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The industrial revolution is the last period of substantial industrial and technological inventions, even in comparison to modern advancements.
During the period of 1760 to 1840, there occurred such a massive amount of innovation that the world was forever changed. Don’t get me wrong, current technologies are advancing very rapidly, but what occurs today is mostly just evolution to ideas and products created during the industrial revolution.
What was invented during the industrial revolution?
Computers could likely be the one exception to this, but one could argue that the modern computer can be traced back to early mechanical computers and electrical circuits, all, you guessed it, created in the industrial revolution.
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There are even processes and machines that were created in the industrial revolution that really haven’t changed much in the last 200 years. So, throughout this roughly 80-year revolutionary period, which process or technique had the most impact on the modern world?
Settling in on the best technology that came as a result of the industrial revolution is not an easy task. After all, there’s metallurgy, textile manufacturing, mining, refined cement, machine tools, and glassmaking. Advancements in every single one of these industries rocked the world forever and occurred at breakneck speeds over this period of industrial growth.
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In order to determine which industrial process made the biggest impact, we have to examine how each industry relates back to the world today.
The core technology that allowed innovation
Advancements in metallurgy made large steel structures and railroad transportation possible. Mining efforts brought new compounds and chemicals to the forefront of research. Machine tools cut down on labor costs and drove further manufacturing. However, all of these processes can be traced back to one technology, that, for the most part, is still in the same form that it was during the industrial revolution today. The steam engine.
Now, before you go saying that I’m just a bunch of hot air, let’s look at the impact that the steam engine had on the world and the other industrial processes developed during the revolution. Railroads? Steam engine. Machine tools? Steam engine. Electrical grid? Steam engine. Agricultural growth? Steam engine. Practically every advancement during the industrial revolution required some form of power input, and all of that was generated by the humble steam engine.
Europe, where the industrial revolution flourished, had lots of readily accessible coal. Mining efforts were underway to extract this power source, but mines would often flood, meaning that they would have to be manually pumped out and work would stop for a long period of time. It was out of this inconvenience that the steam engine was created. Steam engines were created to rapidly pump out water from mines, and because of this, Europe was able to mine more coal, then create more power through steam engines – a cyclical process.
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Most modern infrastructure, whether you realize it or not, runs on the principles and mechanics of steam engines. All of our coal fire plants, nuclear plants, and large-scale non-renewable energy source run off of the basic mechanics of a steam engine. Apart from drastic efficiency improvement from the early days of steam engines, modern steam power is operated in relatively the same way.
Heat is used to boil water, create steam, which then powers a piston that turns a crank and generates electricity. That’s a simplified version of how modern steam engines work, but the basic mechanics of a steam engine largely haven’t changed.
This unchanging impact that steam engines have had on the infrastructure and industrial realms of the world make it what is likely the process with the greatest impact on the modern industry today. Without the steam engine’s energy-generating capabilities, only a small fraction of the modern industry would be functioning.
Steam changed the world through the industrial revolution.
Steam in modern engineering
Diving deeper into modern engineering infrastructure, we can gain a greater understanding of how important steam is or can be. Steam has applications in heating, propulsion, industrial humidification, and cleaning, among many others.
As we mentioned before, steam is the sole drive of many energy production methods as it can easily be used to transform heat into pressure and pressure into electrical energy. Because steam, and ultimately water, have the ability to drastically change pressure based on temperature, steam has found a prime use in industrial applications. Steam is used in heat exchangers or in steam ovens for industrial-scale cooking.
One unique note about steam is that its temperature can be controlled by how much pressure it's under. This means that by slightly adjusting the pressure of a given amount of steam, workers can also precisely control the temperature of said steam. This comes into play in applications like industrial boilers for heating. As opposed to heated water which gives operators little control over temperature change over time, the temperature of the steam used in these applications can be finely tuned.
At the end of the day, the unique properties of steam make it well suited for many, many industrial applications, so it's no wonder that it became one of the highlights of invention from the first industrial revolution.
What are some mechanisms or things that operate off of steam that we didn't mention here?