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The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for Grand International Exhibition of 1851

The eccentric engineer: taking inspiration from nature for the Crystal Palace

Image credit: Wikipedia Creative Commons

How a gardener, a small girl and a giant-leafed Amazon lily built a crystal palace fit for English aristocrats.

As any good engineer can tell you, art often imitates nature – it is always a good first place to look when on the hunt for new engineering ideas. Never was this truer than in the case of a gardener, a small girl and a giant leaf.

Victoria Amazonica is not the name of an exotic engineer, but of a plant. Native to the shallow, humid reaches of the Amazon basin, it is a species of water lily. It was first brought to the West by Robert Schomburgk and named by English botanist John Lindley after the newly crowned Queen Victoria. Most importantly, unlike the Queen, it is very big – the largest of all the water lilies, with leaves up to three metres across.

At first sight, this might not seem to have much to do with engineering, especially to Joseph Paxton, head gardener of the Duke of Devonshire’s Chatsworth estate, when he was sent a seedling of the monster in 1849. His boss and greatest supporter, William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, had every faith in his man being able to cultivate this exotic treasure, ideally before his great rival the Duke of Northumberland did.

Aristocrats’ love of exotics like bananas and pineapples required their gardeners to create tropical havens on chilly English estates. Paxton had considerable success with this, creating cold frames in which he grew the famous Cavendish bananas, which he named after his benefactor. The arrival of Victoria Amazonica provided a new challenge. Despite having been grown at Kew since 1836, the lily had never been persuaded to flower. If Paxton could achieve that, his fame would be secure. Within two months his plant had leaves 1.4 metres across. Then it promptly flowered.

The Duke was delighted, the Queen was notified by telegram and everyone thought Paxton a genius. Yet Paxton foresaw a problem. The lily was still growing and soon it would need a much larger pond. To grow Victoria Amazonica to full size, Paxton would have to recreate the environment of the Amazon – hot and humid with slow-flowing, nutrient-rich waters. These were not the prevalent conditions in Derbyshire at the time, so Paxton decided to design his own heated greenhouse.

Albeit they were a relatively new innovation in England, the Duke’s greenhouses were already out of date and dilapidated. The problem was creating buildings with enough glass to let the heat and light in, which were strong enough to support that weight of glass. Fortunately, inspiration was at hand.

One of Paxton’s ‘party pieces’ was to install his daughter Annie on one of the leaves of Victoria Amazonica. Guests would wonder how it supported the weight. The answer lay on the underside of the leaves, which were divided into open air-filled cells between strong radiating ribs that emerged from the stem, crossed by flexible cross-ribs. This gave Paxton the idea for a whole new type of greenhouse.

Despite having no formal training as an architect or engineer, Paxton set to work designing a new lily house for Chatsworth. His building would have a ridge-and-furrow roof to let light in. Walls were made of the newly available sheet glass, held in place by wooden edgings on a prefabricated and cast-iron frame. Every part was to be made off-site and the modular design was intended for quick assembly in any one of several configurations.

The story of a rich man’s fancy greenhouse might have ended were it not for Paxton being a board member of the Midlands railway. While he was in London for a board meeting in 1850, he heard about problems the Commission for Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition was having. With the exhibition due to open on 1 May 1851, they still didn’t have an agreed design for the building. Paxton suggested to an MP friend that he could design something, and he was encouraged to enter the competition. During his Board meeting Paxton sketched his first design on blotting paper, based on the lily house at Chatsworth. When the committee looked doubtful, he published the plans in the Illustrated London News and the public went wild about what had previously been a heavily criticised venture. When his contractor estimates came in far below all the other entries, however, even the committee had to agree his plan was best.

With its revolutionary pre-fabricated, modular design, the 563m-long glass exhibition hall was constructed in just eight months and the ‘Crystal Palace’ would stand for the next 85 years as a testament to one gardener, and one very big leaf.

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