Technological and industrial history of the United States

The technological and industrial history of the United States describes the United States' emergence as one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world. The availability of land and literate labor, the absence of a landed aristocracy, the prestige of entrepreneurship, the diversity of climate and large easily accessed upscale and literate markets all contributed to America's rapid industrialization. The availability of capital, development by the free market of navigable rivers and coastal waterways, as well as the abundance of natural resources facilitated the cheap extraction of energy all contributed to America's rapid industrialization. Fast transport by the very large railroad built in the mid-19th century, and the Interstate Highway System built in the late 20th century, enlarged the markets and reduced shipping and production costs. The legal system facilitated business operations and guaranteed contracts. Cut off from Europe by the embargo and the British blockade in the War of 1812 (1807–15), entrepreneurs opened factories in the Northeast that set the stage for rapid industrialization modeled on British innovations.

The cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney, revolutionized Southern agriculture.

From its emergence as an independent nation, the United States has encouraged science and innovation. As a result, the United States has been the birthplace of 161 of Britannica's 321 Greatest Inventions, including items such as the airplane, internet, microchip, laser, cellphone, refrigerator, email, microwave, personal computer, liquid-crystal display and light-emitting diode technology, air conditioning, assembly line, supermarket, bar code, and automated teller machine.[1]

The early technological and industrial development in the United States was facilitated by a unique confluence of geographical, social, and economic factors. The relative lack of workers kept the United States wages generally higher than corresponding British and European workers and provided an incentive to mechanize some tasks. The United States population had some semi-unique advantages in that they were former British subjects, had high English literacy skills, for that period (over 80% in New England), had strong British institutions, with some minor American modifications, of courts, laws, right to vote, protection of property rights and in many cases personal contacts among the British innovators of the Industrial Revolution. They had a good basic structure to build on. Another major advantage, which the British lacked, was no inherited aristocratic institutions. The eastern seaboard of the United States, with a great number of rivers and streams along the Atlantic seaboard, provided many potential sites for constructing textile mills necessary for early industrialization. The technology and information on how to build a textile industry were largely provided by Samuel Slater (1768–1835) who emigrated to New England in 1789. He had studied and worked in British textile mills for a number of years and immigrated to the United States, despite restrictions against it, to try his luck with U.S. manufacturers who were trying to set up a textile industry. He was offered a full partnership if he could succeed—he did. A vast supply of natural resources, the technological knowledge on how to build and power the necessary machines along with a labor supply of mobile workers, often unmarried females, all aided early industrialization. The broad knowledge carried by European migrants of two periods that advanced the societies there, namely the European Industrial Revolution and European Scientific revolution, helped facilitate understanding for the construction and invention of new manufacturing businesses and technologies. A limited government that would allow them to succeed or fail on their own merit helped.

After the close of the American Revolution in 1783, the new government continued the strong property rights established under British rule and established a rule of law necessary to protect those property rights. The idea of issuing patents was incorporated into Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution authorizing Congress "to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." The invention of the Cotton Gin by American Eli Whitney made cotton potentially a cheap and readily available resource in the United States for use in the new textile industry.

One of the real impetuses for the United States entering the Industrial Revolution was the passage of the Embargo Act of 1807, the War of 1812 (1812–14) and the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) which cut off supplies of new and cheaper Industrial revolution products from Britain. The lack of access to these goods all provided a strong incentive to learn how to develop the industries and to make their own goods instead of simply buying the goods produced by Britain.

Modern productivity researchers have shown that the period in which the greatest economic and technological progress occurred was between the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th.[2][3][4] During this period the nation was transformed from an agricultural economy to the foremost industrial power in the world, with more than a third of the global industrial output. This can be illustrated by the index of total industrial production, which increased from 4.29 in 1790 to 1,975.00 in 1913, an increase of 460 times (base year 1850 – 100).[5]

American colonies gained independence in 1783 just as profound changes in industrial production and coordination were beginning to shift production from artisans to factories. Growth of the nation's transportation infrastructure with internal improvements and a confluence of technological innovations before the Civil War facilitated an expansion in organization, coordination, and scale of industrial production. Around the turn of the 20th century, American industry had superseded its European counterparts economically and the nation began to assert its military power. Although the Great Depression challenged its technological momentum, America emerged from it and World War II as one of two global superpowers. In the second half of the 20th century, as the United States was drawn into competition with the Soviet Union for political, economic, and military primacy, the government invested heavily in scientific research and technological development which spawned advances in spaceflight, computing, and biotechnology.

Science, technology, and industry have not only profoundly shaped America's economic success, but have also contributed to its distinct political institutions, social structure, educational system, and cultural identity.


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