The Early 20th Century (pre-1918)

How modern capitalism took shape around the turn of the 20th century.

Bessemer process
Henry Ford
U.S. Steel
Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890
International Ice Patrol

The Second Industrial Revolution

The Second Industrial Revolution took place during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Marked by the introduction of electricity and steel, it revolutionised industries and transformed the way people lived and worked.

The development of electrical power enabled factories to operate more efficiently, as machines were now powered by electricity rather than steam. This led to a significant increase in productivity and the growth of industries like textiles, chemicals, and engineering.

One of the most notable innovations of this period was the Bessemer process, which mass produced steel. This new method made it cheaper and more accessible, leading to the construction of larger buildings, bridges, and railways.


The Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889, stands as a testament to the transformative power of steel during this era. The Second Industrial Revolution laid the groundwork for the modern industrialised world and set the stage for further advancements in technology and business.

The Assembly Line

The assembly line, an innovation introduced by Henry Ford in the early 20th century, revolutionised mass production techniques and transformed the automobile industry.

Ford’s assembly line allowed for the efficient production of cars by breaking down the manufacturing process into smaller, specialised tasks. Workers would focus on one specific task, such as attaching a wheel or installing an engine, as the car moved along the assembly line.


This method of production significantly reduced the time it took to manufacture a car, making automobiles more affordable for the average consumer.

The Ford Model T, introduced in 1908, became the first mass-produced automobile and a symbol of the assembly line’s success. The assembly line’s impact extended beyond the automotive industry, as other manufacturers adopted similar techniques to increase efficiency and lower production costs.

The Growth of Corporations

The early 20th century saw the rise of large corporations, such as U.S. Steel and Standard Oil, which dominated their respective industries and wielded significant economic power.


U.S. Steel, founded by J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie in 1901, became the world’s first billion-dollar corporation and controlled a significant portion of the steel industry. Standard Oil, led by John D. Rockefeller, held a near-monopoly on the oil industry, refining and distributing petroleum products across the United States.

These corporations were able to achieve economies of scale, allowing them to produce goods more efficiently and at lower costs than smaller competitors.

This led to increased market share and the consolidation of industries. However, the growth of these corporations also raised concerns about monopolistic practices and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few individuals.

The Birth of Advertising

The early 20th century marked the emergence of modern advertising techniques and agencies, as businesses sought to promote their products and services to an increasingly consumer-driven society.

Advertising became a crucial aspect of business strategy, with companies investing in eye-catching campaigns to capture the attention of potential customers.


One notable example of early advertising success is the Campbell Soup Company, which used colourful, appealing images of its canned soups to create a recognizable brand identity.

The emergence of advertising agencies, such as J. Walter Thompson and N.W. Ayer & Son, further professionalised the industry, offering businesses specialised expertise in crafting persuasive messages and targeting specific audiences. The birth of advertising played a significant role in shaping consumer culture and the modern business landscape.

The Robber Barons

The early 20th century was also characterized by the influence of businessmen like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, who became known as “robber barons” due to their ruthless business practices and accumulation of vast wealth.

These industrialists wielded significant power over their respective industries, often employing aggressive tactics to eliminate opponents and secure their dominance.


Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, for example, engaged in predatory pricing and forced competitors to sell their businesses or face financial ruin. Carnegie, on the other hand, focused on vertical integration, controlling every aspect of the steel production process to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

While these businessmen contributed to the growth of the American economy, their actions also sparked debates about wealth inequality and the need for government regulation.

The Labor Movement

The early 20th century was a time of great progress, but it was also an era of harsh labor conditions. Industrialization was on the rise, and corporations were popping up left and right, but workers were often treated as mere cogs in the machine. They faced grueling hours, hazardous working conditions, and measly pay. But as the saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.


Workers across the country began to band together to fight for their rights. They formed unions like the American Federation of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World, determined to improve their lot in life.

These brave men and women took to the streets, striking and protesting for better working conditions and fair wages. Thanks to their efforts, the labor movement was born, and was critical in shaping the modern workplace as we know it today.

The Antitrust Movement


As corporations grew in size and power during the early 20th century, concerns about monopolies and trusts led to the government’s efforts to regulate these entities. The antitrust movement aimed to prevent the formation of monopolies and promote fair competition in the marketplace.

The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 was the first major piece of legislation aimed at addressing this issue, making it illegal to form trusts or engage in monopolistic practices. In 1911, the Supreme Court ordered the breakup of Standard Oil, a landmark decision that demonstrated the government’s commitment to enforcing antitrust laws.

The antitrust movement played a significant role in shaping the modern business landscape and ensuring a competitive marketplace.

The Federal Reserve System

The American financial system was once a chaotic and unstable place, riddled with bank failures and financial panics. Something had to be done to bring order to the chaos. And so, in 1913, the Federal Reserve System was born.


This central banking system was tasked with regulating the money supply, overseeing and regulating banks, and acting as a lender of last resort during times of crisis. In other words, it was designed to keep the financial system steady and prevent financial collapses.

Thanks to the Federal Reserve, the American banking system has become one of the most stable and reliable in the world. The Fed’s actions have helped to prevent countless financial disasters, and its presence has provided a sense of security for Americans and their money.

The Titanic and Business Ethics

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 had a profound impact on business practices and safety regulations. The disaster, which resulted in the loss of over 1,500 lives, highlighted the dangers of prioritizing profit over safety and the need for stricter regulations to protect consumers.


In the wake of the tragedy, new safety measures were implemented, such as the requirement for sufficient lifeboats on passenger ships and the establishment of the International Ice Patrol to monitor iceberg activity. The Titanic disaster served as a stark reminder of the importance of business ethics and the need for companies to prioritize safety and consumer welfare.

The Panama Canal

The construction of the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, had a significant impact on global trade and the development of international business. The canal, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, greatly reduced the time and distance required for ships to travel between the two oceans, facilitating the movement of goods and resources.


The Panama Canal’s construction was a monumental engineering feat, involving the excavation of millions of cubic meters of earth and the construction of massive locks to raise and lower ships. The canal’s completion transformed global trade routes and contributed to the growth of international commerce. The Panama Canal remains a vital artery for global trade and a testament to human ingenuity and ambition.

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