The Industrial Revolution got its start in England in the latter part of the eighteenth century. It was in a unique position, because although coal had been used as a fuel previously, it wasn’t until the steam engine was improved upon by Scottish born James Watt that its demand exploded. This innovation coupled with the abundance of coal in the British Isles helped Great Britain to lead the world in technological innovation and manufacturing.
Our new exhibit takes a deep dive into Sutro Library’s extensive collection of books and artifacts from, and relating to, the Industrial Revolution. Sutro Library is rich in materials from the nineteenth century on scientific works, illustrated newspapers and magazines, engineering manuals, and ephemera. The images speak to not only the industry and creativity occurring, but also reflect the underlying turmoil being wrought throughout every corner of society. The nineteenth century was a time of change in every facet of life: culture, politics, and technology, and this exhibit explores both the micro and macro level in which the Victorians experienced it.
One facet that becomes evident from the materials on display is that this period provided men and women in Britain access to a “dizzying range of material things.” This was as a direct result of the improvements in transportation and manufacturing technology. Furthermore, it was a heady time, and a feeling that humanity could solve any problem or ailment through the application of science and technology, filled the air.
With the intent on demonstrating England’s status as the world leader in technology, the decision was made to hold what was officially called The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations. The event was planned by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. It showcased products from Canada, America, France, Russia, and many other countries. On display were marvels of engineering such as steam engines, printing presses, and locomotives along with exotic goods and raw materials from across the British colonies, next to moving machinery and musical instruments.
The ‘Great Exhibition’ was held in a massive glass and steel greenhouse, of which pictures of the construction are on display in the current exhibit. The building itself was meant to illustrate Britain’s dominance in engineering. It also shed light on Britain’s success in arts, science and inventions, and included pottery, porcelain, ironwork, furniture, perfumes, pianos, firearms, fabrics, steam hammers, hydraulic presses and even several houses.
Apart from images from the world fairs of the time, the exhibit includes cultural images, architectural drawings, illustrations, and photographs. It runs through the end of July 2019 and is located on the 5th floor of the Sutro Library – J. Paul Leonard Library on the campus of San Francisco State University.
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