As late as the eighteenth century, the great bulk of people in Europe and North America were still supporting themselves and their families through their individual labor, mostly on farmlands. They relied on human and animal power to grow and harvest plant food crops and raise livestock that would sustain their lives. In some places, individual farmers made their farms more efficient by harnessing wind and hydraulic power. They had sailing vessels propelled by wind, and grain mills and lumber mills powered by waterwheels and windmills. Coal, petroleum, and electrically powered machines were still largely unknown.
The early nineteenth century saw human beings beginning to harness a new form of power: steam, which could make machines work faster and with greater power. As the century wore on, steam power was made to run trains, ships, and factory machines. By the end of the century, electricity was being harnessed to run machines even more efficiently, and new kinds of motors were being made to run off petrochemical fuels, such as gasoline.
These new forms of machinery did not suddenly spring into use. They required many years of experimentation and adaptation to reach high levels of efficiency. Steam-powered train, ferry, and shipping services began operating during the first decades of the nineteenth century, but they did not become commercially significant until around midcentury. Meanwhile, factories were beginning to adapt steam-powered machines to manufacturing. A key element of the process of modernizing manufacturing was the introduction of standardization of parts.
The importance of standardization was especially evident in the manufacture of guns, an industry that played an important role in developing the technique. Armories in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Harpers Ferry, Virginia (later inWest Virginia), helped pioneer in the development of machine tools, jigs, and templates that made possible the production of multiple identical parts. Standardized parts made assembly faster and more economical and made replacement parts much easier and cheaper to obtain. Standardization was later introduced into the manufacturing of many other products for which there was increasing demand, such as clocks, sewing machines, farm machines, and transportation equipment. Before the Industrial Revolution, complicated devices such as guns, tools, and clocks had been made by hand by workers trained by long experience to produce individual parts, one at a time. Making the parts and assembling them both required high levels of skills. After techniques for manufacturing identical, and thus fully interchangeable, parts were perfected, the finished products could be assembled relatively easily by semiskilled and sometimes even unskilled workers—many of whom were recent immigrants to the United States.