Inventions and Philanthropy in 19th Century America


By Patrick AllittEmory University

As the industrial revolution accelerated, the American society became accustomed to the idea of successive improvements and inventions. In the 1790s, 276 new inventions were patented. Well, it sounds like quite a lot, but when you consider the 1890s, in that decade, 235,000 new devices were patented, showing an immense leap in quantity.

Jefferson's disk cipher, an invention from 1890
The leap in inventions in the 1800s became the cornerstone of American industrialization. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Thomas Edison 

The most famous of the inventors was Thomas Edison, who was born in 1847. Edison began in the telegraph business in the 1860s. And as soon as he got to work in the telegraph business, he started looking for ways to improve it. 

Edison made countless improvements to telegraph technology. As a teenager, he was a wandering telegrapher, moving about in different states and working for a while, then moving on to another one, already tinkering with machinery and working on improving it. He made a science of developing and testing new possibilities, most famously at his laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey.

Edison: An Unending Supply of New Inventions 

Electric light bulbs, which he invented in 1879, were going to revolutionize life. It became possible after that to have not merely the kind of lighting that came from Standard Oil kerosene lamps but intense light that made it much less necessary to draw distinctions between daytime and nighttime. 

Among other new inventions by Edison include the gramophonethe first recorded sound device in 1877. He also played an important role in developing moving pictures, which were more or less worked out by the mid-1890s. Recorded music and moving pictures laid the foundations of the 20th century entertainment industry.

He also played an important part in developing battery technology for storing electricity. He invented the Dictaphone, the mimeograph machine and did a lot to improve dynamos. At his death, Edison held 1,328 patents, more than there had been patents in the 1790s.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd EditionWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Invention of the Modern Telephone 

Portrait of Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham is perhaps the father of the mass communication we’re so accustomed to today. (Image: Moffett Studio/Public domain)

One of Edison’s great rivals was Alexander Graham Bell, who certainly rivaled him for ingenuity. In 1876, Bell invented and patented the first telephone, another of these incredible devices that we’re now so familiar with.

It is difficult to recall the astonishment with which it was greeted at the time. It became possible to talk over huge distances, overcoming what had previously seemed like the insuperable boundaries of space itself.

Bell was also a shrewd businessman. By 1899, the company he had founded, American Telephone and Telegraph, AT&T, had a near-monopoly on that business after fighting off various rivals, including one developed by Edison in partnership with Western Union. Edison had perfected the telephone of the kind that we really still use today, but AT&T bought out the patent so that they could maintain their dominance of that market.

Governmental Support for New Inventions

It’s important to know that Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American judiciary, in general, were sympathetic to this era of business growth. They created a highly favorable legal environment in which economic and technological improvements of this kind could take place.

As manufacturing grew in the steel and coal mining industries, strikes became increasingly common. As the workforce swelled, the individual working man lost sight of his boss as a potential friend, and a sharp class division developed. It was difficult for trade unions to strike effectively because they faced such a hostile legal environment. In other words, legal conditions were heavily weighted in favor of the employers.

How Did Philanthropy Fit in All This?

Great entrepreneurs lived ostentatious lives in the spotlight of an enormous amount of publicity. Some of them had a reputation for unscrupulousness. One of the nicknames used for them was the “robber barons”, comparing people like John D. Rockefeller to the medieval German princes who lived along the River Rhine and plundered every passerby. Many of them lived in great mansions. Manhattan had a series of great mansions, as did the millionaires’ colony of Newport, Rhode Island, which can still be visited today.

Most of them, although ruthless in their business operations, did have a sense of social responsibility and became philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie, the founder of the steel industry, is an obvious example. In 1889, he published a book called Gospel of Wealth, in which he argued for the social responsibilities of the rich.

When he retired from business, Carnegie undertook very ambitious philanthropic work, and he’s one of the most important figures in the history of American philanthropy. He eventually funded 2,811 libraries in the English-speaking world. 

Cleaning Up Reputation?

In just the same way, Rockefeller himself created a foundation and was also very influential in funding, particularly education and medical research. Many of the “robber barons” or the great industrialists, not to use the pejorative term, affixed their names to universities. 

One of the best ways of cleaning up your reputation if you’re an American industrialist is to endow education because it’s so high-minded. If you think about Duke University, that carries the name of one of the great tobacco barons from the same period. Stanford University carries the name of one of the great railroad entrepreneurs and Vanderbilt, again one of the great railroad and ferryboat developers.

Now, all of these people collectively devoting themselves to education and philanthropy established the principle that philanthropy is a central part of the American way of life right up to the present. So in judging these people, we have to look at the good and bad sides of what they did. 

Common Questions about Inventions and Philanthropy in 19th Century America

Q: How did the government support the employers’ new inventions?

The Congress, the Supreme Court, and the American judiciary were big fans of business growth during American industrialization. They passed laws that were extremely in favor of employers and their new inventions.

Q: How were new inventions and social responsibilities of the rich connected?

New inventions made entrepreneurs rich. However, most of them did have a sense of social responsibility and became philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie is the obvious example. In 1889, he published a book called Gospel of Wealth, in which he argued for the social responsibilities of the rich. 

Q: How did new inventions help America be more philanthropic?

One of the best ways for wealthy inventors to show their sense of social responsibility was to improve education. Whether by founding institutes, universities, or libraries around the world, they invested the money from their new inventions in education because it was such a high priority in their country.

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