Blog post

Age of Synergies: technological innovations in the late 19th century

Learn about the scientific and technological developments that revolutionised the world.

black and white illustration showing people on horseback in front of oil wells
by
Giulia Boschini (EuroClio - European Association of History Educators)

At the end of the 18th Century, the English scholar Thomas Malthus published An Essay on The Principle of Population, with its core idea known as the Malthusian Trap.

This refers to a phenomenon affecting population growth and food supply. Malthus argued that while the population increases exponentially, the food supply grows linearly. Thus, population growth always outpaces food production, leading to a shortage of food and a general decrease in living standards.

When such a crisis occurs, the population decreases due to catastrophes, such as wars and famines. Malthusian ideas were quite popular as, up to that moment, natural disasters and wars cyclically halted the population growth.

However, the Industrial Revolution broke through the Malthusian ceiling.

Thanks to technological innovations in various fields, agricultural production increased. Consequently, the population worldwide increased, especially in the Western world.

In the late 19th century, a series of scientific discoveries and technological innovations caused a transition from a pre-industrial to an industrial society. This transition caused global transformations, such as a demographic surge, cultural, economic, political, and environmental changes.

The synergetic technological and scientific developments that followed the invention of the steam engine characterise this period. The Czech-Canadian scholar Vaclav Smil refers to this historical moment as the ‘Age of Synergy’. This chain of technological discoveries and global changes was not inevitable. It was a result of increased scientific knowledge and luck, leading to additional inventions and discoveries.

Abundance of energy

Using fossil fuels such as coal and oil was pivotal for technological innovations such as the internal combustion engine, the electromotor, and jet engines. Some countries were rich in energy sources.

For example, the United Kingdom was well-endowed in coal, and the United States were abundant in oil. This factor could help explain why such countries underwent early and successful industrialisation. Moreover, the abundance of fossil fuels stimulated the search for more efficient ways of extracting and refining non-renewable energy sources.

Mechanising production and combustion engines

Technological breakthroughs, such as the steam-powered spinning mule and combustion engines, allowed productivity to soar exponentially. Due to the automation of production, the labour employed in agricultural and industrial production was lower than ever before. Combustion engines in particular were used extensively in agricultural production, powering tractors and harvesters. Later on, internal combustion engines allowed the development of cars.

Electricity

In the late 19th century, the diffusion of electricity revolutionised the world.

Before the employment of electricity in households, the world was a dark place from twilight until dawn. Electricity generates light, motion and heat, powering electric motors and transportation. At first, steam generators powered electricity production on a large scale.

The first electricity-generating power plant appeared in London in 1882. In the drawing below, you can see the Edison's Electric Lighting Station in New York that was established in the same year.

Transportation

The late 19th century also brought new means of transport, faster, more reliable and cheaper than ever before, starting from trains and ships powered by the steam engine.

Initially, steamships and steam-powered trains were the main modes of transport. The arrival of electricity had a profound effect on transportation, powering boats and trains. However, steam-powered ships remained widely employed for their capacity to transport heavy cargos. An example is the steam-powered oil tanker in the picture.

Later on, automobiles and aeroplanes took the lead in transportation.

This Historiana source collection aims to illustrate the links between innovations in energy uses, how they influenced each other, and the possible consequences of technological innovation.

Starting from this collection, students could reflect on the connections between the transformations of the Age of Synergy. Additionally, history educators could encourage a discussion about the historical consequences of technological innovations and their possible repercussions on today’s society.