04 January 2018 | by

According to The Future of Jobs 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, we are in the midst of a fourth phase of industrial revolution, with technology rapidly developing in areas like 3D printing, robotics and artificial intelligence. In this four part series, we’ll explore the history of the industrial revolution so far and take a look at how what’s being developed now will change the way we work and live.

Phase two: Electricity

While Britain was still a major player during the second phase of the industrial revolution, the country lost its position as world leader. The primary reason for this lay in the eventual harnessing and widespread adoption of electrical energy. At this point in our history, coal had given way to coal gas, which enabled the use of incandescent lighting in homes, on streets and in factories. Britain’s abundance of coal meant that coal gas was cheap and readily available. Therefore, at least initially, electricity had minimal impact upon British industry. So while one of the founding fathers of electric technology was an Englishman, further exploration and development of the new technology was left to the USA and Germany.

For the construction industry, the widespread adoption of electricity meant powered tools replaced hand labour. Materials were made more cheaply and to a higher standard. Goods lifts meant that heavier materials could be placed on upper floors, which meant more effective use of land and a higher capacity for storage. Electricity also meant that buildings were more useful after dark, allowing for longer working hours. There was also a reduction in fire risk, as open flame lighting became increasingly obsolete.

Exploring a natural phenomenon

While there is no one key event that heralded the age of electricity, there are a multitude of events going back as far as 600 BC that propelled us forward. These include:

  • 600 BC, Thales of Miletus describes how amber becomes charged when it is rubbed (static electricity).
  • 1600, William Gilbert coins the word “electricus”, which is derived from the Greek word for amber (ἤλεκτρον (elektron)).
  • 1660, a machine that creates static electricity is designed by Otto von Guericke.
  • 1675, Robert Boyle discovers that electric force can be passed through a vacuum.
  • 1705, Francis Hauksbee makes a glass ball that glows when it’s spun and rubbed with a hand.
  • 1720, insulators and conductors are discovered by Stephen Gray.
  • 1752, Benjamin Franklin invents the lighting rod, flying a kite with a key attached which shows that lightning is a form of electricity.
  • 1767, Joseph Priestly determines that electricity follows Newton’s inverse-square law of gravity.
  • 1800, Alessandro Volta proves that electricity can travel via wires.
  • 1800–1809, Sir Humphry Davy creates the first electric lights; however his inventions were not practically usable.
  • The discovery of electromagnetism & mutual induction

It was during a lecture in 1820 that Danish physicist Hans Christian Øersted accidentally discovered that electrical currents created magnetic fields (Øersted’s Law), making the first connection between magnetism and electricity. Later that year, William Hyde Wollaston unsuccessfully attempted to use Øersted’s discovery to create an electric motor. Then, in 1821, English scientist Michael Faraday succeeded where Wollaston had failed by creating two devices capable of producing an electromagnetic rotation. A few years later, in 1827, American Joseph Henry invented the electromagnet. The work of Faraday and Henry are considered to be the basis for electromagnetic technology.

In the years following, the two continued working in their respective countries to advance knowledge and understanding and to find additional ways to create and harness electrical energy. In 1831, Faraday discovered mutual induction, i.e. that an electric current can be created and manipulated through use of a coil of wire and a magnet. This led to the harnessing of electric power and the creation of the first electric generator in 1832. Faraday’s work is key to the transition of a natural curiosity into usable technology. Across the pond, Joseph Henry worked with Allen Penfield to create an ore separator, which became the first commercial electric product. A few years later, Henry’s “intensity battery” paved the way for the telegraph system, a discovery that catapulted the US and then the world into a new era.

A few more notable dates in the timeline include:

  • 1830s, a telegraph system is developed by William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, which is eventually used in Britain for railway signalling. During the same period, American Samuel FB Morse overhears a conversation about electromagnetism whilst sailing from Europe to America and decides to build a telegraph system of his own. On 4 September 1839, both parties send messages – one from London’s Euston Station to Camden, and the other over a distance of 1700 feet at New York University.
  • 1844, America’s first official telegraph message is sent by Morse, travelling from Washington DC to Baltimore, Maryland.
  • 1856, the first house in England is powered by electricity.
  • 1874, Thomas Edison makes improvements to the telegraph system which allows up to four messages to be transmitted at the same time along the same wire.
  • 1876, Alexander Graham Bell obtains a patent for the telephone and uses it to make the now-famous bi-directional call to Thomas Watson: “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you”.
  • 1877, the first electric street lighting arrives in Paris, France.
  • 1878, Joseph Swan invents the incandescent light bulb, and in 1879 Thomas Edison increases its longevity through introduction of a long lasting filament.
  • 1879, the first electric railway is introduced in Germany.
  • 1880s, across Europe, electric streetcars steadily replace horse-drawn carriages.
  • 1896, the first successful intercontinental telegram is sent.
  • 1901, Guglielmo Marconi makes the first transatlantic radio broadcast.
  • 1929, Germany plays host to the first public television broadcast.

A few notable inventions

The invention of the telegraph was a major development that revolutionised communications. With the ability to send and receive messages across greater distances, transportation systems were improved, factories were able to send and receive from much further distances, and businessmen could not only expand into previously out-of-reach markets but respond to potential business threats more quickly. While Samuel FB Morse was not the only inventor to aspire to creating a telegraph system, his creation of the Morse code was vital to its success.

In the same way, Cyrus Field’s transatlantic telegraph cable enabled faster communication between the US and UK and, with Bell and Watson’s telephone, clear across-distance verbal communication was made possible.

While coal gas provided some illumination, it was Joseph Swan’s and Thomas Edison’s improvements to the light bulb in 1879 that allowed large factories to be fully illuminated, extending working times and increasing production. It also led to the creation of a widespread electrical grid which, in turn, brought light – and electrical appliances and gadgets – into people’s homes.

In 1913, Henry Ford further revolutionised manufacturing by installing the first moving assembly line powered by electricity. With it, the time it took to build a car went from over 12 hours to 2 hours and 30 minutes.

While Nikola Tesla’s invention of the electric motor in 1930 took a back seat to world wars and economic crisis, it did contribute to the introduction of a wide variety of machines and appliances: water pumps, machine and power tools, industrial fans, household appliances, compressors, disk drives and electric wristwatches.

Next comes computers

Without electricity and all that came before it, the next phase of our industrial revolution would not have been possible. In the next part of the series, we’ll be looking at the history of computers and computing and exploring the history of construction-relevant technologies like CAD and BIM.

Continue reading: Four phases of industrial revolution: Phase three