The Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased cultural and technological marvels from all over the world that drew visitors from far and wide, including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, George Eliot, and many more renowned historical and literary personages. Droves of people came to see the splendid menagerie of exhibits, ranging from the world’s largest diamond to the precursor to the fax machine. Even the building housing the Great Exhibition gave visitors a reason to gawk. The Crystal Palace, made of cast iron and glass, covered 990,000 square feet, making it three times the size of St. Paul’s Cathedral (also located in London).
Although The Great Exhibition was a center for nations from across the globe to flaunt their achievements, it was also a venue for the British Empire to assert their dominance. Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole, a British inventor and civil servant, organized this splendid menagerie of exhibits, incorporating art, raw materials, and cultural marvels alongside the advancements of the Industrial Revolution. According to this article from the British Library, “There were some 100,000 objects, displayed along more than 10 miles, by over 15,000 contributors.” Many of the British advancements and technologies were given premiere exhibition space.
This competition between countries did little to discourage visitors from appearing in droves. Spectators from the working classes were especially drawn to The Great Exhibition when tickets were offered at the discounted rate of one shilling.
But what was so impressive that caused British laymen, aristocrats, and world travelers to mingle in one place? What exhibitions might these Victorian spectators have seen? Here’s a list of ten fascinating exhibits from The Great Exhibition of 1851.
- The Koh-i-Noor, which means “Mountain of Light” in the Persian language, was the largest known diamond in the world at the time of The Great Exhibition of 1851. It was located in the popular India exhibit along with the Daria-i-Noor, also called Daryā-e Nūr, meaning “Sea of Light” in Persian, one of the rarest pale pink diamonds. Most, however, found the Koh-i-Noor diamond disappointing in its uncut state. It wouldn’t be cut until 1852 on the order of Prince Albert.
- Applegath’s Vertical Printing Machine was able to print 5,000 copies of the Illustrated London News in an hour. Copies printed in the Great Exhibition were sold by the Illustrated London News as a way to garner sales for the newspaper as much as it was to promote the capabilities of the machine.
- Precursors to the bicycle, the velocipede, were displayed by Willard Sawyer, a carpenter from Dover, England. These contraptions were plagued with steering issues but improved over time.
- Hiram Powers, an American sculptor, set tongues a-wagging with his marble statue called The Greek Slave. The Greek Slave was controversial for featuring a naked woman covered with nothing but chains, while other spectators compared the Greek slave to the slaves in plantations in the American South. This statue was housed in a red velvet tent, alone, in the American exhibitions.
- The Russian exhibits arrived late because of snowstorms and ice in the Baltics, but once they appeared and were set up, visitors were drawn to urns and vases made of porcelain and malachite. These were impressive, more so for their size than their material or craftsmanship, standing at the height of two men. Malachite doors constructed at the Demidov factory at St Petersburg, furs, sledges, and Cossack armor also impressed the crowds.
- There was also a machine where leeches were used to predict the weather. Yes, you read that right, George Merryweather used The Great Exhibition to debut his invention called the “Tempest Prognosticator,” constructed from French mahogany, glass, brass, and silver. Leeches were housed in twelve glass bottles that formed a circle. Each bottle also had a few inches of rainwater. Merryweather asserted that the leeches would rise to the top of the water when a storm was approaching. Today we’re lucky to not have to use this very odd and overly ornate barometer to tell the weather.
- Frederick Bakewell displayed an “image telegraph,” a precursor to the fax machine, which was able to transmit handwriting and simple drawings over telegraph wires. This machine would later be improved by an Italian priest, Giovanni Caselli, who was able to send handwriting and photographs. Caselli would also found the first telefax service between Paris and Lyon.
- The world’s first flushing, fee-based toilets were also introduced! For a penny, visitors could, according to the Royal Parks charity, “experience a clean toilet seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine.” Over 675,000 pennies were charged for the novelty of the experience.
- William Chamberlin, Jr, from Sussex, England, flaunted possibly the world’s first voting machine, which tallied votes automatically and prevented counting too many votes. It also helped in maintaining the privacy of the voter.
- A jeweler from Dublin, Ireland, George Waterhouse, displayed Celtic revival jewelry alongside the Tara Brooch, a Celtic brooch crafted in the 8th century. It had been discovered in 1850. It was constructed from gold, silver, enamel, amber, and glass.
The Great Exhibition of 1851 lasted from May 1st to October 15th, 1851, attracting over 6 million visitors in the short time span. An average of 40,000 visitors came daily. The exhibition made a profit of £186,000, estimated to equal somewhere between £12 million to £ 18 million (varies from source to source). The profits were used to found three museums: Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, and the Natural History Museum. The Great Exhibition of 1851 stands as a milestone of the 19th century and continues to fascinate to the present day.
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Daryā-e Nūr, Britannica entry
The Idea for the Fax Machine Has Been Around for 170 Years by Matt Soniak
The Great Exhibition by Liza Picard for the British Library
Hiram Powers’ The Greek Slave at The Crystal Palace by Jeff Gates for the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Koh-i-noor, Britannica entry
The Rise and Fall of the Leeches Who Could Predict the Weather by Natasha Frost
Toilet remains from ‘spend a penny’ exhibition uncovered in Hyde Park, press release from Royal Parks