Inside the Crystal Palace

Over 233 designs were submitted for the building to house the "Great Exhibition of the Works of All Nations." Joseph Paxton produced his design for a Crystal Palace on a piece of blotting paper, then submitted the final design in less than 9 days. The building itself was erected in just six months, a remarkable building with 293,655 panes of glass, 330 huge iron columns, and 24 miles of gutters.

The building featured the largest roof ever made, and stood out in London architecture. To complement the mass of glass, the building was decorated in red, green, and blue, and the iron columns were variegated with yellow stripes. [Briggs, p. 52-55]

Inside the building was just about everything. America brought stuffed squirrels and a McCormack Reaper. Lucifer matches were the latest modern convenience, an envelope making machine could do 60 units a minute, and, of course, steam engines every place you turned.

Wiliam Brockeden had an exhibit at the Crystal Palace that showed how powedered graphite could be reformed into a block without binder. This was the birth of the classic yellow pencil.

Pencil making was running out of steam by the late 1830's. The sources of real lead, such as the highly-valued Cumberland Plumbago, got rarer and more expensive. As the low-priced, high-quality graphite got more expensive, cheap imitations with sulfur or clay added as additives became common. Powdered graphite was bound together with foreign substances.

Do you know why the pencil was yellow? At the time, high-quality pencils were made of cedar or other expensive woods. By painting the pencils, they could use a cheaper wood, painting over the imperfections. But why yellow? Since the inside of the pencil was black and this device had been developed in Vienna, Franz von Hardtmuth decided that the outside must be yellow in honor of the Austro-Hungarian flag.

He sold these relatively cheap pencils for 3x the price of his competition, trumpeting the high-quality "Siberian Graphite" and the sleek shiny yellow color as the marks of quality. [Petroski, pp. 127-134]

Among the festivities was the first boat race for what has now become known as the America's Cup. Over 100,000 exhibits over 17 acres under one remarkable roof drew the world to London for the first of what was to be 75 years of Great Exhibitions and World's Fairs.

In 1853, New York had it's own Crystal Palace Exposition, a poor copy of the London Original. Otis the elevator man had himself hauled up in a cage. The ropes were cut. The crowd gasped. Otis didn't fall. By 1889, Otis Elevator was ready to install it's machinery on the 1,000 foot Eiffel Tower. By 1939, New York was ready to do a real world's fair.

The 1939 New York World's Fair


Asa Briggs, Victorian Things, Penguin Books (London: 1990). Along with the other two volumes of this series, Victorian Cities and Victorian People, this trilogy gives a compelling look at Victorian life.

Henry Petroski, The Pencil Knopf (New York, 1993). Everything you wanted to know about pencils. Petroski is the author of a series of books about engineering and design, including To Engineer is Human.