As both symbol and socioeconomic fact, nothing in late-nineteenth-century America rivaled the power of the railroad. When the first transcontinental line was completed at Promontory Summit in the Utah Territory in 1869, the newly stitched-together nation shrank a bit. The coasts grew closer together. The outlying rural communities and the Great West drew that much closer to the urban metropolises of New York and Chicago. The significance of the burgeoning national rail network is hard to overstate in any history of the period, but here, we're primarily interested in three aspects of the rail system's tremendous historical impact. On one level, the national railroad network provided the distribution channels of the new national market for consumer and capital goods. Consequently, the railroad was a technological innovation that spurred ever more and faster innovation. Finally, the locomotive steaming across the country became a powerful symbol of technological progress and promise and did much to shape attitudes towards future innovations, including the automobiles that would emerge in the next century.
In 1866, not long before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the first transcontinental telegraph cable was laid. This was a huge event, doing for information what the railroad would do for people and goods a few years later. Although Henry David Thoreau, commenting on transnational telegraph lines, famously suggested that "Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate," the people of these and other places seem largely to have disagreed.5 In fact, the market and enthusiasm for new communications technologies seemed so great that inventors set about almost immediately to improve on the telegraph.
The most famous of these new technologies was, of course, Alexander Graham Bell's invention of the telephone. Although patented in 1876, the telephone didn't have much of a cultural impact until the 1880s, when sound quality had improved and Bell had developed a central call exchange that allowed connections between any pair of subscribers (rather than simply direct lines between two phones—home and office, for example)6.
Similarly, Thomas Edison's phonograph, another invention of the 1870s, finally became available at a low enough price to reach a mass audience in the 1890s—a development that would later give rise to the modern recording industry. Edison also developed the kinetoscope, a forerunner of the motion picture projectors that would run in the ubiquitous nickelodeon theaters (named for the five-cent ticket) of the early 1900s.
If you add to this list George Eastman's inexpensive "Kodak" camera of the 1880s and Hermann Hollerith's punch card reader prototype (which, admittedly, was more exciting for big business than anyone else), you've got a revolution in the communication of information to rival the railroad in transportation. The overall effect that these new technologies had on the lives of everyday Americans must have been something like that of the internet on our own. Information traveled further and faster and could be retained with ease and accuracy. Images and sounds could be captured. Experiences could be documented, reproduced with a vividness and immediacy previously impossible, and those experiences could be communicated with anyone.
Some of the greatest inventions of the late nineteenth century weren't fantastic mechanical devices like the telephone or the kinetescope—they were just brilliant ideas. One of the most ingenious and influential was the mail order catalog company.
Aaron Montgomery Ward founded the first mail order retailer in 1872 in the midwestern metropolis and rail hub of Chicago. Ward brilliantly grasped the railroad's potential as a distribution network for mass marketing and mass consumption, and his catalog offered rural customers all that they could buy at a local general store and much more, allowing them to even keep up with trends in the cultural centers of the east. Carrying everything from made-to-fit men's suits to silverware, wallpaper, and saddlery, Ward's recreated the new urban department store experience for customers hundreds of miles from the big cities.
Ward's marketing was revolutionary, as well. To put customers who were used to buying face-to-face from a local merchant at ease, Ward included pictures of his managers in the company's catalog and answered each order with a hand-written letter. Soon Ward—and his new competitor Sears Roebuck (founded in 1887)—had tapped into a huge mass audience and were filling upwards of 100,000 orders a day. Some customers apparently saw no limits to this new way to shop and even sent requests for mail-order husbands and wives.7
And while neither Ward nor Sears Roebuck was able to capitalize on that market, both mail order companies did much (along with new department stores like Woolworth's and A&P) to create a national consumer culture for the mass-produced goods that manufacturers were churning out.8
Electric lighting symbolizes ideas in popular culture. We have a "bright idea" and up pops a little cartoon light bulb. This is understandable, as the light bulb was once itself a very bright idea. The harnessing of electricity was the scientific story of the late nineteenth century.
With the advent of widespread electrical power, we can see not only an energy revolution (not unlike the revolution green power advocates are calling for today), but a very important trend in the process of technological innovation itself. Far more than the telephone, telegraph or any of the inventions discussed above, the harnessing of electricity would require the application of advanced science and mathematics—a development that would take the process of innovation out of the hands of the lone tinkerer and into the corporate and industrial research labs of the twentieth century.
People had been experimenting with electricity for a long time before Thomas Edison, who first gained fame as an inventor, set out to develop practical electric lighting in 1878. He began the task in the laboratory he had established in Menlo Park, New Jersey in 1876 with a staff that included a physicist and a chemist in addition to machinists and specialists in electricity. Within a year, Edison and his team had produced an incandescent lamp that ran electrical current through a high resistance filament in a vacuum. The light bulb was born. In 1882, Edison opened the first central electric power station on Pearl Street in Manhattan, New York. It looked like there could be big money in providing electrical power and lighting.
And there was. The closing decades of the century witnessed an intense struggle for that market between Edison General Electric (later GE) and Westinghouse, its competitor, which championed direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC), respectively. In one of the stranger chapters of the history of technology, Edison's company conducted a public campaign to play up the danger of AC power, which retained much greater power when transmitted over long distance at high voltage. Although the cost-effectiveness of AC makes it seem like the obvious winner in hindsight, that didn't stop Edison's staff from arranging to have the first execution by electrocution (at the prison in Auburn, New York in 1890) use a Westinghouse AC generator.9
Weirder still, in January of 1903, Edison agreed to electrocute (with alternating current, of course) a six-ton Indian elephant named Topsy that had killed three trainers—the last of which was reportedly drunk and fed the animal a lit cigarette. In what the New York Times dubbed a "rather inglorious affair," the animal was shocked to death at Coney Island, the famed New York amusement park, before a crowd of 1,500 onlookers10.
The publicity stunts failed, but out of the larger struggle between GE and Westinghouse came the first corporate research labs, the prototypes for the twentieth century's cradles of innovation. The story of electrification, then, is more than just an energy revolution (although that's pretty huge in itself). It is the story, in miniature, of the how innovation and research in pursuit of new technology became a big business and, in some sense, an integral part of the both the American economy and the American identity. The United States assumed the global lead in technology in the early 1900s not on the shoulders of a few brilliant inventors like Thomas Edison, but carried by a much broader system made up of the GEs and the Westinghouses, the new corporations who made invention their very business.