The Great Exhibition of 1851

Yisela Alvarez Trentini
7 min readMar 27, 2016

I was once walking around Crystal Palace Park, waiting for a movie festival to begin when a man approached me and my friend and asked us if we had seen the dinosaurs. We were confused at first, but he quickly pointed at some massive and frankly strange-looking sculptures that were spread around the park.

Only later I found out that these dinosaurs were not modern additions, but had been there for almost two centuries, ever since the Great Exhibition of 1851.

This international event took place in Hyde Park, London, and lasted over six months. It was organized by Henry Cole and Prince Albert, husband of the reigning monarch Queen Victoria, and attended by figures like Charles Darwin, Samuel Colt, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot and Alfred Tennyson (who all probablz paid £1 per day for admission). Some argue the Exhibition was a direct response to the highly successful French Industrial Exposition of 1844, and they are probably right. Although many countries from around the world had exhibits, Great Britain’s ultimate goal was to prove its own superiority.

A special building was erected for the Great Exhibition, The Crystal Palace, or “The Great Shalimar“. It only took Joseph Paxton and colleagues just nine months to complete it. The massive glass house, 1851 feet (about 564 metres) long by 454 feet (about 138 metres) wide was made from cast iron-frame components and glass made almost exclusively in Birmingham and Smethwick. Inside, there were trees and statues; not just for decoration, but to demonstrate man’s triumph over nature. The building was later moved but eventually sadly destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936.

There were over 13,000 exhibits, coming from Britain, its ‘Colonies and Dependencies‘ and 44 ‘Foreign States‘ in Europe and the Americas.

Alfred Charles Hobbs’ insane lock-picking skills

Before the Great Exhibition, Britain took pride in having the best locks in the world. Bramah and Chubb locks were reckoned quite as impregnable as Gibraltar. Alfred Charles Hobbs, born in Massachusetts, didn’t agree. His official duty at the Exhibition was to sell the New York City-based company Day and Newell’s newest product — the parautopic lock, designed to compete with, and surpass, the locks available at the time in Britain. It didn’t take him long to do so.

“Soon after the exhibition opened, Mr. A.C. Hobbs, of New York, who had charge of Day and Newell’s locks, obtained one of Chubb’s locks and opened it in a space of 10 or 15 minutes, in the presence of several gentlemen.” — From a report by Benji Johnson

You can imagine the gentlemen’s faces when the locks defending their houses and businesses were so easily disarmed. So they offered Hobbs another lock, this time a Chubb strong door. Within twenty-five minutes, he had the lock open without the slightest injury to the lock or door.

After the exhibition, Jobbs continued his lockpicking adventures. He managed to open the “monster” Bramah Precision lock, which had never been picked since it was manufactured in 1790. The Bank of England then conveniently switched its locks to Day and Newell’s ones.

Mathew B. Brady’s novel daguerreotypes

Mathew B. Brady was one of the first American photographers. He opened his own daguerreotype studio in New York in 1844, and his use of a mobile studio and darkroom enabled for the first time vivid battlefield photographs that brought home the reality of war to the public.

Brady brought 20 of his best pieces to the Great Exhibition, and received much praise for them — he was given three medals in recognition. The majority of his portraits were of famous Americans, and to many working class visitors to the fair, this was their first exposure to photography of any kind. The photography exhibits were some of the more popular sections in all of the Crystal Palace (prior to this, photographic exhibits were only seen in city studios or in the homes of the aristocrats). Photography for personal use wouldn’t come for years, but Brady’s portraits probably facilitated it. You can see all of them here.

The Tempest Prognosticator or leech barometer

Just as its name indicates, this barometer uses leeches kept in small bottles inside the device. When the leeches become agitated by an approaching storm they attempt to climb out of the bottles and trigger a small hammer which strikes a bell. More bells means more chances of storm. The likelihood of a storm is indicated by the number of times the bell is struck.

Its creator was Dr. Merryweather, interested in detailing the sensitivity that medicinal leeches displayed in reaction to electrical conditions in the atmosphere. It was a poem that inspired him to create the machine: Edward Jenner‘s Signs of Rain:

“The leech disturbed is newly risen; Quite to the summit of his prison.”

He wanted to call his device “An Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct,” but Tempest Prognosticator also has a ring to it. The exhibition design took inspiration from the architecture of Indian temples, and was made by local craftsmen.

Jorge Jennings’ first public flush toilets

George Jennings was an English sanitary engineer and plumber who specialised in designing toilets that were “as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made“, but he also excelled in public sanitation projects such as the design of the underground ‘public convenience’. You seriously have to give him credit for his choice of topic.

The retiring restrooms he showcased at the Exhibition showed elaborate entrances with metal railings and arches lit by lamps, with interiors built of slate and later, of ceramic tiles. These were the first public toilets, and they caused great excitement. During the exhibition, 827,280 visitors paid one penny to use them. The price included a clean seat, a towel, a comb and a shoe shine. “To spend a penny” became a euphemism for going to the toilet.

Unfortunately, his installation did not survive the fire, but still continued to work when the Crystal Palace was moved, giving the organizers a respectable sum of £1,000 a year.

The Crystal palace dinosaurs

The dinosaurs were commissioned in 1852 to accompany the Crystal Palace after its move from the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and unveiled in 1854.

These were actually the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, pre-dating the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by six years. The dinosaurs represent the latest scientific knowledge at the time. The models represent fifteen genera of extinct animals, and were displayed on three islands acting as a rough timeline. The first island for the Paleozoic era, a second for the Mesozoic, and a third for the Cenozoic. They were given more realism by making the water level in the lake rise and fall, revealing different amounts of the dinosaurs.

To mark the launch of the models, Hawkins held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the mould of one of the Iguanodon models. People liked them so much that he had to make smaller copies that he priced at £30 for educational use.

With progress in palaeontology, the reputation of the models declined. They were abandoned and became obscured by overgrown foliage, but in 2002, the display was totally renovated and it was finally upgraded to Grade I listed in 2007.

William Makepeace Thackeray’s poem to the Crystal Palace

As though ’twere by a wizard’s rod
As blazing arch of lucid glass
Leaps like a fountain from the grass
To meet the sun.A quiet green, but few days since;
With cattle browsing in the shade,
And lo! long lines of bright arcade
In order raised!
A palace as for a fairy prince,
A rare pavilion, such as man
Saw never since mankind began,
And built and glazed.

A peaceful place it was but now,
And lo! within its shining streets
A multitude of nations meets;
A countless throng
I see beneath the crystal bow,
And Gaul and German, Russ and Turk,
Each with his native handiwork
And busy tongue.

I felt a thrill of love and awe
To mark the different garb of each,
The changing tongue, the various speech
Together blent:
A thrill, methinks, like His who saw
“All people dwelling upon earth
Praising our God with solemn mirth
And one consent.”

Extract from ‘A May Day Ode’ by
William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)
Published in The Times, 1 May 1851

The Victoria & Albert museum holds an online gallery with all sorts of articles and images about the Great Exhibition.

See all photos and the original article here:



Yisela Alvarez Trentini

Anthropologist & User Experience Designer. I write about science and technology. Robot whisperer. VR enthusiast. Gamer. @yisela_at