n 1851 I. K. Brunel stood at the top of his profession, in an age of great engineers — Robert Stephenson, Scott Russell and a new man, the Duke of Devonshire's clever head gardener, Joseph Paxton, who appeared with his one masterpiece doodled on blotting paper, the legendary Crystal Palace. Brunel knew them all. There was a compact and camaraderie among the engineers, who stood together to fight for the future. . . . After 1851 mechanical science was free. The Exhibition cleared the air for the Great Eastern steamship and brought Brunel and her fellow builder together. He was John Scott Russell, a Scotsman of the genuine Brunel mark. He had been a child prodigy, a graduate of St. Andrew's University at sixteen, and a full professor of physics at twenty-four. He worked out the basic theories of hydrodynamics in his "wave-line" principle of ship's hull design. Russell operated an iron foundry and engineering works on the Isle of Dogs.

Sir Joseph Paxton. Click on picture for larger image.

The Great Exhibition was in good part Russell's doing. When an ingenious civil servant named Henry Cole — The man who invented Christmas cards — told him about the wonders of the Paris Exhibition of 1849, Russell saw the possibilities of a British fair of engineering and manufacturing arts. He discussed it with the Prince Consort, the unpopular Albert. The intelligent and catholically educated German was having a bad time in England. . . . The upper classes were suspicious of his erudition and the lower classes abhorred his stiff manners. The Queen, however, wanted Albert to be a success. John Scott Russell weighed these factors and sprang his coup one night in 1850. In the course of handing out medals at an art school exercise, Russell remarked cryptically, "There is now every hope of carrying out His Royal Highness Prince Albert 's plans for 1851."

Albert summoned Russell to the Palace and they plotted the Great Exhibition. The Queen blessed Albert's hobby. The Old Guard was outmaneuvered. Today in Kensington Gardens, slightly pocked by the bombs of a later German generation, sits Albert in a granite canopy alive with friezes and allegorical reliefs, a structure exceeded in Victorian high taste only by the Sir Walter Scott Memorial in Edinburgh. In his hand the Prince holds a catalogue of the Great Exhibition. Down the street in the Victoria and Albert Science Museum there is a glass case containing a model of John Scott Russell's paddle engines of the Great Eastern. On Victoria Embankment is Brunel's marble effigy, badly chipped by Hitlerian bombs.

Before Paxton: The Committee's design for a structure to house the Great Exhibition. Click on picture for larger image.

Brunel, Scott Russell and Robert Stephenson were members of the building committee of the big fair. They held a design competition for the main hall and invited the world's architects to submit plans within three weeks. They actually received 245 drawings. None were satisfactory so Brunel drew up a committee plan, featuring a sheet iron dome two hundred feet in diameter. The building was sort of squatly Romanesque with a whiff of Byzantine. At this stage Paxton sketched his gigantic greenhouse. Brunel was its first champion and volunteered to design the great water towers to flank the Crystal Palace. Brunel had a generous scientific philosophy. He did not believe in patenting inventions, and protected none of his numerous ideas, saying, "Most good things are being thought of by many persons at the same time. If there were publicity and freedom of communication, instead of concealment and mystery, a hundred times as many useful ideas would be generated."

The engineers were running the world. The capitalists eagerly tried to keep up with their blueprints. The common people were prepared to go anywhere with the golden engineers. Royalty deferred to them. The applied mechanical mind would conquer everything. The Exhibition was the cachet of machine age genius.


Dugan, John. The Great Iron Ship. New York: Harpers, 1953.

Last modified 31 December 2005