(Many thanks to John Gardner (Anglia Ruskin University) for providing a summary of the fascinating talk on the emergence of mechanics’ institutes that he gave at the ‘Institutions as Networks’ workshop, along with a copy of his PowerPoint.)

The talk focussed on how innovation and demands for education came from those literally at the cutting edge of society; the turners, millers, fitters and millwrights who created and drove scientific and educational progress through practice, improvement and invention.  As L. J. Henderson famously said, workers, and not theoreticians, were the agents behind Britain’s industrial progress: ‘until 1850 the steam-engine did more for science than science did for the steam-engine’.[1]  I argued that there were three main drivers behind the rise of Mechanics’ Institutes and the beginnings of a democratization of education: free lectures being given to workers by the likes of John Anderson, George Birkbeck and Andrew Ure; agitation by workers to set up their own institutes rather than solely relying on benevolent enlightened individuals giving what they could; and finally the ‘tax on knowledge’ that came in with the Six Acts, after Peterloo, at the end of 1819.  Each of these drivers created demand for a more theoretical and lucid education than workers could get in apprenticeships where they could create the machinery, but would often not know what it was for or how it would be used.  Their work, highly skilled though it was, often lacked meaning beyond its creations.  The new institutes also meant that these workers could now gain access to print culture and perhaps even recognition for the innovations they had created in the workshops.

Utilising new archival research on the Minute Books for both the Andersonian and the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institutes, I argued that the setting up of one institution, the Andersonian, allowed another to emerge within it—the Glasgow Mechanics’ Class.  That class split and became a separate body run by the mechanics themselves in 1823, the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute—which then inspired the new London Mechanics’ Institute and became a model throughout the world.  I then argued that the established Church, an institution that had nominally been responsible for education, opposed the institutes, believing that they were schools for radicals.  To some extent, the political content of new engineering magazines that were exempt from the post-Peterloo ‘tax on knowledge’ bears this out as they could provide gateways to violent radical publications like Francis Macerone’s Defensive Instructions for the People (1831).

PowerPoint: John Gardner – ‘The Andersonian University, George Birkbeck and the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute’


[1] L. J. Henderson, in Singer, Holmyard, Hall and Williams, A History of Technology, Vol IV, (Oxford: OUP, 1958), p. 165.