Mechanics' Institutes

views updated Jun 27 2018


MECHANICS' INSTITUTES. Along with lyceums, apprentices' libraries, and other organizations that emphasized self-improvement through education in science, mechanics' institutes grew out of the reform spirit of the early nineteenth century. Many institutes—including the New York Scientific and Mechanic Institution (1822) and others in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati—employed academics in their evening lecture programs. Other societies, the Boston Mechanics' Lyceum in particular, argued for a system in which artisans educated themselves. Still others stressed their libraries. Philadelphia's Franklin Institute carried on all these activities as well as major programs in technical research and publication.

By midcentury, mechanics' institutes had lost much of their original mission—to provide low-cost technical education to the poor. Colleges took over the function of technical instruction, while evening lectures tended increasingly to be patronized by the middle classes, who wanted general talks on a miscellany of topics. In time, some institutes were absorbed into temperance societies, lyceums, museums, town libraries, new agencies for vocational training, or simply disappeared.


Bode, Carl. The American Lyceum: Town Meeting of the Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956; Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968.

Royle, Edward. "Mechanics' Institutes and the Working Class, 1840–1860." The Historical Journal, 14 (June 1971): 305– 321.

Sinclair, Bruce. Philadelphia's Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute, 1824–1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

BruceSinclair/a. g.

See alsoLyceum Movement .

mechanics' institutes

views updated May 23 2018

mechanics' institutes. Following the foundation of the London Mechanics' Institute (later Birkbeck College) in 1823, these adult education institutions spread rapidly, especially in the industrial areas of the north and midlands. Their original aim of providing science for artisans, however, proved impracticable and by 1840 they had become centres for ‘rational recreation’ and the ‘diffusion of useful knowledge’, frequented by lower middle-class clerks and tradesmen and a few better-off artisans. The membership nationally rose from 7,000 in 1831 to 200,000 in 1860. Mechanics' institutes were favoured by middle-class liberals as promoting self-help, respectability, and ‘intellectual and moral improvement’. From the 1860s mechanics' institutes acquired a new role as night schools and examination centres for the Society of Arts and the Science and Art Department, thus becoming forerunners of technical colleges.

John F. C. Harrison