Made in America: 10 historic innovations that changed our world

Innovation is at the heart of the American economy.

Since the earliest colonial times, new ideas and fresh ways of thinking have been an engine of growth for America, transforming it into an industrial and technological powerhouse and the largest economy in the world.

Here are 10 made-in-America innovations that helped change our world.

1. Lockstitch Sewing Machine, 1833

The most common mechanical stitch today is the lockstitch, thanks to three 19th-century inventors named Walter Hunt, Elias Howe, and Isaac Singer.

Walter Hunt invented the first lock-stitch sewing machine in 1833 but failed to patent the design. He feared his invention would create mass unemployment among seamstresses.

Some 13 years later, Elias Howe, reinvented the machine and filed for a patent but failed to get the sewing machine to market.

Enter the well-known figure of Isaac Singer—a man who knew how to get things made.

Sewing Machine. Credit Jorge Royan
Sewing Machine. Credit Jorge Royan

Singer infringed on Howe’s patent but made some major improvements. Howe sued, won the case, and was paid royalties.

Meanwhile, Walter Hunt had joined forces with Singer.

All three inventors eventually benefited from their role in the invention of the sewing machine.

2. Vacuum Cleaner, 1860

Originally calling his invention a “carpet sweeper”, Iowan Daniel Hess received a patent for the first vacuum cleaner on July 10, 1860.

Generating suction with an elaborate bellows system, it also had a rotating brush.

Bellows Vacuum Cleaner. Credit Royalbroil
Bellows Vacuum Cleaner. Credit Royalbroil

Credit for inventing the first motorized vacuum cleaner went to Hubert Cecil Booth of England in 1901.

But it would take until 1907 before the first practical portable vacuum cleaner powered by electricity was built by James Murray Spangler, a janitor from Canton, Ohio, who used one of his wife’s pillowcases as a dust bag!

3. Jeans, 1873

This “go anywhere, do anything” icon of American fashion is a worldwide favorite for casual wear.

Jacob Davis was a Latvian-Jewish American immigrant who is credited with inventing jeans.

Working as a tailor in Reno, Nevada, he was approached by a customer to make a strong pair of working pants for her woodcutter husband.

Using a heavy, plain woven cotton fabric called “duck cloth” supplied by Levi Strauss & Co of San Francisco, he reinforced the weak stress points with copper rivets.

The back of a pair of Levi's 501 jeans.. Credit Blake Burkhart
The back of a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans.. Credit Blake Burkhart

An instant hit with the labourers working on the railroad, he couldn’t keep up with demand and it wasn’t long before Davis realized the business value of his design.

But he had not the wherewithal to file for a patent or make the “jeans”—the name already used for a number of garments made from this type of fabric.

So he approached Levi Strauss for funding and the rest is history.

4. Telephone, 1876

On March 7, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell was issued a US patent for the following invention:

the method of, and apparatus for, transmitting vocal or other sounds telegraphically … by causing electrical undulations, similar in form to the vibrations of the air accompanying the said vocal or other sound
Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago in 1892
Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago in 1892

Crediting Bell with the invention of the telephone is shrouded in controversy.

In reality, there were several inventors working on “voice transmission over a wire” but Alexander Graham Bell was the first to be awarded a patent.

Probably the most controversial claim to being the true inventor of the telephone was Elisha Gray, an American electrical engineer from Ohio.

Some authors allege that Bell stole Gray’s idea for a liquid-based voice transmitter, while others argue that Bell used the transmitter only as a proof of concept for his own idea and never used it commercially.

Either way, try to imagine life today without the ability to talk with someone over a phone.

5. Electric Light Bulb, 1879

Such was the genius of the incandescent lamp that it is still used as a symbol for bright ideas today.

Although there were 22 inventors of incandescent bulbs before Thomas Edison, including British physicist Sir Joseph Swan, Edison’s invention was by far the most effective for large-scale commercial use.

The lamp was a small component in his system of electric lighting, and no more critical to its effective functioning than the Edison Jumbo generator, the Edison main and feeder, and the parallel-distribution system. Other inventors with generators and incandescent lamps, and with comparable ingenuity and excellence, have long been forgotten because their creators did not preside over their introduction in a system of lighting.— Thomas P. Hughes, In Technology at the Turning Point
Evolution of Edison's incandescent electric light bulb and socket - 1880-1881. Credit Richard Warren Lipack
Evolution of Edison’s incandescent electric light bulb and socket – 1880-1881. Credit Richard Warren Lipack

Earning the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park”, Edison was one of the first inventors to deploy large teams for the process of invention.

6. Skyscraper, 1884

After the Great Fire of 1871, Chicago became a magnet for daring experiments in architecture that gave rise to the skyscraper.

The edifice known as the world’s first skyscraper was the 10-story Home Insurance Company Building built in 1884.

It was designed by the Massachusetts-born architect William Le Baron Jenney

The Home Insurance Building in Chicago built in 1885. Credit jasonwoodhead23
The Home Insurance Building in Chicago built in 1885. Credit jasonwoodhead23

Unlike conventional construction that uses load-bearing walls, skyscrapers have a steel framework supporting lightweight non-structural outer walls and glass panels.

Through this construction method, skyscrapers can reach immense heights like those of the Burj Khalifa (2,722 ft) in Dubai—currently the world’s tallest.

7. Assembly Line, 1901

Many inventions are not useful unless and until they can be made at scale, thus reducing material and labor costs and passing those savings on to consumers as affordable products for the masses.

Ford Model T Assembly Line
Ford Model T Assembly Line

Ransom Olds, who founded the Olds Motor Vehicle Company in Lansing, Michigan, is credited as being first to use a stationary production line to build the world’s first mass-produced automobile, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash in 1901.

However, what set Henry Ford’s Model T apart was that it used a moving assembly line driven by conveyor belts, allowing a Model T to be built in just 93 minutes and transforming the industry by producing the first truly affordable automobile.

8. Air conditioning, 1902

Try living without air conditioning in many parts of the world during the summer and it’s easy to appreciate what a great invention it is.

American engineer Willis Carrier is credited with inventing the first electrical air conditioning unit in 1902 and going on to form the Carrier Corporation in 1915.


Air conditioning systems on rooftops in Washington. Credit Ralf Roletschek
Air conditioning systems on rooftops in Washington. Credit Ralf Roletschek

Although the roaring 1920s were good for business after World War I, the company suffered during the Wall St Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression.

It wasn’t until the booming 1950s that air conditioning began its huge growth in popularity.

9. Airplane, 1903

The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement, all writings with his fame, and bringing eternal glory to the nest whence he sprang.Leonardo da Vinci

The Wright brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, made the first powered and sustained airplane flights under control of the pilot in the Wright Flyer I on December 17, 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

The Wright Flyer airborne during the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina
The Wright Flyer airborne during the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina

The brothers’ fundamental breakthrough was their invention of “three-axis control”, which enabled the pilot to steer the aircraft effectively and to maintain its equilibrium.

This required method has become standard on all fixed-wing aircraft.

10. Supermarket, 1916

Supermarkets have transformed the way we do our shopping.

In the old days, shoppers would have to visit many different stores to buy what they needed.

There was a separate grocer, baker, butcher, greengrocer, and pharmacy spread out in the town center or along a “high street”.

Consumers shopping for produce and fruit. in a supermarket
Consumers shopping for produce and fruit. in a supermarket

People would have to queue in front of the counter at each store, tell the shopkeeper what they wanted and it would be fetched for them from the shelf behind the counter.

This process could take hours.

American entrepreneur Clarence Saunders opened the first true self-service grocery store in 1916 in Memphis, Tennessee, calling it the Piggly Wiggly store.

Today we simply drive to one location, park for free, and do a full week’s shopping in around an hour by taking what we need from shelves and placing it in a shopping cart.

In the future, every product will have a sensor and the price of goods will be automatically deducted from our account upon exiting the store.

Alternatively, we can order online and have it all delivered … perhaps even by drone!

Ah, just in time—here comes my takeout order.

Drone carrying a shopping back. Credit Don McCullough (drone) and Yogyakartas (bag)
Drone carrying a shopping back. Credit Don McCullough (drone) and Yogyakartas (bag)

That’s innovation for you!

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