Fathom Logo

Learning PlanSessionsContributors
 Electricity on Show: Spectacular Events in Victorian London
 Fathom
Sessions
Session 3
Session 2Session 4

Cultures of the Exhibition

[adelaide gallery]
Queen's University Belfast
A view of the Adelaide Gallery of Practical Science. Perkin's steam gun was on the right of the central canal as seen from this perspective. Its target can be seen at the far end of the Main Hall.
In 1832, the American inventor and entrepreneur Jacob Perkins opened the National Gallery of Practical Science in the Lowther Arcade off the Strand in London, as part of his campaign to publicize his designs for high-pressure steam boilers and his spectacular steam gun, which he had already been exhibiting for several years in London to enthusiastic crowds. The Adelaide Gallery, as it was soon popularly known, was initially designed to house an array of Perkins's own devices but the scheme was soon expanded to accommodate new inventions of all kinds. The proprietors set out to "promote...the adoption of whatever may be found to be comparatively superior, or relatively perfect in the arts, sciences or manufactures [and to display] specimens and models of inventions and other works &c.; of interest for public exhibition, free from charge…thereby gratuitously offering every possible facility for the practical demonstration of discoveries in Natural Philosophy, and for the exhibition of any new application of known principles of mechanical contrivances of general utility."

The gallery's main attraction was Jacob Perkins's steam gun, which was fired up several times a day to discharge rounds of seventy balls in four seconds at a target placed at the further end of the Gallery's Long Room, which also featured a 70-foot-long canal and pool on which demonstrations of model paddle-driven steam boats were given. In rooms surrounding the upstairs gallery visitors could see the Hydro-oxygen microscope magnify the waters of the Thames an alleged 3 million times. Feeding time for the Adelaide's rare electric eels was another major attraction. Within a few years, another enthusiastic inventor-entrepreneur had opened a rival establishment to the Adelaide Gallery on Regent Street. The driving force behind the Royal Polytechnic Institution, which opened its doors in 1838, was the aeronautic pioneer Sir George Cayley. Where the Adelaide Gallery featured Perkins's steam gun as the star attraction, the Polytechnic had a full-sized diving-bell in which visitors could descend to the bottom of a glass tank. By the early 1840s the Polytechnic also featured the latest product of electrical ingenuity: W. G. Armstrong's Hydro-electric machine. The high-tension electricity produced as steam sprayed out under high pressure through a series of nozzles could be used for brilliant illumination.

[electric eels]
Queen's University Belfast
A list of exhibits from the Adelaide Gallery for 1844. Note the advertisement of feeding time for the electric eels.
Venues such as the Adelaide and the Polytechnic provided a place for inventors of all kinds to appear before the London public as autonomous agents. The machines and artefacts they put on show there played a crucial role in constructing their public image: the cultural context within which others understood them and their position on the social map. The Galleries were "the places in fact which furnish the great mass of the public with demonstrations of science." Showmanship was becoming an integral part of the business of invention. There was more to this than the matter of attracting the attention of potential investors. Exhibition, in the public eye, was quite simply part of what an electrician did. The example of Edward Davy of the early British electric telegraph pioneers is a case in point. Even before patenting his telegraph design, Davy hired private rooms at Exeter Hall in London to put his invention on show before the public. He remarked in a letter to his father that, "You did not expect to have a son turned showman, but I trust I am merely instrumental in promulgating a useful discovery." Similarly, when the Cooke and Wheatstone telegraph had been laid down from Paddington to Slough, it was licensed out to a showman, Thomas Home, who charged the public a shilling a go for the novelty of sending messages of all kinds down the line.

New inventions were prized according to the ways in which they could be exploited to produce a striking exhibition. In 1849, for example, Edward Staite, anxious to display the virtues of his newly-invented electric arc-light, put on a spectacular show in Trafalgar Square:

The apparatus was so placed…as to illuminate the whole of Trafalgar-square, the rays reaching as far as Northumberland-house…The rays were continually moved, and as they swept through the foggy atmosphere, they produced the same sort of illumination as the sunlight through atoms of dust. The objects upon which they fell were most brilliantly lighted. The Nelson column, which was selected as the principal point, being frequently as conspicuous as noonday. If the illumination can be sustained, there is no other means of lighting the streets that can at all be compared with this electric light. ("Electric Light," Patent Journal and Inventor's Magazine, 1849, 6: 80)
Providing a virtuoso performance like this was integral to the electrical inventor's success, not only in attracting investors who might financially support his invention, but in providing himself and his product with a public image.

Exhibition provided a means of individualizing the inventor in an age where for the first time the process of production was increasingly estranged from the human labour that underlay it. The same thing went for electrical invention as well. Exhibition provided a way of retaining the link between product and individual maker. This was not an uncontroversial process. Some commentators objected strongly to the trend towards treating commodities as a form of art with a unique, individual author.

Is the manufacturer so degraded as to require to be raised in his own estimation by seeing crowds of curious idlers, or fashionable loungers, assembled to admire his productions? Does he need the criticism of the public, who must be less skilful than himself, to improve those arts on which his existence, reputation, and fortune depend? Is his competition with his rivals in trade not sufficiently stimulated by desertion, or the increase of his customers, unless he likewise sends samples of his craft to stand a comparison with theirs in the same gallery? …In seeing a manufactured article…to appreciate its excellence the taste of the purchaser or consumer does not require to be cultivated or purified, as in the case of the fine arts, by the repeated exhibition of masterpieces. ("National Repository," Mechanic's Magazine, 1829, 11: 58-60)

The message of the growing culture of exhibition however seemed to be that in an age of mass-production such displays were indeed essential. The success of the proliferating international exhibitions that followed the Great Exhibition of 1851 made it clear that the public did indeed want its tastes cultivated and purified. Electrical inventors during the second half of the century were just as anxious to exploit Exhibitionism to cultivate their own public images and personae.



Session 3
Session 2Session 4