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Thomas Edison Invents the Incandescent Light Bulb: October 21, 1879

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

Western cattle and the railroads changed the agricultural economy of the East. Traditionally, both in Europe and America, cattle had been raised in the areas where the people who consumed them lived. Now, with cattle shipped from the West, cattle raising declined in the East. Not just railroads, but industrial development in the East, would have its effect on agriculture as a whole. Except for the great plantations, most farms had been subsistence farms—growing a number of different crops, first, for the consumption of the farmer’s family, then for sale on the market. To use the new farming machinery, farms had to become larger (for the machinery was expensive) and produce almost solely for the market. Instead of growing a number of crops, farmers increasingly specialized in one or a few crops—wheat and corn, for example. Hundreds, thousands of acres of corn and of the swaying, golden heads of wheat now covered the prairie where the Indian and buffalo once had roamed.

A publicity photo from the 1915–1925, demonstrating Bell’s first telephone
A publicity photo from the 1915–1925, demonstrating Bell’s first telephone

What made this all possible—the railroads, the new farm machinery—was cheap steal. The Bessemer converter, invented in the 1850s by the English engineer, Sir Henry Bessemer, converted iron ore into steal at a relatively low cost. In the ore fields of the northern and southern Appalachians, of Michigan and Minnesota, men mined the iron ore that went by rail to Chicago, Cleveland, Toledo, Ashtabula, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh, and Birmingham. In 1867, the United States produced 20,000 tons of steel. In the ensuing years, this number grew exponentially, so that by 1895, the country produced 6 million tons of steel, and 10 million tons only five years later.

Other breakthroughs came with the harnessing of electricity. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell introduced his invention, called the “telephone,” at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Bell, and his partner, Theodore Vail, organized the Bell Telephone Company and provided telephone service in the cities. Since little electricity was necessary for the transmission of messages, telephone systems could be set up relatively easily in cities. Electric lighting systems were another matter. After the war, another inventor, Charles F. Brush, developed a dynamo capable of providing power to arc lamps, and in the late 1870s, early 1880s, Wabash, Indiana became the first American city to replace gas lamps with electric light.

Thomas Edison in his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, about 1901
Thomas Edison in his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, about 1901

An Ohioan, Thomas Alva Edison, had moved from his home state, where he had owned an electrical engineering business, to New Jersey. There, in Menlo Park, he set up a laboratory in which he, with other scientists and engineers, studied electricity and experimented with its uses. In the mid 1870s, Edison developed a “phonograph” or “speaking machine”—a cylinder covered with tin foil and turned by a crank. On October 21, 1879, Edison developed a light bulb that had a loop of carbonized cotton glowing in a vacuum. This was the incandescent light bulb .

The growth in manufacturing transformed many northern cities into “mill towns.” This growth, of course, had been noted before the war; but in the second half of the 19th century, it accelerated. Large brick factories, powered by burning bituminous coal, their cylindrical towers belching steam and smoke, reared defiant of all that would impede the material progress of the nation. The Northeast was filled with these factory towns, but the Midwest was not laggard. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Youngstown and Akron, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Louis, Missouri; and not to forget the country’s largest city after New York, Chicago, Illinois—all these cities testified that a new America had arisen like a phoenix from the ashes of the antebellum union; an America born and nurtured in the recesses of the Yankee Northeast; a nation whose blood was a melting, transforming fire and whose sinews were a gray, cold, and tempered steel.

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