From Crystal Palace to White Elephant in 150 Years

(The following essay is based upon a column by Mr. Reed to be published in the March 2003 issue of Ideas on Liberty, the monthly journal of the Foundation for Economic Education—

Mention the ill-fated "Millenium Dome" to almost any citizen of Great Britain and you’ll get an earful about one of the greatest government-sponsored, scandal-ridden fiascoes of all time. Costing more than a billion dollars, it was a white elephant that bled red ink from its public opening on New Year’s Day 2000 until it closed a year later. It was intended in part to rival a famous project of a century and a half earlier but, by any important measure, it never came close.

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The Millenium Dome’s colossal flop prompted Prime Minister Tony Blair to remark, "If I had my time again, I would have listened to those who said governments shouldn’t try to run big visitor attractions." Two years before, Blair and his whiz kids in the London bureaucracy thought there was nothing about the stellar example of the Great Exhibition of 1851 that couldn’t be improved with a generous dose of modern central planning and loot from the taxpayer. How wrong they were!

If the Dome sparks renewed interest in that earlier show, it will serve perhaps its most useful purpose. What happened in 1851 was a spectacular tribute to the enterprising spirit of that day.

By the middle of the 19th Century, Britain was the industrial "workshop of the world," producing more than half of all coal, iron and cotton cloth. Powered by a relatively free economy that was becoming freer by the decade, Britain’s railroads, factories and machine technology were well ahead of any other nation’s. It was time to celebrate not only Britain’s remarkable achievements, but also those of free trade and free enterprise the world over. Around the mid-1840s, these thoughts came to animate Queen Victoria’s husband Albert, the Prince Consort.

Since 1798, the French had held fairs to show off their manufactured goods every few years but the events were limited to French goods. Albert and his advisors felt that Britain should host a fair to showcase the industrial might of all nations. And like so many people of the time, they were ecstatic about the potential of capitalist invention and the peaceful, international trade it fostered. In January 1850, Victoria named Albert to head a 24-man Royal Commission to make the "Great Exhibition of the Industries of All Nations" a reality.

Prince Albert declared at the start of the commission’s deliberations that the Exhibition should not and would not be government-funded. The building that would house it, the accommodations in the city of London required for throngs of visitors, the daily operations of the show while it was open, and the exhibits themselves would be paid for by voluntary contributions, fundraising campaigns, and admission fees. This was to be a celebration of private enterprise, and it seemed only logical for private, enterprising citizens to foot the bill. The Millenium Dome of 2000, by contrast, was a giant public works scheme from its inception—filled with uninspiring, politically-correct and just plain boring displays and financed by taxes and the government’s national lottery.

As soon as London’s Hyde Park was chosen for the 1851 site, the Royal Commission solicited proposals for a building to house the Exhibition during the expected six months it would be open to the public. The project was in danger of foundering amid designs deemed too costly when entrepreneur Joseph Paxton came forth with plans for a monster edifice made entirely of glass panes (nearly a quarter million of them) and the supporting iron framework. Thanks to the repeal in 1845 of Britain’s longstanding and onerous "window tax," the price of glass had fallen by 80 percent, making Paxton’s design affordable.

When the "Crystal Palace" opened its doors on May 1, 1851, the sheer immensity of it made for a grand show all by itself: 1,851 feet long (a dimension intended to fit the year), 408 feet wide, and 108 feet high at the entrance. It was built to accommodate as many as 60,000 people at one time, in addition to nearly 14,000 exhibits. There was nothing like it in all the world. Michael Leapman, author of The World for a Shilling: How the Great Exhibition of 1851 Shaped a Nation, calls it "the first mass spectacle that appealed to almost every social class."

Invitations had been sent to the governments of the world, asking them to encourage their entrepreneurs to submit exhibits. Leapman explains an especially noteworthy response from a Chinese official: "Since the excellence of a product depended upon the individual talent and genius of its creator, . . . it would be inappropriate for any government to attempt to persuade people to enter such a competition. However, anyone in China who wished to submit goods would not be deterred from doing so." In other words, if you want private entrepreneurs to come, then ask them, don’t ask us in government.

For a visitor to give every exhibit the attention it deserved would have required 200 hours in the building, according to London’s most famous newspaper of the day, The Times. There was the huge and fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond from India; a forty-foot scale model of the Liverpool docks complete with 1,600 meticulously accurate miniature ships; sophisticated threshing machines and other labor-saving farm equipment; a knife with 1,851 blades; exotic fabrics and furnishings, looms, sewing machines and even a prototype submarine; gas cookery, electric clocks, and one of the earliest versions of a washing machine.

The wide array of displays representing the very latest of industry from America included a set of unpickable locks, a model of Niagara Falls, a 16,400-pound lump of zinc, a McCormick reaper, a Colt revolver, and, in Leapman’s words, "a piano that could be played by four people at once and a violin and piano joined in such a way that a single musician could play them both at the same time on a single keyboard."

Visitors marveled at a mechanical envelope maker with intricate moving parts that carefully folded and gummed the paper. With just two children at the helm, it produced 60 envelopes per minute. Yet another device rolled up to 100 cigarettes every sixty seconds.

The Exhibition itself gave birth to new inventions. One of many examples was provided by George Jennings, a sanitary engineer. His ingenious flush toilets and decorative, space-saving urinals prevented a potential health hazard. They sparked so much public interest and fascination that his designs were subsequently copied in cities around the world.

Some of Britain’s best known businesses can trace their origins to the Great Exhibition. Thomas Cook, the firm that today boasts more than 4,000 affiliated travel agencies around the world, got its start when its namesake began offering low-price excursion packages to get people from all corners of Britain to the Palace in Hyde Park. The big profits Charles Harrod earned serving visitors in his modest grocery store proved to be the capital he needed to eventually create one of the most famous department stores in the world.

When the Exhibition closed its doors on October 18 after five and a half months, more than six million people had come through it—almost the same number who visited the Millenium Dome over a twelve-month period 150 years later. Factor in the time-consuming difficulties of transportation in 1851 compared to the ease and speed of the space age and the contrast is all the more stunning. And unlike the Dome of 2000, the unsubsidized Crystal Palace of 1851 produced a financial surplus.

Indeed, the government in 2000 got it precisely backwards. Instead of deciding first what should be in the Dome and whether or not it could attract an audience, it first determined the site and the structure. But it ultimately was the unappealing content that dragged the whole thing down. In the case of the Great Exhibition, the contents’ overarching purpose and appeal were determined first and the site and building came later.

Tony Blair is right. He should have listened to those who warned that government has enough trouble doing what it’s supposed to do that it doesn’t need to do what it shouldn’t.

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Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland. Publications of the Mackinac Center can be accessed at