By the 1820s, Britain was starting to experience the full effects of of the Industrial Revolution, and the Great Exhibition of 1851 was designed to demonstrate the country’s superiority over the rest of the world.
And particularly over the French.
In 1844, the France hosted their Industrial Exposition along the Champs-Élysées, a spectacular success in terms of the prestige it brought. Switzerland and Spain held their own versions in 1845, as did Brussels in 1847. Buoyed by its its success n 1844, France hosted another expo in 1847. Russia followed suit in 1848, as did Portugal in 1849.
Not to be outdone, France hosted yet another event in 1849, called the National Exposition of the Products of Industry, Agriculture, and Manufacturing. Its shorter name was the Exposition of the Second Republic. Considering the ancient rivalries between the two nations, Britain could not allow itself to be outdone by France. It needed to remind the world that it had started the Industrial Revolution, after all. It also needed to let everyone know that it was still the world’s leader in technological and industrial innovation, as well as the hub of international trade and finance.
Britain’s response was the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, held from May 1 to October 11, 1851. Hosted at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, it was also referred to as the Crystal Palace Exhibition. The Crystal Palace was itself a technological marvel, as it was the first large-scale structure made entirely out of glass and steel. Also known as ‘The Great Shalimar’, it had been designed by a team that comprised Joseph Paxton, Charles Fox and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and took just nine months to go from the sketch book to the finished article. Essentially a large greenhouse, it was constructed from a cast iron frame with large glass panels. Inside, trees and statues emphasised just how large the building was for the period, emphasising not only the technological prowess of the design, but also man’s triumph over nature. Ironically the building would eventually be destroyed by fire.
The Great Exhibition was on a scale never seen before, and set the trend for the series of World’s Fairs that we take for granted today. It was not just about showcasing British science, technology, and industry, of course. It was also about demonstrating the vastness and diversity of its empire.
While the other European nations showed off their technical achievements, the Great Exhibition also showed off the cultures Britain ruled over: from India, Africa, China, and the Americas. England wanted to make it clear that it was not only a technologically advanced nation, but also a global Empire.
Historians today cite the exhibit as a purely secular event. Many hail it as the Western world’s formal transition into modernity. As such, we are taught to see it as the genesis of our current technological society based on reason and the culmination of Enlightenment ideals.
For many, there was also a religious aspect to the spectacle, with the Great Exhibition of 1851 was also seen as the culmination of Protestant Christian religious ideals.