I continue guest-blogging for Joanne Jacobs, with one more post to come.
One thing I appreciate about the Internet is the availability of books online. Recently I have been reading John Tallis’s two-volume History and Description of the Crystal Palace (1852), illustrated with steel engravings. Tallis comments on the Crystal Palace’s origins, preparation, and construction; the nations that took part in the 1851 Exhibition; the excitement, the press, the opening ceremonies, the visitors, and of course the exhibits: sculptures, model ships, bridges, locomotives, cloths, gemstones, papier-mâché, glassworks, machines, electric telegraph, and more. He vividly describes the history, significance, cultural particularities, and workings of item after item. It is exciting to read. While some of the exhibition was probably a bit gaudy (he hinted as much himself), one can understand why visitors were awed by it. Charlotte Brontë wrote, “It is a wonderful place—vast, strange, new and impossible to describe. Its grandeur does not consist in one thing, but in the unique assemblage of all things.”**
But there is a curious digression in Tallis’s book. At one point he imagines Voltaire coming back from the dead to visit the exhibition. Actually, Tallis admits that he has extracted this account from columns of “Christopher North” (pseudonym of John Wilson, apparently), but Tallis clearly enjoys the story enough to retell it. North’s fictional Voltaire scoffs at progress from the start:
What a din this age makes about its progress! it travels fast enough, if that were all. Rapid progress of that kind. For the rest let us see whether the world is revolving in any other than its old accustomed circle.
Voltaire inspects a locomotive, which a professor of mechanics proudly introduces as an “iron slave.” Voltaire points out that this locomotive will require much tedious human labor:
Putting my head out of the window of my railroad carriage, whilst we were yet at the station, I saw an industrious mortal going from wheel to wheel with a huge grease-pot, greasing the wheels. He greases wheels from morning to night; eternally he greases.
Voltaire criticizes not only the false progress but the “ornamental nonsense”: [Read more…]