Mechanics' Institutes
Historically, Mechanics' Institutes were educational establishments formed to provide adult education
Adult education
Adult education is the practice of teaching and educating adults. Adult education takes place in the workplace, through 'extension' school or 'school of continuing education' . Other learning places include folk high schools, community colleges, and lifelong learning centers...

, particularly in technical subjects, to working men. As such, they were often funded by local industrialists on the grounds that they would ultimately benefit from having more knowledgeable and skilled employees (such philanthropy
Philanthropy etymologically means "the love of humanity"—love in the sense of caring for, nourishing, developing, or enhancing; humanity in the sense of "what it is to be human," or "human potential." In modern practical terms, it is "private initiatives for public good, focusing on quality of...

 was shown by, among others, Robert Stephenson
Robert Stephenson
Robert Stephenson FRS was an English civil engineer. He was the only son of George Stephenson, the famed locomotive builder and railway engineer; many of the achievements popularly credited to his father were actually the joint efforts of father and son.-Early life :He was born on the 16th of...

, James Nasmyth
James Nasmyth
James Hall Nasmyth was a Scottish engineer and inventor famous for his development of the steam hammer. He was the co-founder of Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company manufacturers of machine tools...

, John Davis Barnett
John Davis Barnett
John Davis Barnett was an early Canadian curator-librarian. Barnett collectedthe materials to create one of the significant early personal Ontario libraries and was a vocal...

 and Joseph Whitworth
Joseph Whitworth
Sir Joseph Whitworth, 1st Baronet was an English engineer, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist. In 1841, he devised the British Standard Whitworth system, which created an accepted standard for screw threads...

). The Mechanics' Institutes were used as 'libraries' for the adult working class, and provided them with an alternative pastime to gambling and drinking in pubs.


The world's first institute was established in Edinburgh
Edinburgh is the capital city of Scotland, the second largest city in Scotland, and the eighth most populous in the United Kingdom. The City of Edinburgh Council governs one of Scotland's 32 local government council areas. The council area includes urban Edinburgh and a rural area...

 in October 1821 as the School of Arts of Edinburgh (later Heriot-Watt University
Heriot-Watt University
Heriot-Watt University is a university based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The name commemorates George Heriot, the 16th century financier to King James, and James Watt, the great 18th century inventor and engineer....

), with the provision of technical education for working people and professionals. Its purpose was to "address societal needs by incorporating fundamental scientific thinking and research into engineering solutions". The school revolutionised access to education in science and technology for ordinary people.

The second institute was incorporated in Glasgow
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and third most populous in the United Kingdom. The city is situated on the River Clyde in the country's west central lowlands...

 in November 1823, built on the foundations of a group started at the turn of the previous century by George Birkbeck
George Birkbeck
George Birkbeck was a British doctor, academic, philanthropist, pioneer in adult education and founder of Birkbeck College.-Biography:...

. Under the auspices of the Andersonian University (est. 1796), Birkbeck had first instituted free lectures on arts, science and technical subjects in 1800. This Mechanics' Class continued to meet after he moved to London in 1804, and in 1823 they decided to formalize their organisation by incorporating themselves as the Mechanics' Institute.

The London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 Mechanics' Institute (later Birkbeck College
Birkbeck, University of London
Birkbeck, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is...

) followed in December 1823, and the Mechanics' Institutes in Ipswich
Ipswich is a large town and a non-metropolitan district. It is the county town of Suffolk, England. Ipswich is located on the estuary of the River Orwell...

 and Manchester
Manchester is a city and metropolitan borough in Greater Manchester, England. According to the Office for National Statistics, the 2010 mid-year population estimate for Manchester was 498,800. Manchester lies within one of the UK's largest metropolitan areas, the metropolitan county of Greater...

 (later to become UMIST
The University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology was a university based in the centre of the city of Manchester in England. It specialised in technical and scientific subjects and was a major centre for research...

) in 1824. By the mid-19th century, there were over 700 institutes in towns and cities across the UK and overseas, some of which became the early roots of other colleges and universities. See for example the University of Gloucestershire
University of Gloucestershire
The University of Gloucestershire is a university primarily based in Gloucestershire, England, spread over four campuses, three in Cheltenham and one in Gloucester...

 which has the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute (1834) and Gloucester Mechanics' Institute (1840) within its history timeline. It was as a result of delivering a lecture series at the Cheltenham Mechanics' Institute that the famous radical George Holyoake
George Holyoake
George Jacob Holyoake , English secularist and co-operator, was born in Birmingham, England. He coined the term "secularism" in 1851 and the term "jingoism" in 1878.-Owenism:...

 was arrested and then convicted on a charge of blasphemy.

In Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

, for example, the first Mechanics' Institute appeared in Hobart
Hobart is the state capital and most populous city of the Australian island state of Tasmania. Founded in 1804 as a penal colony,Hobart is Australia's second oldest capital city after Sydney. In 2009, the city had a greater area population of approximately 212,019. A resident of Hobart is known as...

 in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1833, Newcastle
Newcastle, New South Wales
The Newcastle metropolitan area is the second most populated area in the Australian state of New South Wales and includes most of the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie Local Government Areas...

 School of Arts in 1835, then the Melbourne
Melbourne is the capital and most populous city in the state of Victoria, and the second most populous city in Australia. The Melbourne City Centre is the hub of the greater metropolitan area and the Census statistical division—of which "Melbourne" is the common name. As of June 2009, the greater...

 Mechanics' Institute established in 1839 (renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum
Athenaeum, Melbourne
The Athenaeum or Melbourne Athenaeum is one of the oldest public institutions in Victoria, Australia, founded in 1839. The first President was Captain William Lonsdale, the first Patron was the Superintendent of Port Philip, Charles La Trobe and the first books were donated by Vice-President Henry...

 in 1873). From the 1850s, Mechanics' Institutes quickly spread throughout Victoria
Victoria (Australia)
Victoria is the second most populous state in Australia. Geographically the smallest mainland state, Victoria is bordered by New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania on Boundary Islet to the north, west and south respectively....

 wherever a hall, library or school was needed. Over 1200 Mechanics' Institutes were built in Victoria but just over 500 remain today, and only six still operate their lending library services.

The exponential growth and needs of the Industrial Revolution
Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times...

 created a new class of reader in Britain by the end of the 18th century, ‘mechanics,’ who were civil and mechanical engineers in reality. The Birmingham
Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands of England. It is the most populous British city outside the capital London, with a population of 1,036,900 , and lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, the second most populous urban area in the United Kingdom with a...

 Brotherly Society was founded in 1796 by local mechanics to fill this need, and was the forerunner of mechanics institutes, which grew in England to over seven hundred in number by 1850.

G. Jefferson explains that:
The first phase, the Mechanics Institute movement, grew in an atmosphere of interest by a greater proportion of the population in scientific matters revealed in the public lectures of famous scientists such as Faraday. More precisely, as a consequence of the introduction of machinery a class workmen emerged to build, maintain and repair, the machines on which the blessing of progress depended, at a time when population shifts and the dissolving influences of industrialization in the new urban areas, where these were concentrated, destroyed the inadequate old apprentice system and threw into relief the connection between material advancement and the necessity of education to take part in its advantages.

Small tradesmen and workers could not afford subscription libraries, so for their benefit, benevolent groups and individuals created "mechanics' institutes" that contained inspirational and vocational reading matter, for a small rental fee. Later popular non-fiction and fiction books were added to these collections. The first known library of this type was the Birmingham Artisans' Library, formed in 1823.
Some mechanics' libraries only lasted a decade or two, many eventually became public libraries or were given to local public libraries after the Public Libraries Act 1850
Public Libraries Act 1850
The Public Libraries Act 1850 was an Act of the United Kingdom Parliament which first gave local boroughs the power to establish free public libraries...

 passed. Though use of the mechanics’ library was limited, the majority of the users were favourable towards the idea of free library use and service, and were a ready to read public when the establishment of free libraries occurred.
Beyond a lending library
Lending library
A lending library is a library from which books are lent out. The earliest reference to or use of the term "lending library" yet located in English correspondence dates from ca. 1586; C'Tess Pembroke Ps. CXII. v, "He is .....

, Mechanics institutes, also provided lecture courses, laboratories, and in some cases contained a museum for the member’s entertainment and education. The Glasgow
Glasgow is the largest city in Scotland and third most populous in the United Kingdom. The city is situated on the River Clyde in the country's west central lowlands...

 Institute, founded in 1823, not only had all three, it was also provided free light on two evenings a week from the local Gas Light Company. The London Mechanics' Institute installed gas illumination by 1825, revealing the demand and need for members to use the books, (founded at the same time as Glasgow's).

Existing Mechanics' Institutes

There are thousands of Mechanics' Institutes which are still operating throughout the world, some as libraries, parts of universities or adult education facilities, theatres, cinemas, museums, recreational facilities or community halls.

  • Ballarat Mechanics' Institute, Ballarat
  • Briagolong Mechanics' Institute, Briagolong
  • Footscray Mechanics' Institute Inc. Library
  • Kilmore Mechanics' Institute & Free Library
  • Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria
  • Mechanics' Institute, Sorrento
    Mechanics' Institute, Sorrento
    The Mechanics' Institute, Sorrento is a building classified by the National Trust of Australia and located at 827 Melbourne Road, Sorrento, Victoria, Australia....

  • Prahran Mechanics' Institute
    Prahran Mechanics' Institute
    Prahran Mechanics' Institute is a subscription library situated at 140 High Street, Prahran, Victoria, Australia.Established in 1854 in Chapel Street, Prahran by subscriptions of the local community, it is one of the oldest surviving Mechanics' Institutes in Victoria and one of only six still...

  • Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts

  • Atwater Library of the Mechanics' Institute, Montreal, Quebec

  • Burnley Mechanics
    Burnley Mechanics
    The Burnley Mechanics is a theatre and former Mechanics' Institute in the market town of Burnley, Lancashire, England. It was built 1854–55 and converted to a theatre in 1979. English Heritage has designated the theatre a Grade II* listed building.-History:...

    , Burnley
    Burnley is a market town in the Burnley borough of Lancashire, England, with a population of around 73,500. It lies north of Manchester and east of Preston, at the confluence of the River Calder and River Brun....

    , Lancashire

  • General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York
    General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York
    -Founding History:The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen of the City of New York, was founded on November 17, 1785, by 22 men who gathered in Walter Heyer's public-house on Pine Street in Lower Manhattan. The aims of the General Society were to provide cultural, educational and social...

  • Mechanics' Institute
    San Francisco Mechanics' Institute
    The Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room is a historic membership library, cultural event center, and chess club located in the Financial District of San Francisco, California at 57 Post Street...

    , San Francisco, California
  • Mechanics Hall, Worcester
    Mechanics Hall, Worcester
    Mechanics Hall is a Concert Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was built in 1857 in the Renaissance Revival style and restored in 1977. Built as part of the early nineteenth-century worker's improvement movement, it is now a concert and performing arts venue ranked as one of the top four...


  • Toronto, Canada
  • Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
  • Barrie Mechanics’ Institute
  • Bytown Mechanics' Institute
    Bytown Mechanics' Institute
    The Bytown Mechanics' Institute is an Upper Canada example of knowledge transfer organizations aimed at the grass roots. These institutions were Victorian and moralistic in tone and class oriented in structure which, in part, explains their failure...

  • City of Toronto Mechanics' Institute
  • Elmsley Library Association and Mechanics' Institute
  • Elora Mechanics’ Institute
  • Farmers’ Mechanics’ Institute of Streetsville
  • Guelph Framers' and Mechanics' Institute
  • Halifax Mechanics Institute
  • Hamilton and Gore Mechanics' Institute
  • Kingston Mechanics' Institute
  • London Mechanics’ Institute
  • Mechanics' Institute and Athenaeum of Ottawa
  • Mechanics' Institute, Coldstream
  • Mechanics’ Institute (Orillia)
  • Mechanics’ Institute of Goderich
  • Mechanics’ Institute of Point Edward
  • Montreal Mechanics Institute
  • Napanee Mechanics’ Institute
  • Newmarcket Farmers' Mechanics' Institute
  • Owen Sound Mechanics Institute
  • Peterboro Mechanics' Institute
  • Quebec Mechanics' Institute
  • St. Catherine Mechanics' Institute Library
  • St. John Mechanics' Institute
  • Woodstock Mechanics’ Institute
  • Grand Trunk Railway Mechanics’ Institute
  • Midland Railroad Mechanics’ Institute

United Kingdom

  • School of Arts of Edinburgh, renamed to Heriot-Watt University
    Heriot-Watt University
    Heriot-Watt University is a university based in Edinburgh, Scotland. The name commemorates George Heriot, the 16th century financier to King James, and James Watt, the great 18th century inventor and engineer....

     in 1966
  • Swindon
    Swindon is a large town within the borough of Swindon and ceremonial county of Wiltshire, in South West England. It is midway between Bristol, west and Reading, east. London is east...

    , UK, Mechanics' Institute - Swindon’s Mechanics’ Institution Trust website
  • Lutterworth, UK
  • Eyam, UK
  • Essex, UK
  • Leeds
    Leeds is a city and metropolitan borough in West Yorkshire, England. In 2001 Leeds' main urban subdivision had a population of 443,247, while the entire city has a population of 798,800 , making it the 30th-most populous city in the European Union.Leeds is the cultural, financial and commercial...

     Mechanics' Institute (West Yorkshire
    West Yorkshire
    West Yorkshire is a metropolitan county within the Yorkshire and the Humber region of England with a population of 2.2 million. West Yorkshire came into existence as a metropolitan county in 1974 after the passage of the Local Government Act 1972....

    ) designed by Cuthbert Brodrick
    Cuthbert Brodrick
    Cuthbert Brodrick FRIBA was a British architect, whose most famous building is Leeds Town Hall.- Early life :...

    , now Leeds City Museum
    Leeds City Museum
    Leeds City Museum, originally established in 1819, re-opened on 13 September 2008 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. It is housed in the former Mechanics' Institute built by Cuthbert Brodrick, in Millennium Square, which has been redeveloped to a design by Austin-Smith:Lord architects and Buro...

  • Birkbeck, University of London
    Birkbeck, University of London
    Birkbeck, University of London is a public research university located in London, United Kingdom and a constituent college of the federal University of London. It offers many Master's and Bachelor's degree programmes that can be studied either part-time or full-time, though nearly all teaching is...

  • Ipswich Institute, Suffolk, UK
  • Otley, Yorkshire, UK

United States of America

  • 1820 New York City establishes the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen. It was renamed became the Mechanics Institute in 1858

  • 1824 The Franklin Institute opens in Philadelphia.

  • 1826 The Maryland Institute opens in Baltimore.

  • 1827 Boston establishes a Mechanics Institute.

  • 1828 Cincinnati The Ohio Mechanics Institute (OMI) is founded on November 20 in order to "facilitate the diffusion of useful knowledge" to "ingenious artisans and mechanics."
  • Richmond, Virginia, USA
  • Rochester, NY, USA renamed to Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)
    Rochester Institute of Technology
    The Rochester Institute of Technology is a private university, located within the town of Henrietta in metropolitan Rochester, New York, United States...

    in 1944

Mechanics' Worldwide Conferences

Two conferences have thus far been held on Mechanics' Institutes.
  • Buildings, Books and Beyond: Mechanics' Worldwide 2004 by the Prahran Mechanics' Institute at Prahran, Victoria, Australia.
  • Self Help: Mechanics' Worldwide 2009 by the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution at Bath, Somerset, England.

The next is to be held in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia in November/December 2012. It is themed 'Buildings, Books and Blackboards: Intersecting Narratives'.
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