The reissues of these important works by the Cambridge University Press make it easier to access and browse the contents of the Great Exhibition, and understand how it was seen at the time. Although they look similar at first glance, they are quite different from each other in their aims. The descriptions and details given below appear by kind permission of the publisher. — Jacqueline Banerjee

The Official Catalogue

The Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851 was a feat in itself, and preparing a clear reissue from the original must have been hardly less of a challenge. This book lists all the many exhibits, useful when it is important to determine what was shown and who was responsible for it, as well as the locations of the items, so that their contexts can be established. The listing is notable above all for its fantastic range:

Copper from Cornwall, a hand-drill from Hampshire, elephant teeth from Sudan, and snuff-boxes from Switzerland. The Great Exhibition of 1851 included some 13,000 natural and man-made objects in the largest collection of materials and inventions the world had ever seen. This single-volume catalogue lists all the items on show with their origin and location. With the aid of its maps and lists, visitors were able to navigate the Crystal Palace with ease, despite its immense size. In "The Catalogue's Account of Itself," included at the end of the book, Charles Dickens describes with great verve the complex compilation process of the catalogue, completed just hours before the Exhibition opened. New arrivals necessitated several corrected printings, and this is the fourth edition. A truly fascinating record of the state of the world seen through material objects in the mid-nineteenth century, this volume will delight both the curious browser and the scholar.

To give just a few more specific examples, the Koh-i-noor, "the great diamond ... of Ranjeet Singh" (7) is listed as being in the Main Avenue, East, while in the Main Avenue, West, could be seen the lower jawbone of a sperm whale, a statue and fountain by John Thomas, a cottage piano, and so on, and in the North Transept, Main Avenue, West, could be found some church bells, a carpet loom "at work" (9) and ornamental gates, and many, many more exhibits, all with their designers and makers specified. The gates for instance were by the Coalbrook Dale Co., from the original design by Charles Crookes. The conglomeration of artefacts is simply amazing.

Charles Babbage's The Exposition of 1851

This book is not a guide at all. Rather, it uses the Great Exhibition to lambast the government for not recognising, rewarding and promoting science: "Science in England is not a profession," Charles Babbage declares, "its cultivators are scarcely recognised even as a class" (189). Still, it says a great deal about the planning of the exhibition, and also about what the exhibition tells us about its age:

Charles Babbage (1791–1871), one of the most original thinkers of the nineteenth century, is best remembered as the pioneer of computing technology, but he also made significant contributions to mathematics, mechanical engineering, philosophy and political economy. This book, first published in 1851, is an example of his active and effective campaigning for the role of scientists and the place of science, technology and technical education in society. Ahead of his time, Babbage was critical of government and the scientific community for not valuing science and technology in education. The work develops these themes, using the Great Exhibition as a backdrop to highlight the political and cultural factors that can impede scientific and technological progress. Britain's industrial supremacy, he argued, disguised the need to develop technical education. As relevant and persuasive today as in 1851, Babbage's arguments emphasise the fundamental importance of technology to the advancement of society.

Babbage's plea has been more than vindicated by the developments of our own time.

Robert Hunt, Hunt's Handbook

Hunt's Hand-Book to the Official Catalogues of the Great Exhibition: An Explanatory Guide to the Natural Productions and Manufactures of the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, 1851 is a two-volume paperback set, also in the Cambridge Library's technology series. Again, it must have required a good deal of preparation. This focuses on the exhibits. The description is as follows:

A renowned chemist, photographer and scholar, Robert Hunt was a passionate advocate of popular education and the ideal choice to author an accessible and informative handbook to the greatest educational event of the nineteenth century. Published in 1851, while the Great Exhibition was still welcoming visitors in Hyde Park, Hunt's Hand-Book is an encyclopaedia of Victorian material science, chemistry, engineering and design. While an array of catalogues, pamphlets and guides told the story of the exhibition's conception and construction, Hunt reserved his pages for a detailed and comprehensive account of the exhibits themselves. Consequently, this two-volume work quickly established itself as the authoritative guide to the exhibits, their manner of manufacture and practical application in the modern world. Aided by a series of meticulous plans, Volume 1 leads readers through the celebrated Medieval Court and spectacular and varied displays of agricultural produce, weaponry, and porcelain. Aided by small sectional plans of the building and tables of classification, in Volume 2 readers continue their vicarious journey through the Crystal Palace, while receiving clear and lucid lessons on the physics, mechanics and chemistry that enable such innovations as the hydro-pneumatic elevator and the railway system. Including exhibits as varied as enamelled glassware, woven flax, upholstery, diamonds and cement, Hunt's work constitutes one of the most valuable sources available on an age defined by innovation, industry and empire.

It may be added that in the second volume, Chapter XXIV, there is an excellent look at "Stained and painted Glass" in the North East Gallery, recognising the achievements of A. W. N. Pugin and John Hardman: "it is the union of the artistic skill of Mr Pugin with the enterprise and perseverance of Mr Hardman of Birmingham, that has lately opened a new era in the history of this art" (592). It is fascinating to see the contemporary response to this development.


(Anonymous) The Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations 1851. Reissue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Babbage, Charles, esq. The Exposition of 1851, or Views of the Industry, the Science, and the Government of England. Reissue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Hunt, Robert. Hunt's Hand-Book to the Official Catalogues of the Great Exhibition: An Explanatory Guide to the Natural Productions and Manufactures of the Great Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations, 1851. Reissue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Created 29 September 2016