2IR – The Electric Age

More people, greater demand 

In the year 1800, the world’s population stood at 1 billion; within a hundred years, by the turn of the 20th century, this would double, bringing  the number of people on the planet to an unprecedented 2 billion.

Not only did the world’s population grow, but thanks to the industrial revolution, people earned higher incomes, the overall standards of living went up, and the cost of living went down.

People in general were wealthier and better off than their forefathers from the 1800’s. They were able to eat better, dress better, and enjoy a higher standard of living. 

Add to all of this the rapid expansion of colonialism in the 1800s, and you have a capitalist’s dream: tens of millions of insatiable consumers demanding more products, and waving their money in your face.

Naturally, there was a greater demand than ever for food as well as for non-food items, such as clothing, medicines, cosmetics, furniture, crockery, cutlery and ornaments.

In addition, with new inventions came more things to buy, creating new consumer demand which the factories had to meet. A perfect example of this was  the invention of the internal combustion engine followed by the creation of the first car by Karl Benz in 1885.

Motor vehicles went on sale a short while later, and within two decades, cars were in huge demand globally. Everybody wanted an automobile.

Old modes couldn’t cut it

The existing farms and factories were not going to meet this massive new demand. There was a need for more farmland and bigger factories. More than that, there was a need for new, more efficient, more productive farming and manufacturing methods.

All things considered, the stage was set for another big change in the world. 

Waiting around 

The factories at the time had two major limitations. First, there was no systematic way of manufacturing items, and this led to a lot of inefficiency. 

The way the first cars were manufactured, for example, was that the parts would be lumped up in one section of the assembly plant, and the technicians would huddle around, pick up the parts they could, and start putting them together, one at a time. 

When one team completed the section they were working on, the next team would begin their work on it. For example, once the engine assembly technicians had completed assembling the engine, the engine installation team would install it into the car.

This was a very inefficient system of manufacturing, because the various sections of the vehicle were manufactured sequentially, instead of simultaneously. In other words, they were made one section after the other, from start to end. It was a time-consuming, time-wasting process. 

People had to stand around a lot, doing nothing while waiting for the teams ahead of them to complete their work.

Stinky, scorching steam engines

Second, all the machines in factories were powered by massive steam engines which were installed in sections of the premises away form where people worked, because of the heat, smoke and bad odours they generated. 

But that wasn’t the real problem with steam engines. The real problem was that each engine powered dozens of factory machines, and it was connected to them via a precarious system of pulleys and belts.

Try to picture it: a massive, rumbling engine sitting in the basement, spinning a huge pulley. This pulley was connected to another pulley upstairs using an extremely long belt. Then, that pulley would in tuen be connected to pulleys attached to the machines themselves, causing the machines to work.  

With its hundreds of moving parts, it was like a massive 3-D jigsaw puzzle of pulleys and wheels, and it was a troublesome system that broke far too often. A single failure could stop factory operations for hours until it could be fixed. And (God forbid!) a fault in the steam engine itself would bring the whole factory to a halt for days.

These were definitely not the right conditions for optimal production.

Artisans, assemble!

In 1913, Henry Ford changed manufacturing forever by setting up the first ever moving assembly line for manufacturing vehicles. His new system reduced the time required to build a complete car, from 12 hours to one-and-a-half hours.

Each person on the assembly line had one task to do, and a very limited time in which to do it before the line moved on. By the end of the line, there was a fully completed vehicle.

Henry Ford’s innovation was subsequently applied to manufacturing pretty much every type of item, and the world of manufacturing would never be the same again.

Electric motors

Another boost to manufacturing came form electric motors. Although invented in 1834, the electric motor was only improved enough for practical use during the late 1800’s. Even then, they could not be used because electricity was not available in factories.

But this was about to change.

The invention of the lightbulb led to a massive demand for electricity in towns and cities, and by the eary 1900’s, electricity lines were being rolled out all over the world. 

Manufacturers seized the opportunity, and began manufacturing and installing electric-powered machines in factories. The new machines were much smaller and more compact, did not give off any smoke or bad doors, and best of all, each had its own motor.

No more stinky steam engines, no more pulleys and belts, no more frequent failures that brought entire production lines to a grinding halt. 

Ready, steady, Revolution!

Assembly line and electricity gave rise to a whole new generation of factories, all of which were smaller yet far more efficient. Not only that, but they could be set up anywhere in the world in the fraction of the time it took to set up massive steam-powered factories.

The face of manufacturing was to change forever, and the stage was set for a revolution: the Second Industrial Revolution.

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