Franklin Institute

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FRANKLIN INSTITUTE, the most prominent of American mechanics institutes, was established in Philadelphia in 1824 primarily through the efforts of Samuel Merrick, who later served as first president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, and William H. Keating, professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylvania. In common with the lyceum movement and with other voluntary associations of the same era, the organization reflected a widespread interest in educational reform as a means of actualizing America's self-image as the chosen heir of classical democracy. It further expressed the Enlightenment conviction (a philosophical eighteenth-century movement that rejected traditional social, religious, and political ideas, and emphasized rationalism) that America's future depended on technology's promise of limitless prosperity and mastery over nature.

The institute began a series of evening lectures in March 1824 on the principles and applications of science and, in the same year, established a school of mechanical and architectural drawing, which was conducted annually until 1923. In later efforts to broaden its educational program, the institute experimented with several different kinds of schools, notably a high school for boys and an industrial design school for women. Although its educational activities carried out its initial aims, the institute was better known for its exhibitions of American industry, its Journal of the Franklin Institute, and its experimental research.

Exhibitions were begun in October 1824 to stimulate interest in industrial development. Continued at varying intervals throughout the century, these industrial fairs were highly popular and widely imitated. At an abstract level, they became a symbol of economic independence from Europe. More immediately, they functioned as a guide to consumers, and some, such as the Electrical Exhibition of 1884, served as the basis for the organization of new technologies. The Journal of the Franklin Institute, most long-lived of America's technical periodicals, began publication in 1826 as the Franklin Journal and American Mechanics' Magazine. It soon became an important medium for the emerging professional interests of American scientists and engineers and a vehicle for transmitting knowledge of significant advances in European technology.

The institute's experimental investigations and dramatic discoveries gave it wide reputation. The first such investigation was a set of experiments in 1830 to determine the most efficient industrial use of water power. In 1831, the institute commenced an even more sophisticated inquiry to discover the causes of steamboat boiler explosions, a problem of national consequence. Other investigations included an inquiry into the causes of the 1844 U.S.S. Princeton disaster, a search for a standard for American screw threads, and an 1877 series of dynamo tests.

The prominence of the institute in the nineteenth century rested mainly on its ability to identify critical problems in emerging technologies. Ironically, research demonstrated that technical advances depended less on evening lectures for working men than on specialized and rigorous engineering training. As universities and trade schools had largely taken over the institute's original function as the disseminator of useful technical knowledge, in 1932 it redirected its educational program by opening a museum of technology. Experimental investigations did not figure prominently again in its efforts until World War II, when defense research led to the establishment of a peacetime industrial research laboratory. In addition to the museum, the institute administers grants to promising researchers and continues to publish scientific papers.


Rorabaugh, W. J. The Craft Apprentice: From Franklin to the Machine Age in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

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

BruceSinclair/a. r.

See alsoEngineering Education ; Mechanics' Institutes ; Princeton, Explosion on the ; Science Education ; Science Museums .

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Franklin Institute