A Golden Era of Technical Development

Replica of one of the airplanes that the Wright brothers produced and flew.
Orville Wright makes the world’s first flight in an airplane in 1903.
Orville Wright.
Wilbur Wright.
Red 1921 Ford Roadster at a 2005 Ford show in California.
Cars rolling out on a Ford Motor Company assembly line in 1913.
Henry Ford.
The bottom part of the triangular-shaped Flatiron Building, a New York landmark, completed in 1902.
The New York Life Insurance Building in Chicago, a skyscraper completed in 1894.
Downtown Chicago today, full of skyscrapers.

The time around the end of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century was in many respects a golden era in American history. During this time, economic growth was strong, the American military triumphed in wars against Spain and Germany, and the United States established itself as an important player in international politics.


Underpinning many of the economic, miliary and political triumphs around the turn of the century was a host of American technical innovations taking place around the same time. In the 1880s, for example, the world’s first skyscraper was built in Chicago. It differed from other buildings in that it was much taller, a feature made possible by use of light steel rather than heavy stone or iron as building material. Elevators already existed, and both Chicago and New York were quick in erecting a cluster of mighty skyscrapers in the 1890s, a time when most people still travelled by horse-drawn carriage.

The Model T Ford

The horse-drawn carriage, which didn’t quite match the imposing skyscrapers in engineering complexity and style, started to be phased out soon after the 1890s. In its place came the car, with an important milestone being the 1901 roll out of the Detroit-manufactured Oldsmobile, which may have been the world’s first automobile produced on an assembly line. Then, soon after, Henry Ford rationalized and improved the assembly line to the point that, by 1908, he was able to mass produce the first car that middle-class Americans could afford to buy: the Model T Ford. Ford’s feat, in effect, sped up the process of populating the American roads with cars, and at the same time relegated the horse to a means of transportation mostly for the poor.

While Ford was busy figuring out what work stations to put on his assembly line, in the early 1900s, the Wright brothers were already up in the air flying. As early as 1903, Orville Wright made the world’s first flight in an airplane, an amazing milestone that meant that mankind’s longtime dream of soaring like the birds had become a reality. Thereafter, the progress of flight continued, with both commercial and military air travel capacity eventually being developed — and traveling in a plane became an established part of modern life. Still though, despite the groundbreaking progress in the realm of aviation after 1903, the Wright brothers’ maiden flight of some 120 feet would be better remembered than almost all other advances. This, not least, is due to the fact that the brothers, with very modest means, were able to manufacture a gasoline-powered plane out of wood in their own Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop.