London Hosts the First World’s Fair

To showcase the growing industry and commerce of the nineteenth century, the Society of Arts in London proposed an international exhibition of the world’s latest scientific, technological, and artistic designs and inventions. The resulting Great Exhibition of 1851, which became the first world’s fair, influenced the arts and design as well as international trade and tourism and became the model for future world’s fairs.

Summary of Event

The transformation of agricultural societies into industrial societies that began in eighteenth century Europe accelerated in the first half of the nineteenth century. The use of steam to power machines and sea vessels, the use of coke in iron production, and the growing industry of manufactured goods resulted in increased commerce and inventions. Exhibitions of new technology and manufactured products had occurred in France since 1798, and in the 1830’s and 1840’s, local exhibitions were held in Leeds, Liverpool, and Sheffield. There had never been, however, an international exhibition. World fairs;London
London;world’s fair[Worlds fair]
Great Exhibition of 1851
Albert, Prince
[p]Albert, Prince;and world’s fair[Worlds fair]
[kw]London Hosts the First World’s Fair (May 1-Oct. 15, 1851)
[kw]Hosts the First World’s Fair, London (May 1-Oct. 15, 1851)
[kw]First World’s Fair, London Hosts the (May 1-Oct. 15, 1851)
[kw]World’s Fair, London Hosts the First (May 1-Oct. 15, 1851)
[kw]Fair, London Hosts the First World’s (May 1-Oct. 15, 1851)
World fairs;London
London;world’s fair[Worlds fair]
Great Exhibition of 1851
Albert, Prince
[p]Albert, Prince;and world’s fair[Worlds fair]
[g]Great Britain;May 1-Oct. 15, 1851: London Hosts the First World’s Fair[2820]
[c]Science and technology;May 1-Oct. 15, 1851: London Hosts the First World’s Fair[2820]
[c]Art;May 1-Oct. 15, 1851: London Hosts the First World’s Fair[2820]
[c]Architecture;May 1-Oct. 15, 1851: London Hosts the First World’s Fair[2820]
[c]Inventions;May 1-Oct. 15, 1851: London Hosts the First World’s Fair[2820]
Paxton, Joseph
Cole, Henry

In 1843, Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort and an advocate of progress in every area of British life, became the president of the Society of Arts, a group that had been founded in 1754 to promote progress in agriculture and manufacturing. Under his leadership, the society successfully sponsored annual local exhibitions in London from 1847 to 1849. When Henry Cole Cole, Henry , the assistant keeper of the public records, and others proposed the idea of a national exhibition after seeing France’s latest exhibit in 1849, Prince Albert proposed an international exhibition to be held in London.

On June 30, 1849, Buckingham Palace approved Albert’s proposal for the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, and on January 3, 1850, Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen
[p]Victoria, Queen[Victoria];and world’s fair[Worlds fair] appointed the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851. With Prince Albert as its head, the group consisted of bankers, scientists, artists, engineers, and members of Parliament who met almost weekly after January 11. The exhibition’s purpose was to celebrate British industry, technology, and design; to stimulate British manufacturing and exports; and to encourage international free trade and cooperation. The commission’s tasks included fund-raising (since the project was to be self-financed), the selection of a site, and the appointment of an architect Architecture;London world’s fair[London Worlds Fair] to design and construct the exhibition building.

Members of the commission and other private individuals contributed generously to the project, and the south side of London’s Hyde Park London;Hyde Park was chosen as the site; but the selection of an architect was more problematic. To satisfy various public objections, the building had to be temporary but sturdy, it had to be made of recyclable materials, and it had to accommodate large crowds as well as the giant elm trees of Hyde Park. Almost 250 designs, including thirty-eight from abroad, were submitted. The winning design, selected on July 15, came from Joseph Paxton Paxton, Joseph , a landscape gardener and architect who proposed a more complex and enlarged version of a massive thirteen-hundred-foot greenhouse he had built for the duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth. Paxton’s new glass Glass;Crystal Palace edifice (a design that led to his knighthood) was nicknamed the Crystal Palace Crystal Palace
London;Crystal Palace by the popular magazine Punch
Punch (magazine) on November 2 and would become what some called the eighth wonder of the world.

The Crystal Palace was itself a symbol of modern engineering: Its design and construction were possible only because of innovations in manufacturing and transportation, the very advancements in technology the exhibition was to highlight. Prefabricated sections were built in Birmingham Birmingham, England;architecture of and Southwick and transported to London by Great Britain’s ever-expanding railroad system. The three-tiered iron and glass cruciform building was 1,848 feet long, 408 feet wide, and 64 feet high. The arched roof of the transept (accommodating the famous elms) ran the width of the building at a height of 104 feet. Weighing 4,500 tons, 2,300 iron girders supported almost 300,000 panels—one million feet—of glass. Under the supervision of the Fox and Henderson group, construction began in August, 1850, and by January more than two thousand workers finished the exterior of the building. The interior, completed by the end of March, was divided into a series of courts with a central pine walkway and a twenty-seven-foot central crystal fountain in the main transept. The east nave was designated for foreign exhibits, while the west nave was reserved for Britain’s exhibits. The building covered nineteen of the twenty-six acres set aside for the event. Although Henry Cole Cole, Henry was the official overseer of the project, Prince Albert closely monitored every detail to ensure its success.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria presided at the official opening on May 1, 1851, which was declared a public holiday. The exhibition’s opening day was an immediate success, with more than twenty thousand visitors. The thirty-four flags on top of the building represented the international nature of the 100,000 exhibits entered by almost 14,000 exhibitors from Europe, Africa, the Far East, the Americas, and the British Empire British Empire;and London world’s fair[London worlds fair] . It was the largest display of goods ever gathered in one place. Its official catalog consisted of four volumes. The exhibits represented four main categories: raw material, machinery and mechanical inventions, manufactured products, and fine arts. There where displays of agricultural tools, furniture, household and industrial machines, china, cloth, miscellaneous inventions, clocks, and even the famous Koh-i-Noor (mountain of light) diamond. The most popular exhibits, though, were housed in the machinery court.

More than six million people from Britain and abroad visited the Crystal Palace during the 141-day exhibition. Queen Victoria Victoria, Queen
[p]Victoria, Queen[Victoria];and world’s fair[Worlds fair] visited it forty times and spent her thirty-second birthday there. Earlier predictions about rowdy mobs, increased crime, the spread of disease, the destruction of the park, and even the collapse of the building proved to be unfounded. The Great Exhibition was an awe-inspiring national celebration that not only raised Prince Albert’s prestige but also marked a social event in which people of all ages, classes, professions, and nationalities mingled together under the same roof.

Within months after the exhibit closed on October 15, 1851, the Crystal Palace was disassembled and relocated—in enlarged form and under Paxton’s Paxton, Joseph supervision—to Sydenham Hill in south London. The 220-acre park received its name, Crystal Palace, and officially reopened on June 10, 1854. The palace housed a museum Museums;art
Sculpture of sculpture, painting, and architecture and became the setting for concerts and sporting events, with two million visitors annually. Even though the building was severely damaged by fire Fires;London on November 30, 1936, and was completely demolished in 1941 because it was a visible landmark for enemy airplanes during World War II, the Great Exhibition has left a permanent mark in history.


As the first international exhibit of manufactured products, the Great Exhibition spurred interest in modern technology among all classes of people and set the standard for future world’s fairs. Preparations for the event permanently changed London’s look: Kensington, on the west side of Hyde Park, and Old Brompton, to the southwest, became urbanized, and the slums around the park were cleaned up. England’s railroad system was expanded, new stations were built, and the working class became accustomed to railroad day trips and holidays. Profits from the event and the building’s sale funded the purchase of land at South Kensington for the construction of the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, Albert Hall, and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Royal Commission appointed in 1851 continued into the twenty-first century and continues to encourage innovation in technology, science, and design by awarding fellowships and grants in science, engineering, and design. Three of the commission’s past awardees became presidents of the Royal Society, Royal Society;presidents of and eleven have received Nobel Prizes Nobel Prizes . Although the Great Exhibition was a one-time event and the Crystal Palace no longer exists, its vision of international industrial cooperation and the union of technology and artistic design continues to affect the modern world.

Further Reading

  • Arnstein, Walter L. Queen Victoria. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003. A helpful critical assessment of major biographies on Victoria, followed by a succinct narrative of her life. Includes many footnotes, some photographs and illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Evans, Eric J. The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1996. A good discussion of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, with an extensive compendium of statistics, time lines, and charts.
  • Gibbs-Smith, C. H. The Great Exhibition of 1851. 2d ed. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1981. Includes official exhibition documents and lists, excerpts from Victoria’s journal, and comments from attendees. Two-thirds of the book is dedicated to more than two hundred photographs and illustrations.
  • Hobhouse, Hermione. The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition. New York: Athlone Press, 2002. A history of the Royal Commission, with extensive details about the Great Exhibition. Illustrations, appendixes, index.
  • Purbrick, Louise, ed. The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays. New York: Manchester University Press, 2001. A collection exploring the social and cultural environments of the first world’s fair. Includes illustrations, a bibliography, and an index.
  • Weintraub, Stanley. Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert. New York: Free Press, 1997. A favorable presentation of Albert’s complex character and his achievements, and a detailed account of Paxton’s design and construction of the Crystal Palace. Includes illustrations, photographs, genealogy charts, and an index, but no bibliography; quotations not always footnoted.

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