Age of Invention: The Industry of All Nations

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As regular readers will know, I’ve been on a bit of a kick lately looking at the present-day applications of my historical work. If we’re concerned about increasing the number of inventors, then we need to do more things that affect people’s decisions to become inventors, rather than only tinkering with the incentives of people who have already gone down that path — upstream policies, to make the improving mentality more viral.

It is worth, for example, looking into how we depict invention in films. I’m also currently writing up a policy proposal for The Entrepreneurs Network with Ned Donovan (whose substack I also recommend), on how to raise the social status of invention in the UK. Yet the idea that I tend to get most excited about, which I mentioned only in passing last month, is how we might resurrect the spirit of the nineteenth-century exhibitions of industry.

The best-known of these is undoubtedly the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations of 1851, still famous for its Crystal Palace. Held in Hyde Park, London, it attracted six million visitors, and has been emulated many times since. The World Fairs of today number the Great Exhibition as their first. Yet most people today don’t really appreciate what the Great Exhibition was actually for. They see it as a big, international event, with millions of visitors, who saw all sorts of fancy and exciting things — a chance for Britain, and many other countries since, to show off. The result is that many of the events that seek to capture something of the spirit of the original exhibition— 1951’s Festival of Britain, most of the World Fairs since the Second World War, the Millennium Experience, the 2018 Great Exhibition of the North, and now an upcoming “definitely-not-a-Festival-of-Brexit” (currently branded as Festival UK* 2022) — totally and utterly miss the point.

This is perhaps best illustrated by the runup to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Its proposers in the 1940s saw that the centenary of the Great Exhibition was coming up, so they proposed that there should be something similar to mark it. Yet by doing so, they did things entirely back-to-front. The Great Exhibition had a purpose; the exhibition was just the medium. It was the tool for a specific and sophisticated agenda. The Festival of Britain, by contrast, started with the idea of an exhibition, and then flailed about for a reason why. The government had a vague idea of organising an event to lift the country’s spirits after the Second World War, as well as to have it Britain-focused so as to craft a new national identity as the old empire disintegrated. But as its director-general Gerald Barry put it when they actually started work on the event: “we sat before our blotting pads industriously doodling, in the hope perhaps that a coherent pattern might eventually emerge, on the same principle that if you set down twelve apes before twelve typewriters they will (or so it is said) in the course of infinity type out the complete works of Shakespeare.”

Looking at the build-up to Festival UK* 2022, it’s hard not to get the same impression. The government wanted something to vaguely help craft a post-Brexit identity, on which it is happy to spend well over a hundred million pounds. Yet to make it happen it has funded a “research and development” project: a whole bunch of committees tasked with coming up with ideas of what to actually do (so far, it’s to be “a collection of ten large-scale, public engagement projects”). This is not to say that the event won’t, in some sense, succeed. The 1951 Festival of Britain, after all, was widely lauded. Barry’s twelve apes at their typewriters didn’t quite write Shakespeare, but they did manage to come up with something that many people remembered fondly. Perhaps some of the projects in 2022 will be similarly impressive.

Yet that doesn’t change the fact that the more recent projects miss the point. In fact, I’d say they are the exact inverse of the Great Exhibition. For a start, the 1851 event was entirely self-funded. It had government support, of course, including a cross-party Royal Commission to oversee the team that did the day-to-day running of things, but it raised its money through a public subscription and, when this was insufficient, took out a loan backed by a group of wealthy guarantors. Fortunately, the guarantors never had to pay out, as the event made so much through ticket sales that it was wildly profitable — so much so that the Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 still exists. It purchased the 87 acres of land immediately south of the exhibition site, at South Kensington, for a more permanent collection of cultural institutions including many of London’s major museums. It helped fund a subsequent exhibition of industry on that site in 1862 — which actually had even more visitors, though it’s hardly remembered today. And even now, the Royal Commission continues to dispense over £3m every year to students and researchers.

That self-funding was important, I think, because it removed one of the main criticisms faced by modern large-scale events: that they are expensive wastes of taxpayer money on the vanity projects of politicians. The crowd-funding and finding of sufficient guarantors meant that the event needed to be accepted by the public at large, and even had them committed to the project before it had even begun. It necessitated a clear, exciting message from the get-go, rather than a post-hoc rationalisation.

And what was that message? For nineteenth-century organisers, an exhibition of industry was not just some grand display with a certain je ne sais quoi. It was intended as an engine of improvement: a direct way to actually encourage invention rather than just celebrate it, to raise the standards of consumers, and to lower barriers to trade. It was even a tool of industrial policy, and a springboard for reform.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 had taken inspiration from the French, national exhibitions of industry that had been happening every few years since 1798. These French exhibitions were state-run and state-funded (initially from accumulated patent fees), with the head of state himself awarding medals and cash prizes for the best works on display. Some of the very best exhibitors were even admitted to the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest order of merit — all to ensure that every manufacturer in the country would want to take part. As a result, exhibitions could provide a detailed snapshot of the nation’s manufacturing capabilities, serving as a sort of national audit in the days before modern GDP statistics. They revealed the best of every industry in the country, showing who was ahead and who was behind.

From the state’s perspective this gave them valuable information about where to focus subsidies, or how to improve various other policies. Industries or regions that noticeably lagged behind could provide evidence to would-be reformers, and stimulate initiatives to catch up. In a more direct way, too, the exhibition prizes themselves could be used to motivate industrialists to solve particular technological bottlenecks. For France’s 1801 exhibition, for example, the prize jury prioritised the application of art to industry; in 1834, they paid special attention to products that could be mass-produced cheaply; in 1839, they took into account whether products were made outside of the major cities, to encourage regional development.

And from the perspective of the people who sent in exhibits — manufacturers, artists, merchants, scientists, engineers, and more — it was a direct inducement to improvement. The people who submitted inferior exhibits could directly see, all in one place, the things they needed to do to catch up. It gave the laggards the information they needed to emulate their peers, and perhaps even to exceed them the next time. And the leaders that year could revel in their superiority, hoping to be recognised by the prize jury and benefiting from the exposure of their products to the many thousands of exhibition visitors. The rewards for outdoing their fellow exhibitors were substantial, both in terms of prestige and future sales.

From the perspective of the visitors, too, an exhibition raised their standards as consumers. It exposed them to the latest products, allowing them to see the best of design by directly comparing the exhibits. When consumers were uninformed, manufacturers could easily become complacent, finding that people bought their wares even when their products were not very good. They could take their market for granted, sapping any incentive to improve. Exhibitions shattered this complacency. They showed consumers what was possible, educating them in taste, and forcing producers to cater to their heightened demands. Once the paying public had been exposed to the best, they would settle for nothing less.

On top of all this, the exhibitions acted as engines of serendipity, forging entirely new and unpredictable connections. The manufacturer exhibiting textiles might come across a new material from an unfamiliar region, prompting them to import it for the first time. An inventor working on a niche problem might see the scientific demonstration of a concept that had not occurred to them, providing a solution.

And to all these effects of the French national exhibitions of industry, the Great Exhibition of 1851 added an international element. Consumers got a chance to compare the products on offer both at home and abroad. The masterminds behind it recognised that visitors would clamour for new imports and for lower tariffs on them, while forcing domestic producers to improve their quality to compete. It was intended to be an engine of free trade — and it was, with many subsequent international exhibitions laying the groundwork for major free trade deals, international treaties on postage and telegraph rates, and the democratisation of passports beyond just those considered “respectable”.

In some respects, the role of an exhibition of industry might seem to have been replaced by the internet. After all, it is easier than ever to search for new products, or for the latest technology, with various social media platforms giving us some serendipitous discovery too. Think of all those “you might like” notifications, or “suggested” feeds (even if they tend to reinforce preferences rather than expose you to the unfamiliar). But I think there’s something special about seeing things in person. More than that, to feel, touch, smell, hear, and taste them too. Squinting at the gif of some remarkable machinery on MachinePix on a tiny screen might bring a brief moment of excitement, but it’s soon forgotten in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, not to mention competing for your attention with a thousand other things. Following an account posting interesting food on Instagram is one thing; actually smelling and tasting it is obviously so much better.

So what would a modern-day exhibition of industry look like today? We would have to imagine all of today’s specific industry fairs, combined. Like the popular Consumer Electronics Show, but for everything. A place where visitors would actually get to see drone deliveries in action, take rides in a driverless car, experience the latest in virtual reality technology, play with prototype augmented reality devices, see organ tissue and metals and electronics being 3D-printed, and industrial manufacturing robots in action. They would have a taste of lab-grown meat at the food stalls, meet cloned animals brought back from extinction, perform feats of extraordinary strength wearing the exoskeletons used in factories, fly in a jet-suit, and listen to panel interviews with people who have experienced the latest in medical advancement. Perhaps a commercial space launch using the latest technology might be timed to coincide with the event, to be livestreamed on a big screen for all visitors to see. Visitors would naturally meet the inventors and scientists and engineers who developed it all, too.

Visitors would browse the latest in fashion, art, and architecture from all over the world, seeing them alongside historical examples, with the whole event housed in a building made using the latest advancements in materials and construction technology — just as the glass of the Crystal Palace gleamed in comparison to the soot-covered brick of 1851 London, or the iron entrance to the 1889 Exposition Universelle loomed high above Paris (now known as the Eiffel Tower). I actually can’t even fathom what it would have to look like, to inspire the same kind of awe. And the whole thing would, of course, be powered using only the cutting edge of clean energy technology, much like how the great new Corliss Engine drove the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, or how Westinghouse’s alternating current powered the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Perhaps the event might even be made carbon-negative, by demonstrating the latest technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Visitors should come away from a modern exhibition of industry as overwhelmed as Charles Dickens was by the Great Exhibition: “there’s too much”, he wrote, “so many things bewilder”. Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we shall one day see its like again.

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