World's fair exhibit at Spencer Library takes viewers back in time

It's 1851. You're in London, strolling along a grand hallway in a building made largely of glass � almost a million square feet of it. The glass is held in place by 4,000 tons of iron and 202 miles of wooden bars.

At one point, this house of glass vaults upward more than 100 feet, enough to accommodate some full-grown elm trees.


The hallway is six times longer than a football field. It contains contributions from the world over � the tiny Society Islands up to the United States. You walk past a 16,400-pound block of zinc, past the world's biggest diamond, past an enormous lighthouse beacon, past statues of every description. The centerpiece is a fountain made of 4 tons of pure crystal glass.

Off the grand hallway are entire rooms devoted to nothing but paisley shawls, to nothing but wax flowers, to nothing but lace. Still other rooms are given over to the latest machinery � steam engines, lathes, a McCormick reaper that can harvest 20 acres in a day. And the machines are all running.

You are one of 6 million visitors to the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. You are inside the Crystal Palace erected by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria for the very first world's fair.

Because it was the first, no one knew exactly what should go into it � and so nearly everything did.

James Helyar has put together an exhibit on the fair, which will be showing in Kansas University's Spencer Research Library gallery until July 19. After that, notes about the fair will be available at the library's Web site.

Helyar hands me an abbreviated catalog of the London event. It's only an inch thick � not the four-volume official catalog. A few entries suggest the diversity provided by the fair's 17,000 exhibitors. An American named W.M. Hunter provided artificial teeth "on an improved principal." Someone named De Bonneville sent autumn leaves. Muskwood slabs arrived from Tasmania. A Russian sent malachite doors. A telescopic rifle, a model of an ocean steamer, Hebrew bibles � there's no telling it all.

During my tour of the Spencer library exhibit, a quote from an 1850 speech by Prince Albert, rallying support for the fair, caught my eye.

"The distances which separated the different nations and parts of the globe are rapidly vanishing before the achievements of modern invention," he wrote, "and we can traverse them with incredible ease. � Thought is communicated with the rapidity, and even by the power, of lightning."

Albert was referring to the telegraph. Little did he know what lay ahead.

In the same speech, he spoke warmly of hopes that mankind would one day be united. After the fair's run, the Crystal Palace, a symbol of that hope, was taken down. It was reassembled in 1854 at a different site in London. That year, the Crimean War began � an ironic touch given Albert's dream of human unity, Helyar says.

That dream still hasn't been realized. Even so, Albert's mustering of an extraordinary array of the world's stuff inside his enormous glass palace will long be remembered.

� Roger Martin is a research writer and editor for the Kansas University Center for Research and editor of Explore, KU's research magazine Web site, which can be found at www.research.ukans.edu. Martin's e-mail address is rmartin@kucr.ukans.edu.

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