Today, we'll go to a Victorian exhibition. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series
about the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Early in her reign, Queen Victoria
and her consort, Albert, hit on the plan of creating a
great world-wide exhibition of modern art and design. Sir
Joseph Paxton, a botanist and landscape designer, won the
task of designing the central exhibition hall, and the
building he produced is still talked about by architects.
In 1851, Paxton erected his Crystal Palace -- an amazing
glass and iron pavilion, over a third of mile long, with
800,000 square feet of floor space. The construction was
an avant-garde cantilevered iron frame with
interchangeable prefabricated parts and acres of glass
panels. It was certainly influenced by the greenhouses
he'd designed earlier, and -- he claimed -- the specific
structure imitated the organic design of the Amazon lily,
That's all well and good, but the great Victorian
engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel -- himself a worker of
wonders in the medium of iron -- greatly admired the
Crystal Palace because it was so clearly based on solid
engineering principles -- some of which he'd established.
The exhibition drew over six million visitors and was a
wonderful success until it was finally dismantled in
1854. It nevertheless represented a peculiar confusion of
design styles. Inside this functional array of straight
lines were stuffed the busy rounded works of art from
earlier eras -- 18th-century rococo, turn-of-the-century
naturalism, a little bit of this and a little bit of
But the power of the exhibition lay in the element of art
that was less explicit -- the engineering of it.
Victorian art and design lumbered on in their own
ponderous and somewhat claustrophobic way, while
Victorian engineering lay its hold on the entire world.
The simple truth was that engineering was the major art
of the middle 19th century -- something 20th-century
functionalists would later admit. In the final analysis,
it was the exhibit hall itself, far more than its
contents, that captured our imaginations.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Clark, K., Heroic Materialism. Civilisation. New
York: Harper & Row, 1969, Chapter 13.
This program has been rewritten as Episode 1158.
The following website offers a picture of the Crystal
Palace and additional historical background:
For a nineteenth century engraving of the
Crystal Palace click the thumbnail above
The 1851 catalog tried to display the exterior of the
building. However, it did a better job of capturing
the Victorian mood of the stuff inside.
Meanwhile, this is a typical of the materiel displayed
inside the hall. (The latter two images are from
History and Description of the Crystal Palace,
(All images courtesy of Special Collections, UH Library)
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2004 by John H.