Technological revolutions take time; their effects tend to play out gradually. Today, we're still witnessing the waves of innovation and influence generated by a revolution in computing, networking, and information processing that began decades ago. So it was with the Industrial Revolution, which gained steam through the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The development of the factory system, the textile industry, the railroads, the telegraph, and steam power all spurred the growth of American manufactures and helped to create new markets and technologies. Many of the great innovations of the late nineteenth century built on these earlier breakthroughs. The railroads created a huge market for steel and, at the same time, provided the new steel industry with a ready-made organizational model. The telegraph demonstrated the explosive potential for personal communications technologies that the telephone would later see to full fruition. The factory system and the growth of large industries presented the need for new techniques of organization and management. Innovation fed innovation in a rippling pattern that accelerated throughout the nineteenth century.
During the Gilded Age (the last quarter of the nineteenth century), innovation became big business as processes and applications were increasingly systematized. The harnessing of electricity is emblematic of this trend. As it relates to the process of innovation, the work of developing electricity as a cheap and widely applicable power source fell increasingly to the newly organized industrial and corporate research labs. The first among these were Thomas Edison's Menlo Park lab in New Jersey (an industrial lab) and the company lab established at GE (a corporate lab) at the turn of the century. Following the trail blazed by Edison, the whole process of innovation came to rely more on specialists, trained scientists, collaboration, and corporate funding-establishing the basic blueprint for cradles of twentieth-century innovation.
The systematic diffusion of new technologies profoundly altered the social, cultural, and economic landscape of Gilded Age America. Production skyrocketed as industrialists like Andrew Carnegie eagerly adopted innovations in processing technologies and implemented the economizing organizational theories of Frederick Taylor. Business and industry were run increasingly like great machines, with efficiency and cost-effectiveness as the guiding principles. Several times throughout the 1880s and '90s, this new ethic strained relations between labor and management to the point of violent rupture. Yet it also established the foundations of America's mass production and consumption economy, as both the goods and the ethic of the industrial system were distributed into the national market that had been created by the revolutions in transportation and communication earlier in the century.
In addition to stimulating the growth of a mass culture, technological advance gave a great push to urbanization. Early mass transit and the adoption of new power sources literally remade the American industrial city and set the pattern of urban-suburban development that would hold for decades. The pre-industrial walking city became a thing of the past as, for the first time ever, it became possible-even-desirable to live more than a few miles from the workplace. The modern commute was born on the new electric streetcar lines of the 1880s.
Increasingly, Americans felt the influence of technology in their lives and culture, and many came to identify technological advance as a determining social force (for better or worse) and even the best hope for social progress. In 1900, how one viewed the prospects of the twentieth century might very much have been determined by one's attitude toward technology.
In terms of twentieth century prospects, one certainty in 1900 was that America loomed large in the global future. During the late nineteenth century, the U.S. came to dominate global manufacturing and began assuming the lead in many fields of technology. And if the twentieth century looked likely to be the American century, it looked just as likely that technological advancement would be a huge factor in determining the course of events.