Nineteenth-Century Technology in Twenty-First-Century America

by William Walker


The nineteenth century was marked by a period of innovation, invention, and a huge spurt of growth known as the industrial revolution. Many inventions from the nineteenth century never caught on or have become obsolete, while many others, with some modifications or improvements, continue to have an effect on our everyday lives.

Essential Question

How did change brought about by the technological advances of the 19th Century resemble the rapid pace of change today? 



  1. Ask students to name recent inventions or innovations that have brought about changes in their homes and lives. Write these on the board and briefly discuss the changes brought about by these items. Ask students if they foresee these inventions as being useful 100–200 years in the future.
  2. Distribute handout of Nineteenth Century Invention Timeline. Ask students to complete the handout by speculating about the invention’s purpose. Then ask students to decide whether they use the invention today.
  3. Ask students if they use or depend on any other inventions from the nineteenth century. Write these on the board and discuss the effect of these items on their lives and what life would be like without them.

Lesson Activities

  1. Divide students into pairs or groups of three. Each group gets a cropped patent drawing of a nineteenth-century invention. Some groups will get two drawings of the same invention. Give the typewriter to the group that receives the calculating machine.
  2. Give the groups about five minutes to determine what their invention is. Some inventions will be fairly obvious while others will not be as easy to identify. Instruct those groups with obscure inventions to study these drawings carefully to attempt to identify their item.
  3. Have each group internally discuss the item or items that they have. Additionally, have them discuss the changes that the invention brought into peoples lives, other related inventions, and how they affect our lives and modern society. Also have them prepare essays responding to these questions as well as speculating as to what life would be like without these items.
  4. On the second day, students should present their essays to the class. The drawings can be hung on the board or projected as PowerPoint slides during the presentations.
  5. Following presentations have the class discuss the long-term and far-reaching influence of these inventions on society.


In order to illustrate the pace of change, ask students to consider modern inventions that have become or will soon become obsolete. (Use The Sony Walkman; the typewriter / desktop computer; the 8 track tape; VCR etc.)

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