Mechanics Institutes

Leeds Mechanics Institute

Already during the 18th Century Enlightenment, the idea had been flouted to connect industry with science.  Although trade manuals had existed since the very earliest days of publishing, they tended to make little use of scientific theory.   Although many scientific developments emerged as a result of tinkering, communication was limited.  Craftsmen learned their skills directly via apprenticeships with a master, and usually simply replicated that, largely ignorant of developments elsewhere.  Any innovations they came up with were often treated as trade secrets, rarely published, and passed only in person within a tight guild network.  Pure scientists, whether amateur or academic, did publish their theories and findings.  But in an era without public education system,  craftsmen did not usually have sufficient basic background to appreciate them.  As a result, industry and science had tended to proceed on separate grooves. 

Ephraim Chambers' Cyclopaedia or an Universal Dictionary of arts and sciences of 1728 and more famously the Encyclopédie of Diderot and d'Alembert, launched in 1754, had, at least in principle, the goal of bringing the theoretical advances of the scientific revolution to the attention of artisans and manufacturers.  However, these Enlightenment dictionaries, as well as other similar publishing efforts, turned out to be largely unaffordable to the classes they were trying to reach.  The natural next effort in opening up communication came in the form of libraries, whether funded by worker cooperatives or by benevolent well-wishers, to make these volumes accessible. Industrial museums, notably the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (CNAM), founded in 1794, holding specimens of new machinery, served a similar purpose.  Some of these libraries had the wherewithal to organize occasional public lectures, but they were not sustained, nor were the usually focused on teaching basics or useful skills.  They often consisted of just some lecturer theatrically flogging his latest idea, as a means of self-promotion, and mostly attended by curious middle class audiences, much of it women of leisure. There was little prospect of translating it to any manufacturing process.

The advent of the industrial revolution made the matter more urgent.  Machinery spread and grew more complicated just as the labor which used it grew more unskilled.  In between emerged a new class of "mechanics", or "machinists", skilled working class craftsmen who could understand and repair the machinery.  But improving complex machinery was often beyond them.  In order to tinker successfully, the tinkerer now required some knowledge of the scientific principles behind the machines. 

The advent of the "mechanics institute" movement of the 1820s Britain was precisely to provide a modern technical education for adult workers. Its primary purpose was to bring machinists, artisans and engineers of the burgeoning industrial revolution in contact with the basic principles and latest research in modern science, principally physics and chemistry, with a view to their practical application to solving problems and improving industrial machinery.

The origins of the movement trace back to 1796 when University of Glasgow professor John Anderson, who had routinely conducted public lectures on the practical applications of science, endowed an institution (initially, just a single professor) to continue the effort.    In 1799, Dr. George Birkbeck, a Yorkshire physician trained in the Scottish academies, was appointed the professor at the Andersonian Institute.  The Andersonian lectures were still in the form and reach of previous lecture efforts - that is, for the curious middle classes.  But Birkbeck launched a new direction.  As a physician, Birkbeck frequently worked with craftsmen to make medical instruments. According to legend, some craftsmen having built a centrifugal pump at Birkbeck's directions, asked about how it worked.  Birkbeck gave an impromptu lecture on scientific principles on the spot, and found his audience not only receptive, but captivated.  Energized by the experience, in 1800, Birkbeck persuaded the Andersonian insitute to allow him to launch a special course of lectures dedicated specifically for mechanics.  They were a success, and heavily attended by working class men of Glasgow.

Birkbeck left Glasgow in 1804, to set up a medical practice in London. He became involved in the London Institution (f.1805 by Sir Francis Baring), a library of scientific works, which also conducted public lectures, albeit in a general direction.   Back in Glasgow, Birkbeck's dedicated mechanics course at the Andersonian was continued for a while by Andrew Yure, and working class men themselves helped fund the establishment of an associated library.  But the directors of the Andersonian institute preferred to focus on topics of intellectual interest to the middle classes, and gave little or no support to the efforts of the working class mechanics.

The first dedicated mechanics institute was launched as the School of Arts in Edinburgh in April 1821 by Leonard Horner  (brother of Frances Horner). Horner claimed to have been inspired by stories from Birkbeck in Glasgow, and his participation in the Edinburgh effort gave it national publicity. In turn, inspired by Horner, the Glasgow mechanics defected from the Andersonian institute and established their own Glasgow Mechanics Institute in July 1823. That same month, a similar "Mechanics and Apprentices Library" (later Institute) was launched in Liverpool.  Still within the year, down in London, George Birkbeck had thrown his support behind a new popular science publication, the Mechanics' Magazine, published by J.C. Robertson.  In one of its early issues (Oct 11), Robertson gave notice of the recent institutes in the north and proposed the foundation of a similar institute in London. Birkbeck wrote an immediate reply (Oct 18), recalling his own past experience in the mechanics course at the Andersonian, and backed the London scheme. A public meeting was held in November and the London Mechanics Institute was founded in December 1823.  It was supported by a panoply of London luminaries, such as Whig politician Henry Brougham, Radical activist Francis Place, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, classical economist Robert Torrens, Ricardian socialist Thomas Hodgskin, journalist William Cobbett and publisher T.C. Hansard.  In 1824, more mechanics' institutes and libraries were established in Ipswich, Manchester, Newcastle, Leeds, Lancaster, Aberdeen, etc. The fever took hold, and mechanics institutes would multiply and spread to other industrial British towns in the subsequent decade.

Although the London Mechanics Institute contained an overrepresentation of Whigs and especially Radicals.  Created around the same time as the repeal of the Combination Acts, and involving the same activists, there was a fusion of outlooks on workers' education and trade unions.  Indeed, under Hodgskin's influence, the LMI would acquire something of a socialistic streak.  It was not wholly unwelcome by Conservatives - Tory politicians like William Huskisson, Frederick J. Robinson and Robert Peel supported the Liverpool and Edinburgh Institutes. But other Tories were more suspicious.  Henry Brougham's 1825 Practical Observations on the Education of the People gave the mechanics institute movement its intellectual defense.




Resources on Mechanics' Institutes

  • "Proposals for a London Mechanics' Institution", 1823, Mechanics' Magazine, (Oct 11), p.99; reply by Birkbeck and others (Oct 18, p.114), further repliesand interest (Oct 25, p.130), (Nov 1, p.146), (Nov 8, p.164), public meeting (Nov 15, p.177), (Nov 22, p.195), (Nov 29, p.210), foundation (Dec 6, p.227), (Dec.14, p.243), officers (Dec 20, p.264), (Dec 27, p.276), first course plan (Jan 24, 1824, p.328), (Jan 31, p.363), inaugural (Feb 28, 1824, p.418), first lecture (Mar 6, p.434), more lectures, Burdett's donation (May 1, p.125), meeting (June 12, p.218), trouble begins (July 24, p.306), (July 31, p.322)  (Aug 21, p.378), (Sep 4, p.409), (Sep 11, p.428), new committee (Sep 18, p.436) etc. (troubles, Nov 24, v.2)
  • Mechanics' Magazine v.3 (Sep 25-) anniversary (Dec 11, p.187)
  • Practical Observations on the Education of the People, addressed to the working classes and their employers, by Henry Brougham,1825 [bk] [1838 v.2, p.130]
  • "George Birkbeck", in Penny Cyclopedia
  • "Mechanics Institutions and Libraries", by Charles Baker, 1837, Essays on Education, p.214
  • List of Mechanicst Institutes in Second Report of the Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1851, vol. 2, App. D
  • George Birkbeck, the Pioneer of Popular Education: A Memoir and a Review by John George Godard, 1884 [bk]
  • "Combination Laws", 1824, Mechanics' Magazine - Art. 1 (Jan 24, p.341), Art. 2 (Feb 7, p.370), Art. 3.1 (Feb 14, p.386), Art 3.2 (Feb 21, p.402), Art 4. (Feb 27, p.428), Art. 5 (Mar 6, p.435); extracts from testimony on combination laws, exportation of machinery and emigration of artisans (Mar 13, p.10), (Mar 20, p.24), (Mar 27, p.41), (Apr 10, p.76), (Apr 17, p.85), (May 8, p.130), (May 15, p.147, letter p.154), petition of smiths (May 24, p.168), committee recommendations (June 5, p.199), repeal (July 17, p.290)


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