Perspectives on Progress: A History
The main attraction of the first World Exhibition, held in London in 1851, was the Crystal Palace. Through the glass walls of this renowned building, which could easily have housed seven football fields, light shone down on a vast array of achievements and inventions from the Western world. There, one could gaze in awe at the recently invented typewriter, Nasmyth's steam hammer, a sewing machine, and a solid ingot of quality steel weighing some 2,000 kilograms manufactured by the German Krupp concern. Confident, and filled with admiration, one contemporary wrote:
[...] the House of Glass will continue in the annals of history, long after the vaunted pyramids of Egypt [...] shall have crumbled into dust.1
The primary purpose of displaying these products in the gigantic hall of the Great Exhibition was to entice the public to perceive them as future commodities. But they were being flaunted for more than commercial purposes. They were also an expression of national pride, demonstrating each country's advantage over the rest of the world. Moreover, in a broader sense, the exhibition was intended to serve as a historic milestone, an instrument for gauging the development of human society. To cite The Economist of 4 January 1851:
Of that wonderful half century the Great Exhibition is both a fitting close and a fitting commencement of the new half century, which will, no doubt, surpass its predecessor as much as that surpassed all that went before it [...] All who have read, and can think, must now have full confidence that the `endless progression' ever increasing in rapidity [...] is the destined lot of the human race.2
It was an idea on display at the Crystal Palace: the idea of progress. The industrial revolution of the previous century had radically changed society, and although cultural critics and writers like Dickens and Dostoevsky portrayed the less glorious sides of these changes, an almost indomitable belief in progress pervaded all layers of society. Things were going well with mankind, and they could only get better.
Ideas of progress are usually associated with this unbridled nineteenth