John Gardner on the Emergence of Mechanics’ Institutes

By msangster

(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 …read more