Bill Bryson has one of the liveliest, most inquisitive minds on the planet, and he is a master at turning the seemingly isolated or mundane fact into the occasion for the most diverting exposition imaginable. His wit and sheer prose fluency make At Home one of the most entertaining books about private life ever written.
In the autumn of 1850, in Hyde Park in London, there arose a most extraordinary structure: a giant iron-and-glass greenhouse covering nineteen acres of ground and containing within its airy vastness enough room for four St. Paul’s Cathedrals. For the short time of its existence, it was the biggest building on Earth. Known formally as the Palace of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, it was uncontestably magnificent, but all the more so being so sudden, so startlingly glassy, so gloriously and unexpectedly there. Douglas Jerrold, a columnist for the weekly magazine Punch, dubbed it the Crystal Palace, and the name stuck.
It had taken just five months to build. It was a miracle that it was built at all. Less than a year earlier it had not even existed as an idea.
. . . Into this unfolding crisis stepped the calm figure of Joseph Paxton, head gardener of Chatsworth House, principal seat of the Duke of Devenshire (but located in that peculiar English way in Derbyshire). Paxton was a wonder. Born into a poor farming family in Bedfordshire in 1803, he was sent out to work as an apprentice gardener at the age of fourteen; he so distinguished himself that within six years he was running an experimental arboretum at the new and prestigious Horticultural Society (soon to become the royal Horticultural Society) in West London — a startlingly responsible job for someone who was really still just a boy. There one day he fell into conversation with the Duke of Devonshire, who owned neighboring Chiswick House and rather a lot of the rest of the British Isles — some two hundred thousand acres of productive countryside spread beneath seven great stately homes. The duke took an instant shine to Paxton, not so much, it appears, because Paxton showed any particular genius as because he spoke in a strong, clear voice. The duke was hard of hearing and appreciated clarity of speech. Impulsively, he invited Paxton to be head gardener at Chatsworth. Paxton accepted. He was twenty-two years old.
. . . The central virtue of Paxton’s airy palace was that it could be pre-fabricated from standard parts. At its heart was a single component–a cast-iron truss three feet wide and twenty-three feet, three inches long–which could be fitted together with matching trusses to make a frame on which to hang the building’s glass–nearly a million square feet of it, or a third of all the glass normally produced in Britain in a year. A special mobile platform was designed that moved along the roof supports, enabling workmen to install eighteen thousand panes of glass a week–a rate of productivity that was, and is, a wonder of efficiency. To deal with the enormous amount of guttering required–some twenty miles in all–Paxton designed a machine, manned by a small team, that could attach two thousand feet of guttering a day–a quantity that would previously have represented a day’s work for three hundred men. In every sense the project was a marvel.
Paxton was very lucky in his timing, for just at the moment of the Great Exhibition glass suddenly became available in a way it never had before. Glass had always been a tricky material. It was not particularly easy to make, and really hard to make well, which is why for so much of its history it was a luxury item. Happily, two recent technological breakthroughs had changed that. First, the French invented plate glass–so called because the molten glass was spread across tables known as plates. This allowed for the first time the creation of really large panes of glass, which made shop windows possible. Plate glass, however, had to be cooled for ten days before being rolled out, which meant that each table was unproductively occupied most of the time, and then each sheet required a lot of grinding and polishing. This naturally made it expensive. In 1838, a cheaper refinement was developed–sheet glass. This had most of the virtues of plate glass, but it cooled faster and needed less polishing, and so could be made much more cheaply. Suddenly glass of a good size could be produced economically in limitless volumes.
. . . The Crystal Palace was at once the world’s largest building and its lightest, most ethereal one. Today we are used to encountering glass in volume, but to someone living in 1851 the idea of strolling through cubic acres of airy light inside a building was dazzling–indeed, giddying. The arriving visitor’s first sight of the Exhibition Hall from afar, glinting and transparent, is really beyond our imagining. It would have seemed as delicate and evanescent, as miraculously improbable, as a soap bubble. To anyone arriving at Hyde Park, the first sight of the Crystal Palace, floating above the trees, sparkling in sunshine, would have been a moment of knee-weakening splendor.