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The Age of Ingenuity PUBLIC ACCESS

By the Late 19th Century, as the Prestige of Engineers Grew, their Inventiveness Gave Rise to Unprecedented Industrial Advancement.

[+] Author Notes

John Varrasi is a senior writer in the Public Information Department of ASME in New York.

Mechanical Engineering 127(02), 44-46 (Feb 01, 2005) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2005-FEB-5

Abstract

This article highlights that by the late 19th century, as the prestige of engineers grew, their inventiveness gave rise to unprecedented industrial advancement. In 1888, George Westinghouse was investigating a motor for his alternating current electrical system. He had developed AC power two years earlier, and it offered a transmission advantage over the direct current system of Thomas Edison. The introduction of a transformer, to step voltages up or down, permitted efficient power transmission over longer distances. Edison’s system still had the upper hand; however, because of the DC motor. Direct current not only could light up the dark, it could also do work, like driving streetcars and factory machinery. American industrialization hurtled forward during ASME’s second decade, and mechanical engineers were in the forefront. Through inventions and technical ingenuity and know-how, engineers made great contributions to industrial productivity and helped corporate employers achieve success and profitability.

Article

In 1888, George Westinghouse was investigating a motor for his alternating current electrical system. He had developed ac power two years earlier, and it offered a transmission advantage over the direct current system of Thomas Edison: The introduction of a transformer, to step voltages up or down, permitted efficient power transmission over longer distances. Edison's system still had the upper hand, however, because of the dc motor. Direct current not only could light up the dark, it could also do work, like driving streetcars and factory machinery.

The 42-year-old Westinghouse, who in 1910 and 1911 would serve as president of ASME, dived headlong into his project, hiring the best and brightest to conduct one experiment after another in his Pittsburgh laboratory. His quest led Westinghouse to Nikola Tesla, a Serbian emigre who demonstrated a novel motor that could be powered by a rotating magnetic field. Westinghouse and Tesla proceeded to perfect the device and develop it into a reliable induction motor that could run on alternating current.

An invention was born, one of hundreds during ASME's first two decades in existence. The Westinghouse polyphase system and Thomas Edison's later ac motor were two of the most significant inventions of the late 19th century, creating a dynamo effect in the rapidly industrializing nation. Lighting became available to wider urban populations, and city folk could now ride on electric trolleys, rather than horse-drawn streetcars. On a grander scale, the genius of Westinghouse and Edison laid the foundation for electric power generation and mass transit rail electrification efforts, such as New York City's subway system and the NOlfolk and Western railroad.

The spirit of George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison pervaded engineering practice in the late 19th century.

This era was one of great ideas and great discoveries. If the 1860s and 1870s encompassed the Great Railway Age in America, the decades following could be called the Age of Ingenuity. This period in America's industrialization produced a flurry of inventions in machine tools, factory equipment, rubber and steel products, and communications devices. The punch card machine, electrical resistance welding, automated shoe-making machine, Tungsten steel, wind tunnel for studying aerodynamics, bottle-making machine—these were only a few of the amazing inventions, discoveries, and developments in the United States during the 1880s and 1890s. The total number of patents granted each year during these 20 years was 21,000, compared to 1,000 a year in the 1850s.

"America had enormous resources combined with enormous freedom, and these were factors that drove inventiveness and industrialization during the late 19th century," said John H. Lienhard, the M.D. Anderson Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering and History at the University of Houston and author of a book on the history of technology, Engines of Our Ingenuity, based on his radio show of the same name.

Thomas Edison was one of the greatest inventors of the time. More than just a skilled craftsman, Edison took invention to a level of sophistication and formality. Fulfilling a vision, Edison at the age of29 established an enterprise—an invention factory—in the quasi-seclusion of Menlo Park, N.J., where concepts and ideas for new devices incubated and grew into inventions of practical use to industrialists and consumers. Edison's operation included laboratories, an electrical testing shop and machine shop, and a library housing the world's leading scientific journals. The Wizard of Menlo Park, as Edison became known, staffed the facility with bright engineers and scientists who shared his commitment to invention and ingenuity.

"Out of Menlo Park came improved telegraph and telephone systems, dynamos, electric rail systems, and the photoelectric effect," Lienhard said. The phonograph also sprang from Menlo Park.

If engineers were not inventing new products, they were busy improving upon the systems and processes introduced earlier in England, France, and Germany. Alexander Holley, one of the founders of ASME, and others in America I advanced the Bessemer process of burning out carbon from molten metal, enabling the United States to expand its steel industry. By 1900, the nation's annual output of steel was more than 11 million tons, making the United States the world leader in steel production.

Steel making was a prime catalyst for economic and industrial growth in the 19th century. Low-cost Bessemer steel replaced iron for railway construction, and by the end of the century, 200,000 miles of raih'oads crisscrossed the American landscape. And when engineers began to exploit the remarkable tension and compression characteristics of steel, tall buildings rose, lending vitality and splendor to Chicago, New York, and other metropolises. By this time, American manufacturing innovators, led by Ernest L. Ransome of San Francisco, were demonstrating much success with steel-reinforced concrete, which became a primary building material in US. cities.

Off in the countryside, a boom in farm equipment manufacturing was under way, spurred by the internal combustion engine. The internal combustion engine was invented in Germany, and US. manufacturers adapted it to the needs of the farm. By the mid-1890s, US. companies were introducing farm tractors featuring twice the horsepower of earlier steam-traction units, bringing labor and cost savings to farm operations.

American industrialization hurtled forward during ASME's second decade, and mechanical engineers were in the forefront. Through inventions and technical ingenuity and know-how, engineers made great contributions to industrial productivity and helped corporate employers achieve success and profitability. By the latter part of the 19th century, engineers had gained enormous prestige and respect in America, and had risen to a lofty status in the professional ranks of the day. The education and training of engineers became formalized, as engineering schools, like the Sibley School at Cornell University, started programs steeped in the sciences.

Recognizing the role of pure scientific research in product innovation, industrialists at the turn of the century began establishing dedicated research laboratories and centers, and staffed these facilities with trained engineers. These labs, many of which Were owned and funded by corporations seeking to privatize research and corner markets, fueled much innovation and discovery. The research labs of General Electric, Du Pont, and Goodyear were among the first to rise from the rapid industrialization and commercialization at the tail end of the 19th century.

Robert Thurston, ASME's first president, embodied the spirit of engineering in this period. Like Westinghouse and Edison, Thurston was a great inventor and innovator. He patented a machine for testing lubricants and an audio device for recording torsion, and, some 20 years before Kitty Hawk, sketched designs for flying machines.

Thurston also was one of the strongest proponents of the late 19th-century engineering sciences movement. Formally educated and strongly influenced by the great mathematicians and theorists in France, Thurston in 1885 took directorship of the Sibley School at Cornell and transformed it into a world-renowned institution of scholarly learning.

Thurston's experience at Cornell influenced his vision for ASME. A writer of numerous technical papers on steam engines and other engineering subjects, Thurston believed strongly in the value of information exchange. He envisioned a world regulated by expert technical knowledge, and viewed the fledging ASME as the appropriate forum for acquiring and dispersing that knowledge. Thurston's original vision served to shape the young organization and guide its core activities for the next 125 years.

As ASME celebrates its 125th anniversary this year, Mechanical Engineering will run articles each month highlighting key influences in the Society's development. This, the second in our series, explores ASME's eventful first and second decades, during which the mechanical engineer reached new heights in professional stature amid a flurry of inventions and new discoveries.

Landmarks of industrialization: Idols hydroelectric station in North Carolina (above) and a Bessemer conversion engine in Michigan (left) are ASME mechanical engineering landmarks from the last decade of the 19th century.

Grahic Jump LocationLandmarks of industrialization: Idols hydroelectric station in North Carolina (above) and a Bessemer conversion engine in Michigan (left) are ASME mechanical engineering landmarks from the last decade of the 19th century.

The leavitt-Riedler pumping station in Massachusetts (below) and the Folsom Power House in California are ASME landmarks from the Age of Ingenuity. George Westinghouse (inset) became the Society's president in 1910.

Grahic Jump LocationThe leavitt-Riedler pumping station in Massachusetts (below) and the Folsom Power House in California are ASME landmarks from the Age of Ingenuity. George Westinghouse (inset) became the Society's president in 1910.

American industrialization hurtled forward during the 1890s,and mechanical engineers were in the forefront.

Copyright © 2005 by ASME
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