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The Impact of Inventions

Grade Level: 7–8

A promotional painting by George Inness will introduce students to a new invention from the nineteenth century: the locomotive. Then, they will research another invention from the nineteenth-century and the impact it had on the lives of the American people. Students will illustrate two advertisements: the first as a promotion of the positive impact of the invention and the second as a public service announcement warning about potentially harmful side effects.


George Inness
American, 1825–1894
The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856
oil on canvas, 86 x 127.5 cm (33 7/8 x 50 3/16 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers



Curriculum Connections

  • History/Social Studies
  • Language Arts
  • Science (ecology)


  • Computers with internet access for students to do research
  • Writing and drawing materials

Warm-Up Question

The Industrial Revolution meant that some goods once made by hand could now be made in larger quantities more quickly by machine. How did this affect the growing preference for train transportation?


I like to see it lap the Miles—
And lick the Valleys up—
And stop to feed itself at Tanks—
And then—prodigious step

Around a Pile of Mountains—
And supercilious peer
In Shanties—by the sides of Roads—
And then a Quarry pare

To fit its sides And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid—hooting stanza—
Then chase itself down Hill—

And neigh like Boanerges*
Then—prompter than a Star
Stop—docile and omnipotent
At its own stable door—

*Biblical name meaning “sons of thunder”

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Like to See it Lap the Miles” (nineteenth century)

The Industrial Revolution in the United States saw the rise of textile mills and mass production in other industries. National roads were built to make transportation easier, but railroads and steamboats made the movement of raw materials and manufactured goods even faster. By 1850, just twenty years after the engine Tom Thumb lost its race against a railroad car pulled by a horse, about nine thousand miles of railroad track crossed the nation.

One of the early railroad lines was the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western. In the 1850s, the president of this new company commissioned the artist George Inness to paint The Lackawanna Valley to use for advertising purposes. While documenting the achievements of the railroad, Inness also created a convincing view of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The artist took relatively few liberties with his composition, but in compliance with the wishes of his patron, he included four trains and exaggerated the prominence of the railroad’s yet-to-be-completed roundhouse, a building for housing and repairing trains.

Steam-powered trains were fueled by wood or coal (this one uses wood). They released smoke and soot in the air that often made rail travel dirty. It was not uncommon for porters to brush passengers off at the end of the line. In 1831, a passenger wrote this firsthand account of an early trip by rail:

The [coaches] were coupled together with chains, leaving from two to three feet slack . . . and in stopping, came together with such force as to send [passengers] flying from their seats. . . . black smoke with sparks, coals, and cinders, came pouring back the whole length of the train. Each of the tossed passengers who had an umbrella raised it as a protection against the smoke and fire. They were found to be little protection, for I think in the first mile the last umbrella went over-board, all having their covers burnt off from the flames.

quoted in Lorna C. Mason, William Jay Jacobs, and Robert P. Ludlum, History of The United States, vol. 1: Beginnings to 1877 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Co., 1992), 364

Inness seems to have minimized the smoke in the landscape and painted it a clean billowing white—perfect for a promotional painting.

When the poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) was young, trains were so new that people often referred to them as “iron horses.” Her poem, “I Like to See it Lap the Miles,” compares a train’s movements to those of a horse. Dickinson was born and lived in Amherst, Massachusetts. In her late twenties, she became increasingly withdrawn and thereafter seldom ventured outside her home. On one of her rare trips out, she stood in a neighbor’s woods to watch the first train in her town leave the station.

Guided Practice

  • In the early 1800s, some people called trains “iron horses.” Why might Emily Dickinson have compared a train’s movements to those of a horse? (Trains were made of iron, horses were the fastest and strongest mode of transportation at the time, and both needed to be “fed” in order to run.)
  • What geographical features in The Lackawanna Valley and “I Like to See it Lap the Miles” could trains have easily traveled through, around, and along? (Valleys, mountains, roads, quarries, hills.)
  • Trees had to be cut down to accommodate the railroad just as today trees must be cleared to make way for new highways. But cutting down trees can be harmful to the environment. How would you handle this issue?
  • What new information has this painting and poem taught you about the nineteenth century?


There were many scientific, medical, and technological advances that improved the quality of life in nineteenth-century America. These patented inventions include:

Steamboat 1807 Robert Fulton
Locomotive 1830 Peter Cooper
Porcelain teeth 1844 S. S. White
Ether as an anesthetic 1846 W. T. Morton
Sewing machine 1851 Isaac Merritt Singer
Hypodermic needle 1853 Alexander Wood
Telephone 1876 Alexander Graham
Phonograph 1877 Thomas Edison
Electric light bulb 1879 Thomas Edison
Automobile assembly line 1893 Henry Ford
Products made from peanuts 1890s George Washington Carver
X-rays used in dentistry 1896 Edward Kells

Have students research an invention from this list or another that interests them. They should write an essay that describes the invention, when it happened, who invented it, how it was used, and how it made a difference in people’s lives.


Students will make a promotional advertisement for the invention they researched. Like Inness, they should focus on the positive aspects of this technology. Does it save time for the consumer/worker? How does it enhance the quality of life for the American people?

Lastly, they will create a counterpart public service announcement showing the negative impact of this invention. For instance, does it add to pollution in the environment? Are their possible health risks or allergies associated with the invention?

National Core Arts Standards

VA:Cr1.2.7 Develop criteria to guide making a work of art or design to meet an identified goal.

VA:Cr2.3.7 Apply visual organizational strategies to design and produce a work of art, design, or media that clearly communicates information or ideas.

VA:Re7.2.7 Analyze multiple ways that images influence specific audiences.

Explore collection highlights from the WPA Poster Project at the Library of Congress

Create portraits and construct panoramic landscapes using naive paintings from the NGA with Faces & Places

Borrow the teaching packet Art&

Borrow the DVD American Art, 1785-1926: Seven Artist Profiles

Download or borrow the teaching packet The Inquiring Eye: American Painting

Incorporate primary sources from the Library of Congress’s “American Memory” project