Best Inventions of the 19th Century
Inventions and Revolutions
The 19th century stands out above many as a century of change.
And most of that change was driven by human progress.
Inventions abounded in the 19th century, largely as a result of the industrial revolution which placed demands for output on workers more used to being able to create things 'by hand'.
So the best inventions of the 19th century were those driven by industrial change - automated spinners and weavers, ploughs, locomotives, steam engines, safety lamps for miners etc.
And people in the 19th century also wanted to communicate more effectively so there were a number of innovative inventions to improve the ways in which people communicated.
There were also quite a few interesting inventions which pushed academia to its limits with physicians and mathematicians working hard to create inventions which used their particular field to affect human progress.
19th century entertainment also seems to have mattered to people and so inventions which facilitated entertainment were also among some of the most interesting in the 1800s - beside the 'big' inventions like the phonograph and microphone were simple inventions like the kaleidoscope.
People now as then worked, rested and played and any inventions which supported the endeavour of any of these 3 things was likely to be embraced.
However, it is interesting to note that most of the inventions featured here show that in the 19th Century the world was shrinking as people tried and found ways to bring people closer together - a strange paradox during a century also infamous for its many wars.
Best 19th Century Inventions- Patterns & Programs
Joseph Marie 'Jacquard' Charles was a French merchant who worked mainly in the textiles industry.
It is an interesting and amazing fact that one of the inventions which supported the creation of patterned silk weaving in France as early as 1805 would have an enormous influence on the creation in 1833 of the world's first automated 'computer'.
After his father's death, Jacquard had inherited wealth and a grand house. He speculated with money unsuccessfully and ended up returning to the work he understood - weaving.
His father had been a successful loom manufacturer and Jacquard, upon falling on hard times, went back to this endeavour.
He understood the mechanics of weaving and in 1800 he began to manufacture looms himself and created a silk loom which used punch 'cards' to create its patterns upon the silk cloth. The pattern was punched onto a series of oilcloth cards and these cards were 'read' by the loom and the pattern was automatically created upon the silk when it was being woven.
Jacquard was hailed in manufacturing and inventing circles for this interesting new and innovative invention. Needless to say he was loathed by silk weavers more used to creating patterns by hand.
They saw this new technology as a direct threat to their working practices.
This was the industrial revolution at work in post-revolution France, a difficult time for workers and mill owners alike.
In spite of Jacquard's card machine being prone to failure; it was seized upon by other manufacturers and in a short time, it was improved upon enough to make it a viable invention for use on all silk looms.
Emperor Napoleon gave the patent for the invention to the people of Jacquard's hometown, Lyon and Jacquard himself was given a pension in lieu of his creative skills.
Incredibly, Jacquard's interesting invention was what Charles Babbage turned to during his invention of his 'Difference' Engine #2, now considered the world's first automatic computer.
Babbage realised that if a pattern could be punched on cards, basically a 'program' of design, then so could a program of instructions to enable the difference engine to 'compute' numerical tables.
Would Babbage have achieved such success without Jacquard? Who knows.
The silk loom's punch card and Charles Babbage computer are arguably two of the best inventions of the 19th century. Forever linked because one proved to be the perfect invention and catalyst for the successful invention of the other, even though they were from very different areas of invention.
Best 19th Century Inventions - Locomotion
George Stephenson's Rocket, built in 1829, is chosen because it could easily belong in any or all of the human need categories of work, rest or play in the 19th century.
Although it was built some years after the first steam locomotive built by Richard Trevithick in 1804, the Rocket was innovative for a number of reasons and was created to participate in the Rainham Trials, an engineering show where it shone as the stand out invention.
Because of Stephenson's Rocket, travel would never be the same again as people were able to jump on a train thanks to the steam locomotive and George Stephenson (and his son, Robert) deserve their places as the main inventors and innovators of rail transport, especially in Britain.
His invention led to thousands, maybe million miles of track being laid down all over the world in the name of commerce, industry and leisure.
George Stephenson is honoured with a statue at the Railway Museum in York. If you ever find yourself in York it is well worth a visit; an interesting museum full of wonderful old locomotives and admission to the museum is completely free.
Imagine the USA's incredible railway building programme without Stephenson's locomotion engine?
Imagine industries like mining, textiles and farming becoming successful without the ability to move products from A to B quickly and efficiently?
Stephenson's steam locomotion remains one of the most interesting inventions of the 19th century because other country's grasped its fundamental usefulness and saw that it was peerless in terms of moving not only things but people from place to place; yes, it was slow at first but once Stephenson had made the invention, he worked tirelessly, as did others, to make it faster.
The railways remain a viable form of transport even in this day and age.
Best 19th Century Inventions - Photography
'Photography' or 'Photographie' was a word first coined in the 19th century.
Nobody is quite sure who came up with it first but in any event it was derived from the Greek, photo and graphe (literally meaning 'drawing with light').
Incredibly, inventors of the 19th century were often working on the same ideas at the same time.
For example, there is very little to separate Trevithick, Stephenson and Brunel in the creation of the steam locomotion. All were actively pursuing the same idea at the same time; Stephenson, though is regarded as the 'inventor' because he perfected the ideas.
In the invention of photography, there is a similar pattern with Niepce and Daguerre in France, Hershel in England, Maxwell in Scotland and Eastman in the USA all seemingly working on ideas with the same core aim.
Niepce was the first person to create an actual photograph though it required a heavy metal plate and the use of bitumen, substantial exposure times and then a difficult process of polishing the metal plate to finally create an image.
Before this though, the only way of creating images with light was by using a camera obscura. Camera Obscura were an ancient form of projecting the human form, using light, onto a surface but up until Niepce's first photographic image, nobody had found a way to capture an image created by light.
Further work after Niepce's death by his partner, Louis Daguerre refined the processes, though exposire time still ran into hours.
In 1839, English physicist, mathematician and astronomer, Sir John Herschel using Niepce's ideas refined them by discovering that similar negative images could be rendered onto glass rather than metal plates and he also discovered that silver had far better photo catalyst properties than bitumen and cut exposure times considerably.
In 1861, James Clerk Maxwell created the first coloured photo of a tartan ribbon but he is rarely mentioned as one of the great 19th century inventors because his is more famous as a physicist dealing with electromagnetism, yet it is incredible to think of a coloured photo created as early as 1860 when most of us have memories of our own early photos always being in black and white.
The creation of the first camera for sale to the general public was by the Eastman Company in the USA, later knows as Kodak. This brought the 'pocket' camera to the masses.
At first, photography was seen as a useful aide for artists and then as a way of creating memento of family members. It was not seen as an 'art' until the early 20th century.
Amazing that we all take it for granted that our mobile phones have really great cameras - exposure takes seconds and we can share them with everyone we know within 5 seconds of taking the photo.
The first photograph (featured on the right) took over 8 hours to create!
Best Inventions of the 19th Century - Communication
The 19th Century was also a century in which the world suddenly got smaller.
Before then, people stayed in their own town and rarely travelled to the next town. If they did, it was either on foot or by horse and cart.
A trip on the river usually meant a rocky ride in a rowing boat, until canals and the steam engine made this easier.
In the USA, still in the age of settlement, horses were an absolute necessity.
So then along came canals, steamships and trains.
The next really important means of bringing man into contact with his neighbours would have to overcome the problem of distance.
In 1837, Samuel Morse thought it might be interesting to see if he could use on off electrical radio signals to create a message.
He created a tapping device which allowed him to tap out his message in a series of long and short codes and created a manual to let the receiver know what was being sent.
Morse code is still used today.
In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the first 'telephone' and it is certainly one of the 19th century's most interesting inventions because debate goes on even now over who actually invented it.
There is no argument over the fact that Alexander Graham Bell and his 'photophone' got there first (to the patent office anyway), his patent was accepted and all telephone manufacture and line creation is based on his patent.
The telephone was considered a luxury in Europe for a long time but telephone systems in the USA were established very quickly and consequently, line development in the USA was faster.
It is incredible to think of the phone (now sometimes very mobile); something most of us take for granted, as being one of the most innovative and interesting inventions of the 19th century but all across Europe and the USA, inventors were trying to turn what Morse had developed into plain speech. Thankfully, Alexander Graham Bell succeeded.
In 1829, Louis Braille also invented a code specifically for use by blind people. Of all forms of communication, this is one which deserves special praise and has helped visually impaired people to read since its invention.
Braille was blinded himself as a boy and frustrated at his inability to read anything or to write letters home to his parents.
His professor created a form of raised Latin lettering so that the blind children he was teaching could learn Latin (then considered the norm) but Braille was a bright, intelligent young man and in time he felt that he could improve on this raised lettering system of communicating.
In time, he heard about an army captain, Charles Barbier who had devised a system of 'impressed' lettering so that soldiers could pass on strategic messages on battlefields and still 'read' them in the dark by running their fingers over the dents in the paper.
Braille redeveloped this system but instead he raised the paper to make it easier to read and completely created his own alphabet. In doing so, he changed the lives of the visually impaired forever.
Braille is still used today.
Other 19th Century Inventions
The 19th century deserves its reputation as a century of innovation. It was a time when inventors were looking for ways to create things that were useful to all of mankind.
It was also a century of revolutions and revolts, of people getting rich and others getting poor.
Among some of the other interesting inventions of the 19th century (though not included here for reasons of space!) were:
- 1819 Stethoscope (though improved substantially in 1840) by Laennec
- 1827 Matches by Walker
- 1836 Revolver by Colt
- 1839 Vulcanized rubber by Goodyear
- 1846 Sewing Machine by Howe
- 1849 Safety pin by Hunt
- 1851 Cylinder lock by Yale
- 1853 Blue 'jeans' by Levi Strauss
- 1855 Gas burner by Bunsen
- 1860 Linoleum by Walton
- 1866 Dynamine by Nobel
- 1877 Phonograph by Edison
- 1884 Fountain pen by Waterman
- 1886 Coca-Cola by Pemberton (they took out the cocaine eventually!)
- 1887 Disc Record by Berlinger
- 1891 Zipper by Judson
- 1891 Basketball by James Naismith (a Canadian!!)
- 1895 Radio Signal by Marconi
It seems that the 19th century was 100 years of people being creative and we thank them all for their efforts!
Many thanks for reading.
© 2013 Jools Hogg