Age of Invention: Blueprint for a New Great Exhibition
It’s been a long while since my last post, for which I can only apologise. A lot has been going on. I went on a long trip in April to Japan, for which I pre-scheduled three pieces to be published both while I was away and immediately after I got back. But then once I had got back, I moved to a new city — a process that has taken a lot more effort than anticipated. The last few weeks have thus given little opportunity to get back into the usual rhythm of research and writing, instead being a blur of long drives, cardboard boxes, and flat-pack furniture. I’m finally pretty much settled, however, in remarkably sunny Edinburgh.
As well as moving, a few long-standing projects of mine also started to come to fruition. Ever since researching my book on the history of the Royal Society of Arts, I’ve been fascinated by the Great Exhibition of 1851, which they initiated. Like most people, I had once assumed that the exhibition was just a big celebration of Victorian technological superiority — a brash excuse to rub the British Industrial Revolution in the rest of the world’s faces. But my research into the origins of the event revealed that it was almost the opposite. Far from being a jingoistic expression of superiority, it was actually motivated by a worry that Britain was rapidly losing its place. It was an attempt to prevent decline by learning from other countries. It was largely about not falling behind.
Industrial exhibitions already had a long history in 1851, as a crucial weapon in other countries’ innovation policy arsenals. They were used by countries like France in particular — which held an exhibition every few years from 1798 — as a means of catching up with Britain’s technology. This sounds strange nowadays, when the closest apparent parallels are vanity projects like the Millennium Experience, the recent controversial “Festival of Brexit” that ended up just being a bunch of temporary visitor attractions all over the country, and glitzy mega-events like the World’s Fairs. But the World’s Fairs, albeit notional successors to the Great Exhibition, have strayed very far from the original vision and purpose. They’re now more about celebration, infotainment and national branding, whereas the original industrial exhibitions had concrete economic aims.
Industrial exhibitions were originally much more akin to specialist industry fairs, with producers showing off their latest products, sort of combined with academic conferences, with scientists demonstrating their latest advances. Unlike modern industry fairs and conferences, however, which tend to be highly specialised, appealing to just a few people with niche interests, industrial exhibitions showed everything, altogether, all at once. They achieved a more widespread appeal to the public by being a gigantic event that was so much more than the sum of its parts — often helped along by the impressive edifices that housed them. The closest parallel is perhaps the Consumer Electronics Show, held since 1967 in the United States. But even this only focuses on particular categories of industry, and is largely catered towards attendees already interested in “tech”. Industrial exhibitions were like the CES, but for everything.
The point of all this, rather than just being an event for its own sake, was to actually improve the things on display. This happened in a number of ways, each of them complementing the other.
Concentration generated serendipity. By having such a vast variety of industries and discoveries presented at the same event, exhibitions greatly raised the chances of serendipitous discovery. A 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.
Comparison bred emulation. Producers, by seeing their competitors’ products physically alongside their own, would see how things could be done better. They could learn from their competitors, with the laggards being embarrassed into improving their products for next time. And this could take place at a much broader, country-wide level, revealing the places that were outperforming others and giving would-be reformers the evidence they needed to discover and adopt policies from elsewhere.
Exposure shattered complacency. The visiting public, as users and buyers of the things on display, would be exposed to superior products. This was especially effective for international exhibitions of industry, of which the Great Exhibition was the first, and simulated an effect that had only ever really been achieved through expensive foreign travel — by being exposed to things they hadn’t realised could already be so much better than what they were accustomed to, consumers raised their standards. They forced the usual suppliers of their products to either raise their game or lose out to foreign ones.
This was an effect that was especially brought home to me last month, during my holiday to Japan. I just can’t get over how much more pleasant their toilets are, both private and especially public, than anything I’ve ever experienced. Literally any public toilet, anywhere — even in the busy main train and underground stations of Tokyo, the most populous urban area in the world — were unfailingly spotless. It sounds so mundane, and perhaps a strange thing to obsess over, but stepping foot back in a European airport, on this one metric alone, immediately made it feel like I had stepped back three decades. It really underscored to me a core underlying principle of why exhibitions of industry work, which is that seeing really is believing.
If the public of another country all experienced just how far superior Japanese public toilets are — something more easily achieved by bringing the toilets to them than having everyone make the long trip to Japan — it would radically speed up their adoption. (Considering that so many core elements of the modern toilet were invented in Britain, with the Royal Society of Arts even trialling the first system of “public conveniences” specifically for the Great Exhibition of 1851, it’s all the more embarrassing that British public toilets have fallen so appallingly — and disgustingly — behind.)
Which brings me back to the longstanding projects of mine that have been reaching fruition. One of these is that my first book, on the history of the Royal Society of Arts, in which you can learn all about how the Great Exhibition was initiated and their attempts to introduce public conveniences, and a dozen other fascinating schemes, has finally come out in paperback. The hardback was published in May 2020, when pretty much every physical bookshop on the planet had to close, and actually I still haven’t seen it “in the wild”, on a bookshop’s shelf. But it’s gratifying that it’s done well enough to make it to paperback, even three years on (and is, incidentally, an impressive 50% off worldwide with the code MAY50 until the end of tomorrow, the 26 May, Eastern Daily Time)
The second project, however, is that I’ve finally written up a full blueprint of how a new Great Exhibition could, and should, be organised. As well as outlining the general case, it’s something of an FAQ, addressing many of the usual doubts and objections, and highlighting many of the pitfalls that ought to be avoided. It is also, most importantly, intended as a sort of prospectus — a document that I hope will begin to get the ball rolling, to see nineteenth-century-style exhibitions of industry actually being held within the next few years. You can read the blueprint here. And there is more on this to come.
Finally, this newsletter itself has just passed a milestone that I never thought I’d see — it has over 20,000 subscribers! I had no idea that so many people would ever be interested in my work on the history of invention. So thank you to everyone who’s been reading, and especially to the much, much smaller and select group of paying subscribers — the Medicis to my muse — without whom I wouldn’t be able to keep researching and writing Age of Invention. If you’re one of the 20,000 and would like to join the few, the happy few, you can here:
Until next week,