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Engraving of the view from the Knightsbridge Road of The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park

Inside the Great Exhibition: 10 things you would have seen

Engraving of the Crystal Palace in 1851 by Read & Co | Image: Public Domain

In 1851 the doors opened on the world’s first-ever world expo. Featuring over 100,000 exhibitors and displays from across the globe, ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ (more commonly known as the Great Exhibition) was an international exhibition created by Prince Albert and other members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.

Designed to showcase how technology had the potential to drive society towards a better and more peaceful future, countries from across the globe contributed everything from innovative technology to art, natural history, and historical artefacts. At the heart of the exhibits, however, was the modern marvel of architecture in which all of it was contained: The Crystal Palace.

The awe-inspiring structure that was built to contain the Great Exhibition was made of 84,000m2 of plate glass, wood, and cast iron. It stood over 33m high and 546m long, and it took close to 5,000 navvy’s a little over five months to erect the structure in Hyde Park.

Opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert on the first of May 1851, more than 6 million spectators attended the Exhibition from all over the UK, thanks to the new railways that had made travel to London more accessible. Here’s a taste of what you might have seen in The Great Exhibition.

The Koh-I-Noor Diamond

The Koh-I-Noor diamond is one of the largest cut diamonds in the world. The Koh-I-Noor (Persian for ‘mountain of light’) was mined in India, and the legend goes that it was mined and placed in the Bhadrakali Temple in Warangal, one of the oldest temples to the goddess in the world.

Looted, stolen, and raided: the stone passed hands through the centuries until it was given to Queen Victoria in 1849.

When it was first displayed at the Great Exhibition, it was lit by several gas-powered jets and displayed in a parrot cage to prevent its theft while allowing the public to view it. The diamond’s cut was like other diamonds from the Mughal era leaving it lacking clarity and lustre, leaving most visitors disappointed.

Given the tumultuous history of the stone, a legend has been built around it that says it brings bad luck to whoever wears it. Despite this, however, after its life in the Great Exhibition, the stone was recut under the orders of Prince Albert and given a new lease of life by Coster Diamonds. After that, the stone was passed from queen to queen until it was placed along with 2,800 other priceless gems in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, where it has stayed ever since. Though whether the diamond will remain in Britain, is to be decided.

It’s believed that the Koh-I-Noor is the most valuable diamond in the world and is estimated to be just under six hundred million dollars.

Applegath’s Vertical Printer

Thanks to the industrial revolution and steam-powered printing machines, the speed with which newspapers and other printed materials could be produced had already boomed exponentially. Despite this ability, however, the growing demand for printed media was growing faster than technology could keep up with.

When Augustus Applegath was given the challenge of creating a machine that could take printing amounts from 4,000 copies an hour to over 10,000, he didn’t shy away from the challenge. Using four paper cylinders instead and four sets of inking rollers (other printers only used one!), the ingenious upgrade not only worked - it worked really well.

As well as printing pamphlets and memorabilia for visitors to The Exhibition, Applegath’s machine based in the Crystal Palace was so efficient that it was used to print supplements and pages that were added to newspaper circulations with a proud line at the bottom of the page stating, "THIS SHEET WAS PRINTED IN THE GREAT EXHIBITION."

Sawyer’s Velocipede

An early precursor to the modern-day bicycle, a Velocipede is a land vehicle powered by humans with one or more wheels.

As with all technological advancements, many of the early Velocipede designs were highly impractical for their riders. From the Penny Farthing that was difficult to mount and dismount to the ‘bone shakers’ that rattled so much they left their riders feeling battered, each new Velocipede design brought new and interesting features.

Sawyer’s Velocipede wasn’t immune to these early design flaws, but with more trial and error (and likely a lot of bumps and bruises), Sawyer’s signature design was created. With his idea finalised, Sawyer opened what is believed to be the world’s first cycle factory in Dover.

Along with his signature model, Sawyer also sold other Velocipedes, including a six-seater version that could carry a whole family, a lightweight racing version, and even versions that were designed for people with disabilities.

The Greek Slave

Created by American sculptor Hiram Powers, The Greek Slave was a marble statue that caused a scandal when unveiled. Critically acclaimed, the statue was one of the most popular works of art in the 19th century.

The inspiration behind the statue was Greece’s struggle for independence in the 1820s. However, many of its contemporary critics also associated it with the ongoing American debate over slavery. The source of uproar, however, wasn’t the social commentary that the statue represented but the fact that the statue was the first publicly displayed statue of a fully nude woman.

Canadian fire engine

While the American exhibit displayed everything from a giant stuffed bald eagle to the Greek Slave and a selection of American firearms, Canada’s exhibit was far more in keeping with the Exhibit’s aim of highlighting how technology could foster an age of world peace.

Their display included an innovative fire engine with panels painted to display scenes of what daily life was like in the Canadian provinces.

Tableaus of stuffed animals

A gift sent from the German Customs Union that was unsurprisingly very popular was a collection of small stuffed animals arranged in whimsical displays. At the time of the Exhibition, Germany was still a collection of small states and not a singular country. Despite this, however, they seemingly understood which of their exports would prove the most popular to the British public and even included one scene where a collection of kittens took a spot of afternoon tea.

It stands to reason, then, that these exhibits were incredibly popular with the Victorian public, and the displays received constant streams of visitors.

Russian malachite

Although it was late to the exhibition due to ice in the Baltic Sea, Russia sent an overwhelmingly impressive display of Russian craftsmanship. Along with Cossack armour, sledges, and fine furs, they included huge urns and vases that were twice the size of a man that made from delicate porcelain and natural malachite.

50kg lump of pure gold

Natural history exhibits were popular across the Exhibition, with countries from across the globe sending flora and fauna native to their countries. Chile, however, sent a large raw lump of gold that weighed 50kg. The worth of a similar exhibit today would run somewhere around 2.5 million pounds.

Tempest prognosticator

Also known as the leech barometer, the Tempest Prognosticator was invented by George Merryweather. The Tempest Prognosticator could predict the arrival of bad weather through the use of 12 leeches that were held within.

Made of 12 pint-sized glass bottles below a bell, when the weather was turning bad, the leeches would naturally travel to the top of their glass bottle. Trapped by the shape of their encasements, the agitation of the leeches would dislodge a piece of whalebone attached to a small hammer which would, in turn, sound the bell. The more leeches that rang the bell, the more likely bad weather was on the horizon.

The fineries of a Rajah’s elephant

Among some of the most regal exhibits sent were those from India. A throne carved from ivory, emeralds, rubies, and other fineries were displayed. The most magnificent, however, were displayed on a real elephant.

The elephant (on loan to the exhibit from a museum of taxidermied animals) was draped in the regal fineries and dressings that a Rajah’s elephant would have worn, along with a howdah - a covered seat that sat on the elephant's back.