Aug
08
2010

What was the Gallery of Practical Science, or Adelaide Gallery, in London?

adelaide gallery of practical science

Gallery of Practical Science vestibule on the medal of its founding society. “Genii of Chemistry, Pneumatics, and Mechanics” make limelight on reverse. (PD-EXP)

The Gallery of Practical Science opened in 1832 in London. Its aim was to inspire an enthusiasm for science, with plenty of working models of science and technology in action. Inventor Jacob Perkins was the driving force in forming a “Society for the Illustration and Encouragement of Practical Science” which ran the National Gallery of Practical Science, widely known as the Adelaide Gallery after its address in Adelaide Street.

It was a “Gallery for the Exhibition of objects blending instruction with amusement”. Electric eels helped illustrate the mysteries of electricity, while models and demos explained cutting edge inventions like hot air balloons and screw propellers. One room held a 60,000 gallon reservoir for canal and steamboat experiments. Perkins’ steam gun was a popular exhibit, fired several times daily, with claims of mowing down a regiment in 10 minutes.

In the 1830s the Gallery had scientific credibility. Big names were interested in it, and the Duke of Sussex sponsored a weekly “conversazione” there to bring together “those who have cultivated abstract science” and those “successful in its practical application”. After a couple of years it was granted permission to call itself “Royal Gallery of Practical Science”. In 1835 it had more than 80,000 visitors paying a shilling, plus subscribers to its soirées and lectures, and “men of science” who got in free.

The proprietors venture to state, that the apparatus relating to electro-magnetism, and the new branch of science termed magneto-electricity, will be found superior to any, either in this country or on the continent. (London Medical Journal, 1834)

After only a few years, the Gallery had competition from a “popular science” rival: the new, well-funded Polytechnic Institution, opened in 1838. The Adelaide Gallery started to rely on entertainment (“rope-dancer…with its fairy-like music and elegant movements…ingenious and elaborate mechanism”) over education. There had always been concerts, but an over-emphasis on musical evenings was part of a decline in the 1840s.

We fear that it has already seen its best days; it no longer monopolizes the name of the Gallery of “Practical Science”; it has sadly fallen from its first estate. The light of science has not, indeed, quite expired within its walls; but it has long burned very dimly, if it is not assuredly placed quite in the back ground. Let any stranger read a handbill or an advertisement of the present day, and he will not fail to conceive it to be a mere concert room.  (Polytechnic Review, 1844)

By the 1860s,  both London’s early “practical science” museums were finished. While the Polytechnic limped on for a few more years, the Adelaide premises were used for dances, concerts, and shows.

It is a difficult thing to decide how far the benefits of instruction can or should be combined with the pleasures of sight-seeing. The Adelaide Gallery and the first Polytechnic were experiments in this direction; both, I suppose, may be said to have failed. (Chambers’ Journal, 1862)

See also: The Shows of London by Richard D. Altick, Harvard University Press, 1978

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