Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How the Industrial Revolution Saved America

When people hear the words "industrial revolution", few realize that they were chosen by the historian Arnold Toynbee in 1880 to describe the changes brought about by technology which were as sweeping as those caused by the French Revolution in 1789. Toynbee's lectures at Oxford University put the phrase into the lexicon of our culture and it has grown in stature over the last 131 years.

Spinning Jenny
The revolution began in England where the textile industry thrived with the invention of the flying shuttle and spinning jenny, which dramatically increased production. In 1765, 500,000 pounds of fiber was spun into clothing; 20 years later, 16 million pounds were processed. Watt's steam engine in 1769 and his rotary steam engine in 1773 were game-changers, allowing the mechanization of industry, utilizing power beyond the reach of humans and pack animals. A Scotsman named William Symington first used steam power to turn paddles for boats in canals and later Robert Fulton steered his "Clermont" up the Hudson River in what was the first in a trend of developments which revolutionized the transportation industry. Henry Shreve built multi-decked steamboats- later immortalized by Mark Twain in the novel "Huckleberry Finn"- and Shreve's influence would become so pervasive, the city of Shreveport, Louisiana was named after him.

Thomas Edison & his phonograph
Between 1875 and 1930, the stream of inventions arriving on the world stage was truly astonishing. Alexander Graham Bell's telephone in 1876 and Edison's development of the phonograph, the incandescent light bulb and the first power plants in the early 1880's altered the landscape of business and daily living. Edison's 1,093 patents touched- and changed- every facet of our existence. Around the year 1900, Marconi's wireless and later Edison's motion pictures, radio and Baird's development of television ramped up the pace. A critical resource- information- was now flowing quickly and freely.

The unending flow of world-changing inventions not only improved our lives- they saved our young republic. America experienced six financial panics from 1837 to 1920 and four major wars during that same period- roughly one every 17 years. Yet, we survived and eventually thrived, the improvements in technology giving a boost to businesses and economic growth, generating millions of jobs. Samuel F.B. Morse developed the telegraph and a new industry- telecommunications- in 1844, sending a message sitting in the U.S. Capitol, tapping out the words "What hath God wrought?" Just after the Panic of 1873, Bell's telephone, Edison's quadruplex telegraphy, the phonograph and light bulb boosted economic economic activity. Around the time of the Panic of 1893, Tesla's induction electric motor and Diesel's engine ramped it up again.

Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone
I often wonder what our lives would be like without cell phones, computers and T.V. Would we concentrate on simpler things- like sitting down with friends and family face-to-face, sharing our thoughts in front of the fireside- just as our ancestors did centuries before? One thing is certain. It's been about 100 years- going back to the time of Edison, Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers- since we've been able to enjoy something sublime: silence. Peace and quiet. It's nearly impossible today to go more than five minutes without a loud car roaring by, someone's boom-box disturbing the night or a plane roaring overhead. What's been sacrificed in our love affair with technology? Perhaps simply the ability to concentrate our thoughts, sit in solitude and relax- without noise and interruption. If you look at how people, especially young people around the ages of 15-25 live their lives today, it appears some have also lost something very precious- personal skills. An entire generation has grown up closer to their computers and cell phones than to other human beings... What have WE wrought?

I sent a copy of my new historical novel "Abandoned Address- The Secret of Frick's Lock" which deals with the inventions of Edison, Ford and the Wright Brothers- to William Clay Ford, the CEO of the Ford Moter Company. I received a wonderful letter in response, thanking me for the book and the mention of his great grandfather, who helped to build the industrial base of our country. Ford noted our challenges to rebuild that base in the current economic downturn- a daunting task in times of high unemployment, a weak dollar, huge national debt and a continuing loss of jobs to China and other Asian countries. As I read his letter, I felt the spirit of Henry Ford and so many others who helped our economy thrive despite financial panics, wars, a Depression and other times when it seemed we had lost our way.

I recall Abraham Lincoln's words, a sign of his commitment to our country, which was once called a "noble experiment". Lincoln remained steadfast and true to his principles despite the daily military horrors and many Union defeats during the Civil War, a nation tearing itself apart before his eyes. It seemed we were destined to fail. "America will never be defeated from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves... I dream of a time when America will once again be seen as the last, best hope on Earth..." As with Lincoln and Ford, I know that through hard work and ingenuity, America will once again thrive, our potential limited only by our creativity and dedication to excellence.