May 1st: The Great Exhibition of 1851

Posted on April 30, 2010


Oh sure, the Victorians dressed like this in public...

...but like this in private.

While the Victorian era has gained the reputation of being repressive and unimaginative, in reality it was an exciting, experimental, and forward-looking time. Massive machines, of a size and nature unimaginable a century earlier, now made production so efficient that products once available only to the wealthy could be enjoyed by the majority of the population. Trains spread goods and raw materials to regions previously cut off from serious commerce and, in conjunction with improved ocean-going vessels, expanded trade far beyond the European nations. Scientific research churned out new discoveries in medicine, physics, and astronomy at such a pace that it seemed possible every secret to which Nature clung would be uncovered by the century’s end.

Contrary to popular belief, Prince Albert didn't always live in a can.

What better time to hold a vast exhibition celebrating all these achievements? And who better to plan it than the Queen’s consort, Prince Albert, a man whose powerful vision of a positive and utopian future infected almost every level of English society?

“We are living,” he said, “at a period of most wonderful transition, which tends rapidly to accomplish that great end, to which all history points—the realization of the unity of mankind. Not a unity which breaks down the limits and levels the peculiar characteristics of the different nations of the earth, but rather a unity, the result and product of those very national and antagonistic qualities.”

His plan, which he fought for against a reluctant government, was a vast exhibition showcasing all the best in art, design, products, and inventions from around the world. There had been other exhibitions, of course. In 1756, while the Royal Academy was opening its galleries to the public, there were exhibits of art and products in London. Little more than bazaars, they were nevertheless so successful that the French took up the practice and expanded it.

But even at their height, these exhibitions incorporated only those items to be found within the nation and its environs, and many, if not most, were closed to the public. Prince Albert’s plan was far grander and cosmopolitan. It was to be, as its name implied, “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations.” Furthermore, the Exhibition would help the actual citizens of these nations, not just their governments, and £20,000 in prize money was set aside to be given to the winners in various categories. “Gentlemen,” Albert said in a speech promoting the event, “the Exhibition of 1851 is to give us a true test and a living picture of the point of development at which the whole of mankind has arrived in this great task, and a new starting-point from which all nations will be able to direct their further exertions.”

Interior of the Crystal Palace

The centerpiece of the Exhibition was to be a single grand building which would house a sampling from every nation on Earth. Some 250 plans were submitted and discarded, each more expensive and unwieldy than the next. The task was enormous—a building to contain a “tithe” of the world’s finest machines and products. The answer ultimately came from Sir Joseph Paxton, a horticulturalist who proposed a grand, yet remarkably simple solution: an expanded version of the greenhouse he’d built in Chatsworth for the Victoria Lily.

The Crystal Palace, as it was to be called was 1,848 feet long, 408 feet wide and enclosed 19 acres. It was built from 4,000 tons of iron, 900,000 feet of glass, and 202 miles of slash bars. Yet despite its size, the fact that it could be fashioned in relatively light, interchangeable sections made construction surprisingly fast and easy. It was, in fact, built on schedule, under budget, and because of the pre-sold tickets, it was guaranteed a profit even before it was completed.

On its opening day the massive structure housed 17,000 exhibitors from all over the world, including China, which was still strongly isolationist. Over six million visitors came through its four great exhibition halls: Raw Materials, Machinery, Manufactures, Sculpture and the Fine Arts.

“The distances which separated the different nations,” said Prince Albert, “are rapidly vanishing before the achievements of modern invention, and we can traverse them with incredible ease.”

It opened May 1st, 1851. Sad to say, while technology outstripped anything the good prince could have imagined, exhibitions have become a dying institution.

At least in real life.

Exterior view of a trade show designed by InXpo.

In the virtual worlds, trade shows are one of the fastest growing industries, especially since the collapse of the economy. With marketers putting almost a third of their budgets into trade shows, the relative inexpense of having it online has become increasingly appealing. Companies such as GoExhibit, InXpo, Unisfair, and dozens of others are doing big business preparing virtual trade shows for clients who not only appreciate the enormous cost savings (entry-level shows can cost as little as $3,000 to $8,000), but are also finding they can often showcase their products in ways that would be impossible in the real world. Attendees benefit too, since travel and lodging are free, and they can visit a show hosted in Berlin while still making it back to their Chicago home by supper.

I don’t know what Prince Albert would make of this. While he’d undoubtedly be impressed with the technology behind it, I think he would feel that no matter how “realistic” virtual shows may be, they can never replace the pure thrill of actually being there in person.

And I’d have to agree.

Note: On June 1, 2008, Mako Magellen and Elspth Wooley created an ambitious and detailed replica of the Great Exhibition in Second Life.

Here are a few images.




Entrance to the main exhibition floor.

A small portion of the interior.

See also: Beam Me Up Scotty

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