What Was the Great Exhibition of 1851?

The Great Exhibition of 1851 is now widely recognized as a pivotal event in British history, when many industrial marvels were unveiled.

May 18, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

the great exhibition of 1851


The Great Exhibition of 1851 was a momentous event in British history, a world fair which showcased industrial developments from all around the world. Organized by Prince Albert, with assistance from the artist Henry Cole, the event symbolized world peace, unity and the progression of modernity. The star feature of the exhibition was the Crystal Palace, a vast exhibition hall designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, made entirely from glass. It was here that the Great Exhibition of 1851 took place, showcasing more than 100,000 objects by around 15,000 exhibitors. Among the ingenious marvels that drew in millions of visitors in just a few months were a high-speed printing press, an expanding hearse, folding pianos, velocipedes (early bicycles), textile machines, and much, much more. Queen Victoria herself noted how one could find here “every conceivable invention.” We look into the event’s star features to find out more.


The Largest Exhibition Hall in the World

egyptomania figures crystal palace london exhibition
Egyptian Royal figures in the Crystal Palace, London, during the Great Exhibition of 1851


The Great Exhibition of 1851 was housed in the impressive Crystal Palace, a true marvel of Victorian engineering and architecture. The space was unlike anything anyone in the United Kingdom had seen before, not just because of its shimmering glass structure, but also its sheer scale and height. At 1,848 feet long and 408 feet wide, with two enormous towers, it hit the record as the largest building in the entire word at the time. Inside, the building contained a series of fountains shooting water high into the air. The wonder of the Crystal Palace set a high standard for international world fairs, as countries including Ireland, Germany and France emulating the palace with conservatory-style exhibition spaces. 


The Great Exhibition Was a Showcase for Modern Industry

telescopes great exhibition of 1851
Telescopes from the Great Exhibition of 1851.


The sheer range of manufactured objects on display at the Great Exhibition of 1851 was mind-boggling. Along the miles of exhibition space inside the Crystal Palace were examples of ironwork, furniture, musical instruments, steam engines, hydraulic presses, porcelain, pottery and architecture. Some of the standout marvels, unveiled to the public for the first time ever, were the Jacquard weaving loom, an envelope making machine, and a series of innovative early cameras.


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The British ‘Trophy Telescope’ was a prominent object, boasting an aperture of 11 inches and a focal length of 16 feet, as was the steam-powered printing press which could produce 10,000 printed copies within an hour through the use of four paper cylinders and four inking rollers. The early precursor to the modern bicycle, the velocipede, was another crowd-puller, with a series of models which a single person, or a group of people could ride, presented by British carpenter Willard Sawyer.


A Symbol for the Unity of Nations

great exhibition of 1851 india display
A series of exhibits from the Great Exhibition, including India’s richly adorned elephant trappings


More than 30 participating nations took part in the Great Exhibition of 1851, and as such the exhibition became a true symbol of peace and unity. There were 13 European countries, 13 American nations, and seven from further afield, along with various British colonies. Each participating nation showcased their own treasures, discoveries and creations. Some took creative license, coming up with some surprising and unexpected ideas, while others seized the opportunity to showcase the best of what their nation had to offer the world. Canada presented a fire-engine featuring painted panels of the Canadian landscape, along with a series of rare furs, while India sent a carved ivory throne, and an elaborately embroidered costume adorned with rubies, emeralds and pearls, elephant trappings and the famed Koh-i-Noor (or Mountain of light), then the world’s largest diamond. Meanwhile France, the largest contributor outside of the UK, presented a series of porcelain, silk, tapestries, enamels and furniture. Along with their objects, France exhibited examples of the machinery that had made their innovative design work possible.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.