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The Great Exhibition, 1851

The Great Exhibition, 1851

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was the first ever World’s Fair. It was held in Crystal Palace, in Hyde Park. It was attended by over 6 million visitors, and featured many of the great inventions of the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself said that the people in attendance were “enthralled” by all the wonderful new innovations that were on display. The Exhibition featured things from science, art, music, literature and popular culture. Today, it’s one of the most famous public events of the Victorian era, so let’s find out why.


The Exhibition was partly organised by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s beloved husband. It was designed to celebrate the “Best of British” aspects of commerce, manufacture, science etc. in order to establish Britain’s role as the world-leading industrial country. Other countries would take part, but Britain would try and prove that it was better than them. The government formed a commission on the possibility of hosting such a huge event, and it was decided that the exhibition should be hosted in a huge building.


This building is what is now nicknamed Crystal Palace. It was designed by Joseph Paxton, and was supervised in part by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It only took 9 months to build, and was a real marvel at the time. However, it was not popular with everybody – some newspapers mocked it, because they thought it was tacky. Because the designer drew on his experience building greenhouses, it was also a mockery for this reason. The building was huge, and built from British materials. It was moved to the area now known as Crystal Palace in London (think football team), but was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1936.


So what was at this huge event? Well, the world’s largest diamond at the time, the Koh-i-Noor, was on display. This was put in the India section, as it was acquired from the “jewel in the crown” of the Empire under an agreement made in 1850. There was also a large pink diamond there, the Daria-i-Noor. There was also early photography equipment, the precursor to the modern fax machine, and displays of weaponry there. The main features were the telegraph machine, which was possibly one of the most important inventions of the era, as well as vulcanised rubber, which is used today for tyres.


The ticket price varied according to the time of year, but a season ticket for a man cost about £300 in today’s money. However, day tickets were far cheaper, and the equivalent of 1/3 of the British population turned out to attend the Great Exhibition. Though it was loved by some, the Exhibition was a cause for concern for many. In a time of political instability, some feared that the huge crowds would turn into a revolutionary mob. Karl Marx, the figurehead for Communism, said that the Exhibition was a symbol of the capitalist obsession with commodities. However, today the Exhibition is seen as iconic, and historians still use it today to study parts of Victorian architecture and design.


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