Also, productivity increased until the average hours a factory laborer worked fell from 70 hours in the beginning of the century to 60 hours a week by the end, eventually culminating in the modern 40-hour work week by the early 20th century.

A Brave New World: These 19th Century Technologies Transformed the Way People Lived

Proof of Germ Theory

So far, all of the advancements discussed were technologies related to industry. Perhaps the development that benefited humanity the most was not a technology at all, but the acceptance of a concept. The acceptance of germ theory changed the way medical professionals view disease and ushered in the modern era of curative medicine. Although numerous philosophers and physicians from the ancient and the medieval periods speculated that “seeds” could travel from one person to another, spreading epidemic disease, such concepts were not widely accepted.

Instead, most theories of disease transmission centered on the “miasma” theory which claimed that corrupted or polluted air coming from unhygienic conditions, rotten food or spoiled water spontaneously created diseases and were even responsible for creating animals, like fleas and maggots. Other popular theories incorporated supernatural ideas for the origin epidemics.

Slowly, over time, these ideas were challenged by physicians and scientists who developed rigorous experiments and gained access to increasingly stronger microscopes. But the miasmic theory of medicine was hard to displace, even the after microorganisms were directly observed my medical pioneers such as Athanasius Kircher in the 1650s and Anton van Leeuwenhoek in the 1670s. By the beginning of the 1800s, evidence that microscopic organisms could cause disease gained strength. In 1808, Agostino Bassi proved that a fungus caused disease in silkworms.

Work continued until Louis Pasteur conclusively disproved that organisms spontaneously developed when he devised a way to permanently sterilize broth. After boiling the broth, he prevented it from being exposed to the atmosphere. When the broth did not spoil, his simple yet powerful experiment led to a medical revolution. To this day, we use Pasteur’s methods to sterilize the food we eat, making it much safer to enjoy a variety of products.

From Pasteur’s achievements, many others introduced methods to sterilize medical equipment and developed modern hygienic practices that made the world safer, cleaner and far less lethal. Few achievements, if any, saved more lives than this, the greatest realization of the 19th Century.