Diffusing Knowledge to Workers: The Heroic Mechanics’ Institute Movement

Joseph Priestley Society
Thursday, January 10, 2019
11:30 a.m.–2:00 p.m.
Science History Institute
315 Chestnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
United States

The Joseph Priestley Society welcomes the new year with a luncheon 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.

Event Schedule

  • 11:30 a.m.
    Networking Reception

  • 12:15 p.m.

  • 1:00 p.m.

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.

About the Series

The Joseph Priestley Society (JPS) promotes a deeper understanding of science, technology, and industry, with an emphasis on innovation and entrepreneurship. Speakers are leaders from a wide variety of large and small chemical companies and the financial, consulting, and academic communities.

For more information about this event, please contact Sarah Reisert at 215.873.8263 or sreisert@sciencehistory.org.