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The Crystal Palace

First sketch for the Great Exhibition Building by Sir Joseph Paxton. Museum no. E.575-1985

First sketch for the Great Exhibition Building by Sir Joseph Paxton. Museum no. E.575-1985.

A competition for a building to house the Great Exhibition produced 248 plans. The Building Committee disliked them all and attempted to design their own, putting together ideas from a number of entries. Not only was this regarded by contemporary critics as unethical, the result was also totally unsuitable. The Committee's plan, published in May 1850, would have taken 15 months to build and needed some 15 million bricks for its construction. The scheduled opening day was 1 May 1851.

Joseph Paxton's design

Joseph Paxton had been building greenhouses for the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, basing his designs on the structure of the Regia lily. When he was brought to Henry Cole with an idea that could be realized in ten months, Cole agreed that it could be put before the Committee. Paxton proposed a gigantic pre-fabricated building of iron and glass.

This building, with its skeleton of cast-iron columns supporting a network of girders, was based on a 24ft (7.3m) module of parts pre-fabricated in Birmingham. It not only was innovative technologically, but also used many other industrial skills and inventions of the time. The removal of the glass tax only a few years previously had contributed to the development of plate glass by the Birmingham glass company, Chance Bros.

The Crystal Palace used 300,000 sheets in the largest size ever made (4ft 1in x 10ins/1.3m x 25.3cm). Steam engines on site drove the machinery to cut the wooden glazing bars as well as the 24 miles (40km) of Paxton's patent guttering used to hold the glass in position on his simple but effective ridge and furrow roof.

The invention of the telegraph allowed rapid communication between the site and the manufacturers in the Midlands. In less than nine months from 30 August 1850, when the contractors took over the site, a building 1848ft (562m) long and 408ft (124m) wide rose in Hyde Park. It was capable of holding over 100,000 objects, from hairpins to steam hammers, representing nearly 14,000 exhibitors, half from Britain and the Empire, half from other countries. On 1 May 1851, exactly on schedule, the Exhibition was opened by Queen Victoria.

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 - 1852. Museum no. 19614

Aeronautic view of The Palace of Industry For All Nations, from Kensington Palace by Charles Burton, England, 1851 - 1852. Museum no. 19614


Construction of the Crystal Palace

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