What Was The Second Industrial Revolution?

New steel-making process and new technologies such as assembly lines helped fuel the Second Industrial Revolution.

In the half century preceding World War I, heavy industry, telecommunications, and transportation were revolutionized. The Second Industrial Revolution was part of the greater Industrial Revolution and it is considered to have been sparked off by the widespread use of the Bessemer process and ended with mass production. The revolution began in the US and spread to European countries such as Germany, France, UK, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands to Japan and eventually across the world. The revolution was fueled by the technological process and stretched from 1870 to 1914.


In the United States, the second industrial revolution took place at a time of rapid territorial expansion. Armed with vast stretches of land, the need for the massive industry was felt, and infrastructure in transport and communication was expanding rapidly. The abundance of natural resources including ore, coal, and iron facilitated large-scale extraction, transportation, and provided the raw materials for industries.

The second industrial revolution took place in the midst of a wave immigration, as masses of people moved to the United States, primarily in search of employment in the country's burgeoning industries. The political landscape also took a front seat during the revolution with strong government economic reforms. Transportation was revolutionized by the use of railroads which enabled low-cost and mass transportation.

Changes in Industrial Processes

The second industrial revolution was marked by new and more efficient industrial processes, such as the Bessemer process which enabled the mass production of steel. The steel industry was further revolutionized by the adoption of the open-hearth process. The invention of the internal combustion engine, which used gas for propulsion was made and laid the foundation for modern engines. The internal combustion engine made the invention of the first airplane flight by the Wright brothers in 1903 possible.

The construction of railroad networks in the United States also led to the development of infrastructure for the telegraph, which improved long distance communication. The subsequent invention of the telephone in 1876 by Graham Bell made real time communication possible and readily available. The typewriter was also invented as was the light bulb which enabled people to work at night.

In the 1890s, the electric generators which are used in modern day household machinery such as refrigerators were invented. The invention of electricity and petroleum is considered to be a milestone in revolutionizing industries. Electricity translated to mass and inexpensive production of electro-chemicals such as magnesium and aluminum. Petroleum production and refining gave rise to products such as kerosene and gasoline. In industries, human labor was replaced by the use of machinery for efficiency. The invention of the internal combustion tractor replaced horses and mules and increased agricultural production. The new industrial processes translated into mass production, distribution and shipment, and fueled the growth of international trade.

Quality of Life Measures

Before the industrial revolution, most of the American people were rural dwellers. This situation changed dramatically as more and more Americans moved into the rapidly growing cities. To counter problems associated with urbanization, efficient sewage systems were put in place, and new approaches to water quality reduced the number of infections from many water-borne diseases. Improved technology in agricultural processes and efficient distribution of agricultural produce led to food security. The living standards of people increased as purchasing power also increased due to the availability of cheap commodities. A growing well-educated middle class emerged as more and more people settled in cities. The numbers of skilled and unskilled workers rose as specialization in various industrial processes was encouraged. Specialization translated into increased employee productivity and the growth of skilled supervisors and engineers who directed the workforce.

The second industrial revolution, however, led to various socioeconomic problems of its own. As machines replaced people, unemployment rates rose. Two depressions rocked the world’s economy during the industrial revolution, in 1873 and 1897 which displaced laborers. The revolution created both extremes of wealth and poverty in capitalist fashion. Industrial working conditions during the second industrial revolution were dangerous. Long hours, lack of adequate protection when working with machinery, inadequate compensation and insurance and constant exposure to air pollutants were everyday realities for the industrial workers.

New and Revolutionized Products

Mass paper-making rendered paper more readily available and affordable to the masses. The industry fueled the growth of the printing press, fiction, and nonfiction books, schoolbooks, and letter writing created job opportunities. The revolution also facilitated the growth of the chemical industry. Other products invented include the zipper, toaster, air conditioner, flashlight, and traffic lights. The invention of the motorcycle and the automobile, coupled with the construction of hard-surfaced roads revolutionized transport on a global scale.

Warfare Technology

Warfare technology was redefined with the invention of the Maxim machine gun in 1885. Modern battleships were also built during the revolution, aided by the perfection of the oscillating engine which became popular for its efficiency.

Lasting Significance and Legacy

The revolution established a new employment structure still in use today, wherein workers are employed by their skills. The revolution created the basis for modern technology with inventions such as planes, automobiles, electricity, the telephone, and engines. Rapid urbanization spread from the United States to other parts of the world with the efficiency in transport and telecommunication. Availability of cheap commodities led to the consumer culture in place of the subsistence way of life that had characterized most parts of the world before the revolution. The industrial revolution also fueled the growth of capitalism and improvements in warfare that led to territorial disputes as countries could now protect their territories. The revolution also established the United States as the world’s leading economic super power.


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