Diffusing Knowledge to Workers: The Heroic Mechanics’ Institute Movement

Joseph Priestley Society presentation

Thursday, January 10, 2019

11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.

A luncheon and program featuring Robert G. W. Anderson, president and CEO, Science History Institute.

Mechanics’ institutes were independent bodies established by workingmen, often with the support of philanthropists, beginning in the 1820s. They flourished in the British Isles, North America, and Australia, and provided evening classes to teach mathematics, mechanics, and chemistry. Usually the buildings included libraries and often museums. It was not until public education became freely available that the institutes declined.

The movement was a heroic effort in self-education. Typically, workers returned home from work at 7:00 p.m., when they changed into their best clothing and began two hours of study; they would have to be at work again at 6:00 a.m. the next day. In the heyday of these institutes thousands of them existed, broadening the horizons of many hundreds of thousands of workers in the sciences and engineering. Today they are all but forgotten, but when studied, they provide us with an inspiring understanding of our Victorian forebears.

About the Speaker

Robert Anderson is the current president and CEO of the Science History Institute. He studied chemistry at Oxford University, receiving a doctorate in inelastic neutron scattering. Later, he took an Oxford diploma in British archaeology.

Deciding to pursue a museum career, he became a curator in the history of science at the Royal Scottish Museum and then moved on to the Science Museum in London, where he became keeper (or head) of the chemistry department. Before long he was recalled to Scotland as director of the National Museums, merging the Museum of Antiquities and the Royal Scottish Museum to form a single entity. Then in 1992 he was appointed director of the British Museum, where he oversaw the building of the Great Court. After a decade there, Anderson stepped down as director to concentrate on research, first at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University and later at Cambridge University.

Event Schedule

  • 11:30 a.m.
  • Networking Reception
  • 12:15 p.m.
  • Luncheon
  • 1:00 p.m.
  • Program

Tickets for the event are $25

Science History Institute

315 Chestnut Street

Philadelphia, PA 19106

United States

Link for further information and tickets: