19th-Century – The Great Exhibition and the Age of Inventions 

The 19th-Century Passion for Machines

In the 19th century, machines were changing everyday life in many important ways. This led to a widespread craze for all kinds of machines and all things mechanical.

In factories, machines were producing the goods people purchased in shops. Railways were providing a new and much faster form of travel on land, while steamships were doing the same for travel by sea.

Over Six Million Visitors at the Great Exhibition

Displays of manufactures, engines and inventions drew huge crowds of visitors who were intensely eager to see machinery in action. From the early 19th century, regular expositions of art and industry took place in France, but they really got going in 1851 when the Great Exhibition was held in London.

During the twenty weeks it was open to the public, the Exhibition was visited by 6,063,986 people. Forty countries and thirteen thousand companies and individuals sent inventions for display at the Exhibition venue, Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

They included agricultural machinery, a freezing machine, a collapsible piano, a knife with three hundred blades, water heaters, mechanically operated showers and engines that pumped water or operated other machines.

What Happened to the Crystal Palace?

The Crystal Palace was itself an impressive exhibit. Designed by the architect Joseph Paxton, it was made of iron and glass and contained more than eight miles of table space for the various displays.

When the Great Exhibition came to an end, the Crystal Palace was dismantled and re-erected in south London as an exhibition centre and concert hall. Sadly, though, it was destroyed by fire in 1936, but the site, where an important sports centre now stands, retained the name of Crystal Palace.

More Big Exhibitions

The Great Exhibition was such a success that similar displays were soon staged in other countries. One was the New York World’s Fair in 1853, another, in 1876, the international Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. This was opened by US President Ulysses S. Grant and the Emperor Pedro II of Brazil who together turned on a giant steam machine which worked all the mechanical exhibits.

The French put on many major exhibitions, the most famous being the Paris Exposition of 1889. There, the big attraction was the 984-ft, high steel tower constructed by the French bridge-builder Alexandre Gustave Eiffel. The Eiffel Tower remains a landmark in Paris today.

A Mass of New Inventions

By that time, one invention seemed to follow another in rapid succession. Many of the gadgets and devices used today were first developed or invented in the last fifteen years of the 19th century. They included barbed wire, in 1873, the phonograph of 1877, electric light bulbs in 1879, motor cars in 1885 and in 1895 both the radio and the cinema.

Early cinema was almost too realistic. Pioneered in France by the brothers August and Louis Jean Lumière, the first cinema show in Paris panicked members of the audience who leapt from their seats and ran away in terror. The reason was that the cinema screen showed a train moving towards them, and they fled thinking it was going to run them over.

Inventions for Destruction and War

A more reasonable fear, though, arose from the fact that the new weapons that developed quickly during the 19th century became ten times more powerful than ever before. Through improvements in the strength of metals, guns could be made with longer, stronger barrels. These were able to fire the new elongated artillery shells much more accurately and quickly.

Hand-held firearms were now much more accurate because they had rifled barrels which enabled bullets to spin in flight. The muskets the rifles replaced were of the smooth-bore type and therefore found targets less easily.

One inventor greatly worried by this development was Alfred Nobel, the Swedish chemist who created dynamite in 1867. Another was Wilbur Wright, co-inventor with his brother Orville of the first heavier-than-air plane which first flew in 1903. Wilbur Wright soon realized that the aircraft could be used for destructive purposes in war, a fear that came true when the First World War began in Europe in 1914.

Alfred Nobel and the Nobel Prizes

As for Alfred Nobel, he watched with trepidation how his invention of dynamite was followed in 1868 by the torpedo and in 1897 by the first practical submarine. Now, after centuries of fruitless experiments, the navies of the world could wage war beneath the surface of the sea.

To counteract these dire developments, Nobel founded the prizes that were to be awarded every year for the sciences, medicine, literature and work done to promote peace. The Nobel Prizes, first given out in 1901 have continued to this day.

Nevertheless, there was no turning back. By the turn of the 20th century, the age of inventions had certainly made life easier and more comfortable for many people. Yet it had also provided them with a power to wage war more catastrophic than had ever been known before.

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