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A scene from a Gilded Age X-ray laboratory. The Record-Union (Sacramento, CA), October 25, 1896.

The Gilded Age: Technology & Invention

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On September 4, 1882, famed inventor Thomas Edison flipped the switch that illuminated The Times Building with electricity in New York City for the first time. The next day, the New York Times reported that, “Mr. Edison had at last perfected his incandescent light.” Edison’s practical electric light bulb was just one of the many groundbreaking inventions that came about during a period of sweeping change in America known as the Gilded Age.

What devices, machinery and inventions have been given the world by industrious genius in the last few years.”
The Grenada Sentinel (Grenada, MS), September 14, 1889.

Spanning roughly 1870-1900, the Gilded Age was a time of rapid industrialization in the United States. The country was transforming from an agrarian society of farmers and small producers to an industrial economy based in large urban cities. At the same time, there was a burst of innovation in the fields of engineering, science and technology, which brought about some of the modern era’s most innovative inventions. Here is a look at some of those inventions through historical newspapers.

The Gramophone

Detail of a sketch from a newspaper featuring a group of people seated gathered around a gramophone.
The Record-Union (Sacramento, CA), May 19, 1898.

German American inventor Emile Berliner (1851-1929) patented the gramophone in 1887, a technology for recording and playing back sound. While Berliner wasn’t the first–Thomas Edison had figured it out with his 1877 invention of the phonograph–it was a first attempt at a technology capable of turning soundwave energy into a real object that could be turned back into sound.

Berliner used the basic principles of Edison’s technology but made improvements that enhanced the overall quality and efficiency of early sound recording. His process relied on lateral incisions created by a needle vibrating from side to side. The evenly deep lateral grooves it created kept the needle from jumping, but also reproduced sound with a greater range.

 

The Telephone

Detail from a newspaper featuring a photograph of the first model of a telephone.
“First Telephone Model Now in Patent Office,” Omaha Daily Bee (Omaha, NE), July 9, 1899.

In 1876, Elisha Gray (1835-1901) and Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) had independently designed devices that could transmit speech electrically. The men rushed their prototype telephones to the U.S. Patent Office within hours of each other–Bell patented his first and later won a legal dispute with Gray.

Bell’s success with the telephone came after years of attempts to improve the telegraph. He finally achieved transmitting sound over a wire and on March 7, 1876, obtained a patent for a device he called the “Improvement in Telegraphy”—now known as the first telephone. Though he had tested the technology with a colleague in Boston on March 10, 1876, Bell’s first public demonstration of his telephone took place a few months later on June 25, 1876, at the Philadelphia World’s Fair, the Centennial Exposition.

 

Linotype Machine

Detail from a newspaper of a sketch of a linotype machine.
Linotype Machine. Eagle River Review (Eagle River, WI), August 20, 1896.

In 1884, German American inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899) invented mechanized movable type with his linotype machine, an invention that caused the greatest information explosion since Johannes Gutenberg and the printing press. Before Mergenthaler’s invention, newspaper print was set by hand, a process that was long, tedious, expensive and generally limited papers to no more than 10 pages in length. The linotype machine was controlled by a keyboard similar in concept to the computer keyboards of today. A linotype operator could produce 4-7 lines of print a minute with Mergenthaler’s 90-character keyboard. Newspapers doubled and tripled in size which provided more information to the average American.

The success of the linotype machine coincided with the beginnings of the Progressive Movement in America. Social critics (referred to at the time as “muckrakers”), like Upton Sinclair and Ida M. Tarbell, were now able to get their in-depth exposés on corruption and poverty printed in newspapers and periodicals across the country, helping to better inform the American people of social issues. In addition, the increased quality of the newspapers led to higher circulation, which made newspapers and the publishers that ran them more powerful over the shaping of public opinion.

 

Typewriter

Detail from a newspaper of an ad for a Remington typewriter.
Standard Remington Typewriter. The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, IN), March 5, 1889.

In 1874, the New York gun manufacturing company Remington and Sons marketed the first practical typewriter–with capital letters only–from an 1868 patent. Thomas Edison was granted a patent for an electric typewriter in 1872, but it was not commercially viable until the 1920s. The typewriter quickly changed office work in America and provided opportunities for women to enter the workforce.

Remington’s typewriter was among the more than 8,000 inventions exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, along with Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.

Kodak Camera

Detail image from a newspaper of a Kodak camera.
Eastman Kodak Camera. Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, IA), September 24, 1900.

American inventor and entrepreneur George Eastman (1854-1932) brought photography out of the studio and into the hands of everyday people with his revolutionary Kodak Camera, patented in 1888.

Prior to Eastman’s invention, photographs required the use of large, expensive cameras loaded with fragile glass plates that could only be developed by professional photographers. The Kodak Camera, priced at $25, was a handheld box that took one hundred pictures, allowing people to easily aim the camera and push the shutter button, then crank the film to the next frame. But when the roll was done, the entire camera had to be returned to Eastman’s firm in Rochester, New York for processing. Customers received prints, negatives, a new roll of film and their camera back.

The Kodak was advertised with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

 

X-Rays

Detail image from a newspaper of a X-ray of two hands side-by-side.
“X-ray picture of hands,” The Record-Union (Sacramento, CA), October 25, 1896.

On November 8, 1895, at the University of Würzburg, Germany, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) accidently discovered new and unknown rays while testing electric discharges in glass vacuum tubes. His tubes were covered in heavy black paper, but an incandescent green light still escaped and projected onto a nearby fluorescent screen. He found that the mysterious light would pass through most substances, but leave shadows of solid objects. He called them “X” to underscore that he did not know the nature of what the rays were.

Röntgen soon discovered that X-rays would pass through human tissue as well, rendering the bones and tissue visible. News of his discovery quickly spread, and within a year, facilities in Europe and the U.S. were using X-rays in surgeries and to locate bullets from gunshot wounds, bone fractures, kidney stones and swallowed objects. The technology replaced Alexander Graham Bell’s telephonic needle probe, which he had developed in an effort to locate the bullet in President James Garfield after Garfield had been shot in 1881. Bell’s device could only detect metal objects by sound and, therefore, was limited to locating such objects as bullets for removal. The discovery of X-rays made Röntgen famous. He was awarded the first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1901 among his many honors.

Of course there were many other Gilded Age inventions that we didn’t cover in this post–barbed wire, the automobile, the fountain pen, stock ticker, electric elevator, and motion pictures among them–so tell us what you know about the ones we missed by sharing in the comments!

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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Comments (3)

  1. THIS IS REALLY USFULL THANK YOU

  2. THIS IS REALLY USFULL.

  3. This helped with my project! Thanks for including the dates and details. :)

    (the photographs are useful too!)

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