The Golden Age was a time of drastic change. From about 1870 to 1900, the United States transformed from a largely agrarian society of farmers and small producers to an industrial economy based in large cities. During these few decades, there has also been an explosion of innovation in engineering, chemistry and technology, which has brought us some of the most revolutionary inventions of the modern world.
1. Telephone (1876)
As early as 1860, an Italian inventor named Antonio Meucci demonstrated a “talking telegraph” which he called a telettrofono, an electromagnetic device capable of transmitting speech over electrical wires. But Meucci, who had immigrated to the United States, fell on hard times and was unable to renew a temporary patent for his device, which expired in 1874.
In 1876, two other inventors, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, were racing to develop a patentable design for the telephone. According to Patent Office records, Bell’s lawyers filed his patent application hours before Gray on February 14, 1876. Gray and Meucci sued Bell for stealing their idea, but the Scottish inventor – who rebuffed hundreds further legal challenges to his patent – retained sole credit.
WATCH: “Alexander Graham Bell: Voice of Invention” on HISTORY Vault.
2. Phonograph (1878)
Thomas Edison was by far the most prolific and well-known inventor of the Golden Age, and his fame began with the phonograph, the first machine to record and reproduce sound. In the 1870s, Edison invented a device that could record telegraph messages by making indentations on a roll of tape that matched electrical pulses from the telegraph.
Edison’s next goal was more ambitious. He wanted to capitalize on the popularity of Bell’s telephone by recording telephone calls the same way it recorded telegrams. Edison figured out that he could use a flexible diaphragm to capture sound wave vibrations and then etch them into a sheet of paraffin wax using a needle-like embossing tip.
When Edison’s rough prototype worked, he had a “eureka” moment. This new device didn’t need a phone at all. It could be used to record, and even playback, all types of sounds: music, audiobooks, language lessons and more.
Throughout the summer of 1877, Edison refined the design and experimented with different recording media, eventually choosing a rotating metal cylinder covered with a thin sheet of aluminum foil. He received a patent for the phonograph on February 19, 1878, and started the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company a month later.
Although not a huge commercial success, Edison’s phonograph led to the further development of the gramophone and was the spark of genius that ultimately launched the music recording industry.
READ MORE: 6 key inventions of Thomas Edison
3. Incandescent bulb (1879)
After the phonograph, Edison devoted himself to the search for a practical and durable light bulb. The first incandescent “arc lamps” were demonstrated in 1803, but decades of experimentation had failed to find the ideal filament material that would glow for hours without overheating, blackening the bulb with soot or just turn off.
At his new research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey, the first such research facility, Edison and his team methodically tested thousands of filament materials to make his bulbs burn cleaner and longer, following his own mantra: “Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
In 1879, Edison patented his new light bulb, which could burn for 14.5 hours using charred cotton thread as the filament. When Edison replaced cotton filament with bamboo, his bulbs could burn for 1,200 hours.
Beyond inventing the first commercially successful light bulbs, Edison went on to design the first urban electrical network in New York, including a power plant and power station.
READ MORE: When Edison turned night into day
4. Automobile (1886)
German engineer Carl Benz is credited with patenting the first gasoline-powered automobile, the No. 1 three-wheeled motor car, in 1886. It was the culmination of decades of European experimentation with the internal combustion engine , a smaller, lighter alternative to the heavy steam engines already powering trains and ships.
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Previous inventors had fitted gasoline engines to wheeled vehicles decades before Benz, but their creations never took off. Benz’s timing was better – he introduced his patented No. 1 car at the height of the bicycle craze, when there was strong public interest in lightweight, self-propelled vehicles.
Benz’s first tricycle-shaped automobile was powered by a 0.75 horsepower four-stroke engine that could reach a top speed of less than 10 mph (16 km/h). It had three steel-spoke wooden wheels with thin rubber tires, leather-padded brakes, and a hand crank. -operated vertical steering column.
To advertise the third model of the Patent Motor Car, Benz’s wife, Bertha, took their two teenage sons on the first long-distance motoring trip, a 121-mile round trip to the home of his mother in 1888.
WATCH: “Henry Ford” on HISTORY Vault.
5. Kodak camera (1888)
Photography was already decades old when George Eastman was born in 1854, but the American inventor and entrepreneur put the power of photography into the hands of ordinary people with the revolutionary Kodak camera, patented in 1888.
Prior to Eastman’s invention, photographs were taken using large, expensive cameras loaded with fragile glass plates that could only be developed by professional photographers.
The original Kodak camera, which retailed for $25, was a portable box preloaded with a 100 exposure roll of flexible paper film. (They switched to celluloid material later, after years of chasing the technology’s inventor.) Kodak owners simply pointed the light box at their subject, pressed the shutter button, and operated a key to wind the roll of film to the next frame. . Once the roll was done, they sent the whole camera to the Kodak factory. For $10, customers received 100 prints, negatives and a new roll of film.
Kodak’s motto was “You push the button, we do the rest”.
The small circular snapshots of everyday life captured by the Kodak camera changed the nature of photography from heavy and serious to casual and fun.
6. Electric Trams (1888)
From the 1830s, streetcars and horse-drawn carriages became the first urban mass transit systems in the United States and Europe. Then, in 1881, the German engineer Werner von Siemens built the first electric tram in the suburbs of Berlin. The tram’s 10 horsepower motor was powered by overhead cables and could carry 50 passengers at a top speed of 12 mph
Siemens dreamed of an elevated electric streetcar line in Berlin, but it was American engineer Frank Sprague who is credited with building the first large-scale electric streetcar system in Richmond, Virginia in 1888.
The Richmond Union Passenger Railway became the prototype for more than 110 electric carriage systems built around the world in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Sprague’s system, which used overhead electric cables powered by central generators , convinced a skeptical public that electric carts were safe and efficient.
Electric streetcar lines changed the design and layout of cities, with homes and businesses built along streetcar lines, which provided easy access to downtown amenities from a suburban ring.
7. Airplane (1903)
Wilbur and Orville Wright, two single brothers from Dayton, Ohio, both without college degrees, were an unlikely pair to change the world. But the Wright brothers were visionary engineers obsessed with achieving success where others had failed to become the first to achieve powered flight.
The Wright brothers relied on groundbreaking glider experiments by Samuel Langley, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and German engineer Otto Lilienthal, who died in a violent glider accident. At their Dayton bike shop, the Wright Brothers built wind tunnels to test dozens of fender designs to maximize lift and control.
Then they built prototype full-scale gliders and hauled them to the coastal dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, home to some of the strongest and most consistent winds in America. For two years they built and tested (and sometimes crashed) bigger and bigger gliders that could eventually carry an engine powerful enough to spin two large wooden propeller blades.
On the morning of December 17, 1903, Orville Wright lay on his stomach next to the crackling engine of the brothers’ experimental “flyer.” As the propellers picked up speed, the flyer rolled 45 feet on a short runway, and then it happened: Orville and his machine were airborne. After just 12 seconds in the air, he gracefully landed the flyer just 120 feet from its starting point.
It took years for the Wright brothers to convince the world of their feat, but the discovery of manned powered flight soon ushered in a whole new era of transportation.