Sunday, November 13, 2011

America at the Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition is unique among world fairs in housing the contributions of all nations under one roof, the Crystal Palace.  This is not to say that nations did not approach the challenge of providing exhibits in widely differing manners, however, and America's contribution was in many ways unique.

The American area in the Crystal Palace
America's contribution to the exhibition

America's Great Exhibition effort did not get off to a good start.  With the exception of the loan of a ship to transport exhibits to England, American exhibitors received no official government sponsorship, in contrast to every other foreign exhibitor at the fair [1].  When the Lawrence arrived in England, it was discovered that there were not even sufficient funds to unload and transport the exhibits to London.  George Peabody, an American banker living on London, eventually rescued the situation and provided the $15,000 needed for transportation, the arrangement of the exhibits and the decoration of the American space in the Crystal Palace.  Worse still, with high expectations as to the quantity and quality of its exhibits, America requested, and was granted, a greater floor area than any other foreign nation except France, a far greater area than their exhibits warranted.
Virginia grain reaper designed by Cyrus
McCormick.  Source:

American exhibits were a mixed bag.  High on the list were a Virginia grain reaper designed by Cyrus McCormick, "formidable revolving charge pistols" by Samuel Colt, a collection of daguerreotypes by Matthew Brady and a display of India-rubber goods by Charles Goodyear. 

There were other firearms and locks, clocks, a cotton-gin, and oddities such as a "patent double grand piano, upon which four performers at a time can execute compositions arranged for eight hands and two pianos" and a model of a floating church built for the Churchman's Missionary Association in Philadelphia [2].

Samuel Colt revolver.  Source: wikipedia

No American paintings were hung at the Exhibition, and American sculpture was chiefly represented by Hiram Power's Greek Slave and Peter Stephenson's Dying Indian.

Initial reaction to the American exhibits was less than enthusiastic.  Much fun was made of the sparsity of exhibits for the space assigned to America, with Punch going as far to suggest that the "American Non-Exhibitors" should provide lodgings in the empty part of their area:

"By packing up the American articles a little closer, by displaying COLT'S revolvers over the soap, and piling up the Cincinnati pickles on top of the Virginia honey, we shall concentrate all the treasures of American art and manufacture into a very few square feet, and beds may be made to accommodate several hundreds in the space flamed for, but not one-quarter filled by, the products of United States industry.

We would proposed, therefore, that the Yankee Commissioners be empowered to advertise America as affording accommodation to those who wish to spend a week visiting the Great Exhibition...By an arrangement with the Commissioners, whose duties must be rather light, breakfast could no doubt be provided for the lodgers before starting on their rounds; and the sign of the Spread Eagle would be an appropriate one to adopt; for the hotel department of the speculation" [3].

Punch's acid suggestion wasn't in fact far off the mark.  Some of the space was given up for seating of foot-weary visitors.  Punch's wit was also directed at the Greek Slave, combining a dig at the lack of exhibits with disdain for American slavery:

"Why not have sent us some choice specimens of slaves?  We have the Greek captive in dead stone - why not the Virginia slave in living ebony?".  

The piece was accompanied by a cartoon on the subject (right), mimicking the Greek Slave [4].

In contrast to the nearby silks and jewels of India, for example, the American exhibits lacked excitement.  The London Morning Chronicle was typical of the British press in concluding that the American exhibit was neither what had been expected of the United States, nor an adequate representation of her capabilities[5].

Changing opinion

Yet the tide of opinion changed through the course of the Exhibition.  By the end of the Exhibition, the Times was declaring that "Great Britain has received more useful ideas, and more ingenious inventions, from the United States, through the exhibition, than from all other sources"[6].  Why did contemporary opinion change so markedly?

The answer in large part lies with the discovery of the utility of several of the American exhibits.  Agricultural implements provides one such example. The McCormick reaper, in particular, may have looked huge and ungainly on display, but proved to far exceed the speed, efficiency and endurance of all competitors.  One British commissioner wrote of the "introduction of the most important addition to farming machinery that has been invented since the threshing machine first took the place of the flail"[7].

Newell's Permutation Lock and Key Ilustrated London News (July-August 1851)
The lock designed by the New York firm of Day and Newell provides another example. Representing the firm, Mr Hobbs, convinced of the fallibility of the leading English locks, demonstrated to large public audiences that it was possible to pick them.  The Bramah lock had been on display in the Bramah's Piccadilly store window for forty years with the offer of a 200 guineas reward to anyone who could pick it.  Hobbs did so in less than a month, whilst British locksmiths conspicuously failed to master the American lock[8].

Colt revolvers and Robbins and Lawrence rifle were also found to be clearly superior to all comparable firearms.  Even Punch acknowledged American achievements, running the following verse in the very next addition from that in which it had suggested America offer its excess floor space as lodgings:

YANKEE DOODLE sent to Town
His goods for exhibition;
Everybody ran him down,
And laugh'd at his position;
They thought him all the world behind;
A goney, muff or noodle;
Laugh on, good people - never mind-
Say quiet YANKEE DOODLE...

Your gunsmiths of their skill may crack,
But that again don't mention;
I guess that COLTS' revolvers whack
Their very first invention.
By YANKEE DOODLE, too, you're beat
Downright in agriculture,
With his machine for reaping wheat
Chaw'd up as by a vulture...

You also fancied, in your pride,
Which truly is tarnation,
Them British locks of your defied
The rogues of all creation;
But CHUBBS' and BRAMAH'S HOBBS he picked,
And you must now be viewed all
As having been completely licked
by glorious YANKEE DOODLE...[9]

The final reckoning

America's contribution to the exhibition was perhaps best summed up by Liberal Republican, Horace Greeley, who acted as American juror on the exhibition award committee:

"Our share in the Exhibition was creditable to us as a nation not yet a century old, situated three to five thousand miles from London; it embraced many articles of practical value, though uncouth in form and utterly unattractive to the mere sight-seer; other nations will profit by it and we shall lose no credit; but it fell far short of what it might have been, and did not fairly exhibit the progress and present condition of the Useful Arts in this country.  We can and must do better next time, and that without calling on the Federal Treasury to pay a dollar of the expense" [10].

Print by Nathaniel Currier, published in New York in 1851.    The illustration shows a group of men standing on the shore with the exhibition buildings in the background. Two men stand in the foreground, on the left, an American, boasting of "Yankee superiority" over the British, says "Mister Bull you can now see the 'American department' of 'the exhibition'" and gestures towards two paddle steamers and a sailboat just off-shore; behind them a small group of men has gathered around a grain harvester and discuss American advances in agriculture and technology. The figures representing the British all wear frowns on their faces.
America's display was embarrassingly sparse and certainly bore no comparison to the visual feasts produced by colonies such as India with its fabrics and jewels.  Yet with no government backing, America had produced a display that contained a number of valuable contributions to technology in a variety of fields.  It had demonstrated that America, with its ever increasing population and rapid improvements in technology, was (or, if not quite yet, certainly would be) a force to be reckoned with.  


[1] Curti, Merli.  'America at the World Fairs, 1851-1893', The American Historical Review, Vol. 55, No. 4 (July 1950). Pg 837
[2] Official Catalogue Vol. 5, Pgs 1431-1469
[3] Punch XX (1851).  Quoted in Cunliffe, Marcus. 'America at the Great Exhibition of 1851', American Quarterly, Vol 3.  No 2. (Summer 1951).  Pg 120.
[4] Ibid 
[5] London Morning Chronicle, 17 May 185.  Quoted in 'America at the World Fairs', Pg 838
[6]  Quoted Ibid.  Pg 840
[7] 'America at the Great Exhibition'.  Pg 124
[8] Ibid
[9] Punch XXI (1851)
[10'America at the Great Exhibition'.  Pg 126

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Location and ground plan of the Great Exhibition

Unlike almost all world fairs that were to follow it, the Great Exhibition was held almost exclusively within one building, Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace.  However, this is not to say that the site of the Crystal Palace and the organization of exhibits within the building did not engender debate and, at times, controversy.  Contemporary debates in fact shed much light on London society, Victorian values and the place of technology within society.

Hyde Park

Crystal Palace was located at the southern end of Hyde Park in central London.  The map below, produced by James Cross in 1851 for visitors to the Great Exhibition, shows Hyde Park on the left hand side of the map, with the Crystal Palace itself marked in pink below the Serpentine River.

Map of London produced in 1851 by James Cross for visitors to the Great Exhibition.  It is printed on silk, the texture of which is clearly visible on the scan.  Source: MAPCO, Map and Plan Collection Online,

The James Cross map as superimposed over a current map of London through the use of world map is available here.

The location of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park was not a forgone conclusion.  Prince Albert and Henry Cole agreed that Hyde Park would be best for an exhibition as early as July 1849.  It was sufficiently removed from the busiest parts of the city to minimize disruption to commerce, yet not so far that it would be inconvenient.  According to Prince Albert, another advantage of the park was that it "admitted of equal good access to high and low, rich and poor"[1].  The building committee of the Royal Commission, however, expressed concerns that Hyde Park was too central, that London would become too crowded and that it would be difficult to transport exhibits to the park.  The committee therefore considered a number of alternative sites, including Regents Park, Battersea Park, Victoria Park and Primrose Hill before returning to Hyde Park.

An enlarged view of James Cross' map showing detail of Hyde Park.

The public were not so easily persuaded, however.  In particular, the wealthy inhabitants of the areas around the park objected to almost certain damage to the park and an influx of "undesirables" both from Britain and abroad. This outcry can perhaps be explained by the significance of the park to the upper classes.  It was incorporated into London society, used for garden parties and balls in the Summer and the site of daily rides or drives along "Rotton Row"(marked as "The King's Private Road" on the map above) to see and be seen.  Thus an example of a typical complaint in the Times newspaper on 18 February 1851:

"On Sunday last, there was a frightful repetition of the riot which has nearly every Sunday afternoon for the last several weeks taken place in Hyde Park, arising from the vast crowds of persons which have been attracted by the building of the Great Exhibition being unable to pass through the gate at the end of Park-Place...I will content myself by merely stating that scarcely a Sunday now passes that the disturbance does not terminate in a fight" [2].

Such objections highlight the class divide of nineteenth century London and, according to Jeffrey Auerbach, chart an important moment in the history of nineteenth century Britain: the decision to place the exhibition building in Hyde Park "challenged respectable society's two-part division of London: the fashionable, wealthy and 'safe' West End and the commercial, poor and 'dangerous' slums of the East End"[3].

The Ground Plan

The building was 1848 feet long and 408 feet wide, with a central transept that rose to 108 feet.  It covered over 18 acres of land and enclosed over 33 million cubic feet of space.  Its galleries ran for nearly a mile and these added another 5 acres to the floor area [4].  In short, it was vast.

Plan of the Crystal Palace.  Reproduced in Studying the Victorians and the Victoria & Albert Museum (London 1994)

The layout of the building itself was determined to some extent by the land available in Hyde Park.  In particular, the celebrated transept was designed as a solution to a grouping of 10 elm trees that would have had to be cut down to make way for the building.  In response to protests, Paxton designed the transept as a way of building the Crystal Palace over the trees.  At the centre of the transept crossing stood the famous Crystal Fountain, made specifically for the exhibition by Follett Osler out of four tones of pure crystal glass.

Crystal Palace transept in 1852, after the Exhibition and before Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham. Photo by Benjamin Brecknell Turner c.1852.  Victoria & Albert Museum.

Organisation of exhibits

As can be seen from the plan above, the whole of the Western half of the Crystal Palace was occupied by the British exhibits, whilst foreign exhibits occupied the Eastern half.

The British exhibits were divided into four sections - raw materials, machinery, manufactures and fine arts - covering thirty classes of exhibit.  Their physical arrangement did not in fact parallel this neat classification.  The power source for the machinery was in the North-West corner, which meant all the heavy machinery was placed along the North side, whilst the lighter goods were placed in the galleries because of structural considerations.  There was therefore no way to walk the exhibits in the order in which they were meant to be seen, through the stages of production from raw material to manufactures using machinery.

Classification of British exhibits at the Great Exhibition, taken from Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press, 1999).  Pg 93

Foreign exhibits were not categorized in the same manner, and each country was permitted to arrange its exhibits in its own way.  Exhibits from Britain's colonies were displayed at the centre of the Crystal Palace, as befitting Britain's desire to project an image of wealth and control.  It is interesting to note the way in which exhibits from the colonies were arranged to promote them as vast areas of untapped wealth and resources.  Australia, for example, was promoted in the Official Catalogue as "the most extensive wool-producing country in the world",whilst Canada's contribution included timber and furs, arranged by the Hudson Bay Company [5].

French exhibits at the Great Exhibition.  Source: British Library

Foreign exhibitors included countries such as France, Austria, Belgian, Sweden and the United States, all arranged in the Eastern half of the building in whatever manner they wished.  The overall effect of the building and its more than 100,000 exhibits was overwhelming for many visitors.  Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, for example, commented:

"I think the first impression produced on you when you get inside is of bewilderment.  It looks like a sort of fairyland.  As far as you can look in any direction, you see nothing but pillars hung about with shawls, carpets &c with long avenues of statues, fountains, canopies &c &c &c" [6].

Sydenham: a postscript

The Great Exhibition was closed on 11 October 1851.  Following a public debate over what should become of the Crystal Palace, the building was relocated to Sydenham, then a village and now part of South East London.  The Crystal Palace at Sydenham was built on an even larger scale than the original one, covering almost 100 more acres and with an additional three stories.

Map of the grounds of Crystal Palace in 1862.  Source :

The map above as superimposed over a current map of what is now known as Crystal Palace through the use of world map is available here.

Although the building was similar, the Sydenham Crystal Palace had a very different focus to that of the Great Exhibition.  It was designed primarily as a place of entertainment, as a resort and theme park as well as a place for musical performances.  The Sydenham Crystal Palace burnt down on the night of 20 November 1936.

The Sydenham Crystal Palace.  Source:


[1] Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press, 1999) (hereafter A Nation on Display).  Pg 42.
[2] Letter to the editor, The Times, 18 February 1851.
[3] A Nation on Display. Pg 46.
[4] de Mare, Eric, London 1851, The Year of the Great Exhibition (The Folio Press, 1973).  Pg 36.
[5] A Nation on Display.  Pg 101
[6] Lewis Carroll to his sister, Elizabeth Carroll, 5 July 1851 in Carter, Angelica, Lewis Carroll: Through the Looking Glass (Lerner Publications, 2003).  Pg 28.

Monday, October 31, 2011

"Punch" and the Great Exhibition: a caricature of Victorian society

Punch was a British weekly magazine of humor and satire established in 1841 by Henry Mayhew and Ebenezer Landells.  Reflecting this satiric and humorous intent, the name Punch refers to the anarchic puppet, Punch, of Punch and Judy.  It was Punch that not only helped to the coin the term "cartoon" in the modern sense of a humorous illustration, but also coined the term "the Crystal Palace" in reference to Paxton's huge exhibition building in Hyde Park.  The magazine provided a weekly satirical glance at the week's news events, its irreverence for British institutions appealing to the rapidly expanding middle classes.

Punch produced a series of articles and visual caricatures on the Great Exhibition that by turn satirized and praised the Great Exhibition in response to changing public opinion on the Exhibition.  Punch's commentary on the Great Exhibition is interesting because, in contrast to many newspapers that documented the objects displayed at the Exhibition in great detail, it focused very much on the people who visited or "occupy[ed] other relationships to the Exhibition (cabbies, shopkeepers, the police)"[1].  Virtually the only exhibits to be represented in Punch during the period of the Exhibition were the koh-i-noor diamond and the statue of an Amazon, and even then only to signify "racial, social and gendered meanings"[2].

Contemporary issues 

In its approach to the Great Exhibition, Punch picked up on a number of issues and tensions in mid nineteenth century England.

A first example can be seen in "Specimens from Mr Punch's Industrial Exhibition of 1850", which displayed workers in a glass case including "A Labourer aged 75" and "A Distressed Shoemaker".

"Specimens from Mr Punch's Industrial Exhibition of 1850" (to be improved in 1851), published in Punch 18 (1850) Pg 145

The cartoon picked up on class tensions in society, heightened by the Chartist riots and European revolutions of 1848, and caricatured by the corpulent figure of Mr Punch in comparison to emaciated workers.  Punch also criticized the Exhibition's perceived preoccupation with foreign industry at the cost of local trade.  A full page of cartoons, below, entitled "The Workings of the Great Exhibition", satirized the plight of small businessmen, the manager of a theatre forced to close through a lack of ticket sales, for example, and the folly of others including “the British Merchant, taking leave of his senses – and his business”, off to “lounge about the Crystal Palace .” 

"Workings of the Great Exhibition", published in Punch, 1851

One of the "Workings of the Great Exhibition" cartoons, entitled "The Tradesmen at the West End is obliged to give up his trade and breed poultry"

A third target of Punch's satire was the use of the Great Exhibition by Parliament as a distraction from the troubles of the country.

Above: The Raft of the Medusa, Theodore Gericault, 1818-1819, the painting on which "The Shipwrecked Ministers saved by the Great Exhibition steamer" cartoon was based.

Left: "The Shipwrecked Ministers saved by the Great Exhibition steamer" by John Leech, published in Punch 20, 1851.

“The Shipwrecked Ministers saved by the Great Exhibition Steamer,” was published in Punch in 1851 and  is based on a painting by Gericault, The Raft of Medusa.   Gericault's painting is a haunting depiction of the survivors of a ship thought to be shipwrecked by the neglect of the captain.  The Ministers in Punch’s cartoon, meanwhile, similarly huddled together on a make-shift raft, look on at the wreckage of the cabinet ship, whilst Lord John Russell waves frantically at a passing ship for rescue, the "Exhibition Steamer" which will raise the popularity of a defeated and helpless government.

Society at the Great Exhibition

Punch's other main focus of satire was the attitudes of the working, middle and upper classes to the Exhibition and their interaction with each other at the Exhibition.  The middle class were deemed to have superficial reasons for visiting the Exhibition whereas the working class went to improve their education.  Thus "The Looking Glass Department" caricatures middle class self absorption as ladies preen themselves in a series of mirrors in one of the Exhibition's salons, a neat illustration of Punch's acid observation that "the high-paying portion of the public go to look at each other and be looked at, while the shilling visitors go to gain instruction from what they see"[3].

"The Looking-Glass Department", published in Punch's Almanac for 1851, 20 1851. Pg ix.

Through "The Pound and the Shilling" (below), Punch highlights another much commented on aspect of the Great Exhibition, the substantial social mixing at the Great Exhibition at a time characterized by social segregation.  Here, John Leech's engraving depicts the Duke of Wellington and some well dressed ladies, face to face with a working man in a stocking cap and his poorly dressed children.

Punch cartoons of the Great Exhibition, then, provide a valuable insight into Victorian society, into its norms, outlook and contemporary issues of debate.  The Great Exhibition provided a microcosm of Victorian society which Punch was quick to observe and exploit.
[1] "Thackeray and Punch at the Great Exhibition: authority and ambivalence in verbal and visual caricatures", Richard Pearson in The Great Exhibition of 1851: new interdisciplinary essays, Louise Purbrick, ed. (Manchester University Press, 2001) Pg 181.
[2] Ibid
[3] "The Shilling days at the Crystal Palace",  Punch 20, 1851. Pg 240

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Working Class Home at the Great Exhibition

A particularly Victorian feature of the Great Exhibition was to be found in Prince Albert's model working-class houses, designed by architect Henry Roberts and exhibited by the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (SICLC).

The Victorian dilemma

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries saw rapid industrialization and urbanization in England.  With it came a host of associated problems such as insufficient housing, sanitation, public health and education.  The dominant laissez-faire ideology suggested that unfettered market activity would ensure the welfare of all by providing the conditions for each individual to maximise their own individual well-being. The persistence, and even deterioration, of the living conditions of the urban working classes in a climate of rising wealth therefore baffled contemporaries. Was there something wrong with the working classes which prevented them seizing the opportunities presented to them, or was there was something wrong with their analysis and understanding of the operations and outcomes of a market economy? Whichever view they took, the Victorians increasingly came to recognise that some sort of collective response was required.

A Victorian slum in Kensington, London, now one of the most fashionable parts of the City.  It was demolished in the late 1860's.  Source: Bentley, Nicholas. The Victorian Scene: 1837-1901. London: Spring Books, 1971. 

A proliferation of voluntary and charitable organizations sprung up to address issues such as Ragged Schools which tackled education and SICLC which addressed housing.

Prince Albert's model working class houses

Prince Albert expressed a keen interest in the conditions of the working classes, and was SICLC's first president.  He commissioned the architect, Henry Roberts, to design and build a model working class house for the Great Exhibition.  It was located outside the Crystal Palace, near the South-East corner of the building.  This positioning reflected Prince Albert's belief that the construction of working class homes constituted the first step towards improving the life of the working class.  Providing them with cheerful and comfortable homes would result in improved health, sobriety and domestic peace, especially in conjunction with education and employment opportunities [1].  The "cottage" was therefore separate from the Exhibition and free and open to the public so as many people as possible would be able to look at them.

A model house erected in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition.  Source: "Home reform: or, Advice to the labouring classes on the improvement of the their dwellings, and the keeping them in good condition", Henry Roberts (London: the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes), ca. 1850

Inside the model house

The house was intended for four families "of the class of mechanical and manufacturing operatives who usually reside in towns or in their immediate vicinity" in separate flats, two families to each floor [2].  Each flat was provided with running water and internal sanitation, with a separate kitchen area and three bedrooms, providing, according to the Official Catalogue, "that separation which, with a family, is so essential to morality and decency"[3]. The construction of the house was simple, robust and economical.  The use of hollow bricks for example, afforded an "insensible means of effective ventilation" on a cost effective basis [4]. 

Just as important as the social value of these prototypes was their ability to make a profit.  A brochure produced by the SICLC calculated that the houses would offer investors a 7 per cent. return [5], whilst the Official Catalogue offered more detailed mathematical calculations:

"In Most parts of England, the cost of four houses, built on the plan of this model structure, with ordinary materials, and finished similar to the ground floor apartments, may be stated at 440l.  to 480l. or from 110l. to 120l. for each tenement, contingent on the facilities for obtaining of materials and the value of labour.  Such dwellings, let at 3s. 6d. to 4s. a-week, after deducting ground-rent and taxes, afford a return of 7 per cent. on the amount of outlay.  Where hollow bricks are obtainable at a fair price, their use ought to effect a reduction of  about 25 per cent. on the cost of the brickwork, or equal on these four houses to 40l." [6]

Floor plan for the model house erected in Hyde Park.  Source:  "Home reform: or, Advice to the labouring classes on the improvement of the their dwellings, and the keeping them in good condition", Henry Roberts (London: the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes), ca. 1850

Reaction to the model houses

The houses proved extremely popular, drawing more than 250,000 visitors. [7]  Within two weeks of the closure of the Exhibition, construction of two groups of houses based on Prince Albert and Henry Robert's model had begun.  The Illustrated London News called the model houses "a contribution not less important, and in many respects far more interesting than most of the works of art and utility within...His Royal Highness...could have devised no more appropriate contribution to the extraneous utility of the Exhibition than this unpretending block of buildings". [8]

The houses in many ways embodied the spirit of the Victorian era, combining a philanthropic urge with a drive for efficiency and order.  That Prince Albert took such a keen interest in the design and construction of these houses speaks volumes for the prevailing outlook of the Victorian establishment.

The original cottage built for the Great Exhibition was dismantled and transferred to Kennington Park, a working class area of South London, where it became home to four families.  It remains standing today.

Original building displayed as a prototype at the Great Exhibition, 1851. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood:


[1] Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (Yale University Press 1999). Pg 112
[2], [3], [4] Official Catalogue Vol 3 Pg 111
[5] Auerbach, The Great Exhibition Pg 112
[6] Official Catalogue Vol 3 Pg 112
[7] Ibid
[8] Illustrated London News, 14 June 1851

Friday, October 7, 2011

Science at the Great Exhibition

Attitudes to science in mid nineteenth century Britain.

Science received comparatively little attention at the Great Exhibition, a product of British attitudes towards it in the mid nineteenth century.  Science was not widely regarded, as remarked upon by a number of contemporary commentators.  Charles Babbage, for example, in his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England and Some if its Causes, was already writing in 1830 that Britain was "much below other nations" in the more difficult and more abstract sciences.  He found it shocking that a country "so distinguished for its mechanical and manufacturing ingenuity" should be so indifferent to the technical aspects that provided the foundations for its success [1].

Such commentators voiced real fears that Britain's indifference to scientific knowledge would endanger Britain's status as the premier industrial power.  Eric Hobsbawm and other economic historians have highlighted the differences between a "first" and "second" industrial revolution. During the "first", textile based, industrial revolution, "the important inventions were simple, the product of skill, practical experience and a readiness to try anything new and see if it worked", whereas the key component of the "second" industrial revolution was the mechanization of machine-making [2].  This depended on standardization and the growth and increasing importance of science, particularly chemical and electrical knowledge.  An inventor who had never heard of Newton, for example, could devise something like the spinning-mule, whereas the least technically qualified inventors of the age of electricity had to have some knowledge of electricity [3].  

Science at the Great Exhibition

With all the attention focused on heavy machinery in motion, very little attention was paid to science at the Exhibition.  What attention there was paid was often cursory at best.   The editor of a synopsis of the Official Catalogue, for example, described Fromont's turbine, a significant advance in hydraulic machinery, as nothing more than an efficient horizontal water wheel [4].

Illustration of Fromont's turbine, taken from the Official Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue 1851

Electrical machines were classified as "philosophical instruments" within the fair's classification system and the editors of the Official Catalogue gave them little attention with short entries and few illustrations.  Engineers regarded electrical devices with contempt.  Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for example, told John Scott-Russell, that he wished to see excluded from the exhibition "any mention of electrical machines which as yet can be considered only as toys". [5]

Britain won 16 out of 31 council medals awarded in Class X ("Philosophical Instruments and Miscellaneous Contrivances"), including three for photography and four for the electric telegraph.  France, its nearest rival, took home nine.  Despite such a clear margin of victory, however, few of the British medals were for instruments with commercial application, whereas the French medals included awards for barometers, an air pump, a heliostat and theodolites.  Such results appeared to bear the fears of contemporary commentators out.

Henley's electric telegraph, one of the few applications of electricity thought to be important.  Source:

The Science Museum

On a more positive note, the Great Exhibition was a resounding financial success, resulting in a surplus of £186,000.  After much debate, it was decided to apply the surplus to buy land in South Kensington on part of which the South Kensington Museum was built to house exhibits given to the Royal Commission by exhibitors following the Exhibition.  The land now accommodates the Science Museum in London, a museum dedicated to the furtherance of science.

The Science Museum, London

[1] Auerbach, Jeffrey. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display.  (Yale University Press, 1991) (hereafter Auerbach); pg 123
[2] Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire (Penguin, 1999). Pg 150
[3] Ibid Pg 151
[4] Auerbach Pg 123
[5] Ibid

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Technology at the Great Exhibition

Ordering the Exhibition

Over 100,000 exhibits were on display at the Great exhibition.  To achieve some semblance of order, a system of classification had to be devised.  After months of work, a thirty part system of classification was eventually adopted, divided into 4 main sections: raw materials, machinery, manufactures and fine arts.

Ground-floor plan of the Crystal Palace, Great Exhibition building, 1851, "copied by permission from the official plans". Lithographed by Day and Son.  Source: Manchester Metropolitan University -

The Machinery Courts

The Machinery Courts at the Great Exhibition drew the largest crowds of people and Queen Victoria herself visited these more times than any other section of the Exhibition.  She wrote in her journal:

"Went to the machinery part where we remained two hours, and which is excessively interesting and instructive...what used to be done by hand and take months doing is now accomplished in a few minutes by  the most beautiful machinery...We came home at a 1/4 to 12, and I felt quite done and exhausted, mentally exhausted" [1].

The machinery exhibits similarly received the longest and most detailed descriptions and illustrations in the Official Catalogue for the Exhibition.  A good example is provided by the illustration below which appeared in the Official Catalogue with the commentary: "The Queen in the machine room examining the vertical printing machine invented by Applegarth for the Times newspaper. In the left-hand corner is a representation of Black's patent folding machine; while on the other side, we have a view of a carding machine, one of a series of instruments used in woolen manufacture"[2]. 

Illustration from the Official Catalogue.   Source University of Glasgow library -

Machinery in motion

A number of the machines displayed were actually in motion, powered by isolated pipes beneath the floor boards which connected to a small engine house at the north-west corner of the exhibition building.  The machines in this section of the building were partitioned from the rest to contain the noise and dust emitted by them.

The Great Exhibition: Moving Machinery; Louis Haghe c.1851-52.  Comissioned by Prince Albert in 1851 and still in the Royal Collection.  Prince Albert commissioned fifty watercolours of the Great Exhibition, to be reproduced by Dickinson Bros in chromolithography, a new mechanical colour-printing process in keeping with the aims of the exhibition itself.  The lettering of the lithograph points out that such machines could be used by untrained men to do work which formerly had to be carried out by skilled workmen at high wages. 

The cotton machinery of Hibbert, Platt & Sons were a highlight of this section: a series of 15 machines in one room demonstrating the cotton spinning process as cotton was "opened, carded, doubled, spun, warped and woven, all before the eyes of the visitors" who were kept away from the machinery by an iron railing.

Hibert, Platt & Son's cotton machines.  Illustrated London News, 23 August 1851.  

Another symbol of British industrial success was the Harrison Power Loom, also in the machinery in motion section of the Exhibition.  By the early nineteenth century, the spinning of yarn had been mechanised, but weaving remained largely a handicraft. In 1820, British cotton-spinning mills employed 110,000 workers, but over 250,000 handloom weavers still worked at home. [3] This was partly because devising a power-driven loom to handle dozens of warp threads without breakage proved difficult. As power looms became more common they led to great suffering among handloom workers. During downturns in business, manufacturers laid off independent hand-weavers, using them as a 'buffer' in order to keep the costly machines busy. For this reason the installation of new looms often met violent opposition from handloom weavers. However, by 1851 practical power looms had become widespread and hand-weaving, except for complex or specialised fabrics, was almost extinct. 

The Harrison Power Loom, displayed at the Great Exhibition as part of the section entitled "Machinery in Motion".  Source: Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library -

Other machinery

Aside from machines in motion, there were many and varied examples of British industrial prowess: a printing machine that could churn out five thousand copies of the Illustrated London News an hour (shown below), a steam powered hydraulic lever used to raise the 1,500 iron ton tubes of Robert Stephenson's railway bridge over the Menai Straits and a revolutionary agricultural reaping machine from the United States.

Printing machine for the Illustrated London News from 'The Illustrated Exhibitor: guide to the Great Exhibition, 1851.  Source: British Library

All these machines were designed to exhibit the full extent of Britain's industrial might and ingenuity to the people of Britain and of the world. And appeal to them it did.  Henry Mayhew, English social commentator and founder of Punch, described how on shilling days, visitors pressed two and three deep to watch the machinery in motion. [4]

[1] de Mare, Eric, London 1851: The Year of the Great Exhibition; The Folio Press (1973) pg 54
[2] The illustrated exhibitor ... comprising sketches ... of the principal exhibits of the Great Exhibition of ... 1851 London, 185.  Taken from the University of Glasgow website:
[3] Making the Modern World website at the Science Museum of London:
[4] Auerbach, Jeffrey, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display; Yale University Press (1999) pg 106

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Crystal Palace

The iconic image of the Great Exhibition is of the Crystal Palace, a vast, glasshouse-like structure in 20 acres of central London's Hyde Park.  It proved central to the Exhibition's success, but was by no means a foregone conclusion.


In February 185, the building committee appointed by the Royal Commission advertised, in English, French and German, for designs for the exhibition building to be based in Hyde Park, central London.  By the time the competition closed in mid-April, 245 designs had been received which were then exhibited at the Institution of Civil Engineers.  The building committee in fact rejected all 233 designs and instead produced one of their own, largely designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, chief engineer to the Great Western Railway.  This design called for a brick building, requiring some fifteen million bricks, with a sheet iron dome 200 feet in diameter (larger than the domes on St Paul's Cathedral in London and even St Peter's Basilica in Rome).

The Building Committee's design for a structure to house the Great Exhibition.

This design was, perhaps unsurprisingly, met with ridicule, the Times of London calling it [FIND QUOTE].  Whilst the building commission attempted to solicit tender offers for the construction of this design, Joseph Paxton, a young landscape architect, happened to discuss the unfolding debacle of the Exhibition building with a colleague and sketched an idea for a plan on a piece of plotting paper.

Paxton's original blotting paper sketch of his Crystal Palace design.  Source: Syracuse School of Architecture website:

Paxton's influences

Paxton's background was as a gardener and landscape architect, working first as under-gardener for the Horticultural Society at Chiswick and then as head gardener at Chatsworth, the Duke of Devonshire's estate.  His major work at Chatsworth was the Great Conservatory covering an acre of ground through which a carriage could be driven, though this was just one of the many glasshouse-like structures he designed.  The "legitimate father" of the Crystal Palace was the Lily House he built at Chatsworth in 1849, no longer in existence, to protect a giant Victoria Regia, a rare and newly discovered tropical water plant.  Paxton himself acknowledged this in an article for the Daily News on 7 August 1851:

"Fortunately at this time I was erecting a house of peculiar construction, which I had designed for the growth of that most remarkable plant, the Victoria Regia; and it is to this plant and to this circumstance that the Crystal Palace owes its direct origin".


Paxton's Great Conservatory at Chatsworth, 1836-1841. It was 277 feet long, 123 feet wide and 61 feet high making it the largest glass house in the world at that time.  Source: Syracuse School of Architecture website:

The design

The final Crystal Palace was 1848 feet long and 408 feet wide with a central transept 72 feet wide and 108 feet tall.  It covered one 18 acres of ground and enclosed 33 million cubic feet of space.  

Crystal Palace perspective.  Source: Syracuse School of Architecture website:

Transept with Crystal Fountain.  Source: Syracuse School of Architecture website:

The original design envisaged flat roofing for the building, but a public uproar at the felling of several old trees for a temporary exhibition led Paxton to refine his ground plan so as to bring the trees within the building and cover them with a circular roof, similar to the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth.  A rare photograph, below, taken in 1852 once the great space had been cleared but before the Crystal Palace was moved to Sydenham, shows the accommodation of a great elm tree clearly.

Crystal Palace Transept, photo taken by Benjamin Brecknell Turner 1852. Source: Victoria & Albert Museum collection -