Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the minds of its founders, the Franklin Institute was built on noble ambitions,” historian Bruce Sinclair has written.

And born of a young man’s fury, it might be added.

In 1823, twenty-two year old Samuel Vaughan Merrick was denied membership in a Philadelphia mechanics’ asso­ciation. A number of similar organizations had sprung up in the early part of the nine­teenth century with the pur­pose of providing information about new and evolving tech­nologies in manufacturing; they were modeled on counterparts in Europe. Merrick was incensed at being blackballed. Not only was he intelligent and well connected socially – qualities always esteemed by proper Philadel­phians – but he needed the technical knowledge he be­lieved such a group might provide. He especially wanted practical advice because he had been called upon to turn a family-owned fire engine manufacturing company into a success.

Crestfallen but determined, Merrick decided to create a rival organization, one with similar purposes but with a more democratic membership. He enlisted William H. Keating, a respected professor of chemistry and mineralogy at the University of Pennsylva­nia, who had studied abroad. The pair – the mechanic and the professor – made a good team.

Through their efforts, the idea for a new society was presented to a group of promi­nent Philadelphians meeting at the American Philosophical Society, which had been founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin. A resolution was immediately – and enthusias­tically – passed to form this association. Vital to its success was the naming of a powerful committee to carry the plan­ning forward. To ensure good attendance for an organiza­tional meeting to be held at the Philadelphia County Court House, more than a thousand circulars were printed and distributed, newspaper adver­tisements were placed, and visits were made to the city’s business, financial, academic, and professional leaders. The meeting proved to be a rousing triumph! If any doubted the organization’s success, they were encouraged by noted attorney Peter A. Browne, who made an eloquent appeal for their support. Browne’s pre­sentation was followed by the reading of a letter from Nicholas Biddle, president of the United States Bank. “I know of no enterprise,” wrote Biddle, “which promises more general utility than this effort to connect with the theory the exercise of these (mechanical) arts, and to blend science with practical skill.”

On that fateful day – Thursday, February 5, 1824 – the Franklin Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts moved from vision to reality. Neither Merrick nor Keating were named officers; they most likely realized that the mantle of leadership for the new enterprise should be worn by those more experi­enced and better known. Founding members included Thomas Fletcher, silversmith; Matthias W. Baldwin, machin­ist and engraver; David H. Mason, toolmaker; Oren Colton, shuttlemaker; M.R. Wickham, armorer; Samuel R. Wood, tanner; and James J. Rush, steam engine manufac­turer.

Why did these individuals, highly prosperous in their own fields, rally so vigorously to support this fledgling venture? Probably the original mechan­ics’ association, which turned down Merrick’s application, was inconsequential to them. The important reason must have been their collective con­cern about the nation’s lag­gardly pace in the industrial revolution which had been burgeoning throughout Eu­rope since 1750. In the preface to his Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics, the foremost his­tory of the Institute’s early years, Sinclair offered an iron­clad argument.

Of all the institutions estab­lished during the first half of the nineteenth century to advance technology, none was more suc­cessful than the Franklin Insti­tute …. Societies like it, many of them also using Franklin’s name, soon sprang up in other cities. But the Philadelphia organization is especially interesting because it so quickly assumed for itself the mantle of national leadership. It began as a mechanics’ institute in the first bloom of that movement in America, but unlike institutes in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, the Franklin Institute was distin­guished by a varied and active program of teaching, research and publication.

It’s impossible to gauge just how much the Franklin Insti­tute, since its creation, has contributed to the country’s scientific, technological, and educational development, but its legacies are many, varied, and great. Experiments con­ducted under its auspices practically eliminated steam­boat and railroad engine boiler explosions. Through its urg­ing, the U. S. Patent Office opened its files to the public. It developed fire prevention standards for theaters. And it established one of the first schools of design for women in the United States.

By 1825, the fledgling Insti­tute commenced publication of The Franklin Journal & Mechan­ics’ Magazine, with Dr. Thomas P. Jones as editor. Early issues carried announcements of new inventions and abstracts of scientific papers, some of which were written by Insti­tute members and lecturers. An individual of diverse disci­plines and talents, Jones was a professor of mechanics, an inventor, a manufacturer, and a lecturer on “chemistry, op­tics, pneumatics, electricity and galvanism.” He later be­came Superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office. Publication of the magazine – which continues today as the Journal of the Franklin Institute – was but one facet of the institu­tion’s early programs, which included lectures, a small science library, a school of mechanical drawing, and a “cabinet of models.”

By the end of its second year, the Franklin Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts boasted a membership of more than a thousand and a sizable cash reserve of two thousand dollars. It had also secured the support of Phila­delphia’s establishment. Active in the organization were many prominent and respected citi­zens, including Robert E. Graff, Reuben Haines, John Harrison, Thomas Loud, Thomas McEuen, Lloyd Mifflin, Sheldon Potter, Adam Ramage, and Thomas Scatter­good. However, membership was open to all, “regardless of station,” and an early roster documents a broad range of occupations held by early members, such as fire-engine maker, merchant, brewer, teacher, saddler, plasterer, marble mason, clothier, shot manufacturer, druggist, and counsellor.

The Institute’s growth and success made it a magnet to those who were knowledge­able about science – or those who wished to be. In days of limited public education, such individuals were found, for the most part, among the financially secure. Thus the Franklin Institute, albeit not elitist by design, abandoned to a large degree its early goal of “instructing the laboring part of the community, to elevate them to a proper rank in a republican society.” The pur­suit of science presumed at least some higher education and that, in turn, presumed some modicum of affluence.

To reach a broad audience, though, the Institute estab­lished a high school, the first in Philadelphia. The Franklin High School offered both evening and daytime classes. Its curriculum featured geogra­phy, history, Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, and German, in addition to theoretical and practical sciences. By 1827, more than three hundred students had enrolled. Influ­enced by this educational exercise, the City of Philadel­phia not long afterward opened the doors of Central High School, closely modeled after Franklin High School. The latter, having shown the way, was phased out. (This was an early example of a pattern often repeated throughout the Franklin Insti­tute’s history: the initiation of programs which, once proved successful, were adopted by others. Such emulation was encouraged as, having led the way, the Institute was free to move on to other fields. Inci­dentally, Central High School still follows many of the ideas first promulgated by the Franklin Institute’s school.)

The Institute first rented space in Carpenters’ Hall, but within a year spiraling growth in attendance and the popular­ity of programs demanded larger quarters. The board of managers decided that the most practical solution was to design and erect a building to meet specific needs. Thanks to community acceptance, the required building loan was oversubscribed. Architect John Haviland was selected to de­sign the neo-classical, three­-story structure at 15 South Seventh Street, which became the Franklin Institute’s home for the following 108 years. The handsome building now houses the Atwater Kent Museum.

Among the first actions by the board of managers was the appointment of a committee to investigate and report on new machines, inventions, and materials brought to its atten­tion. Its purpose was to deter­mine which submissions offered promise, a great serv­ice to entrants because the judgment of the examiners carried much weight. Between 1825 and 1833, more than one hundred cases were consid­ered by the Committee on Investigations. Renamed the Committee on Arts and Sci­ences in 1834, it serves to this day as the selection advisory board for many of the Insti­tute’s prestigious awards and medals. These awards are highly regarded by the inter­national scientific community and have honored – often early in their careers – such giants as John Bardeen, Niels Bohr, Marie Curie, Thomas A. Edison, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Henry Ford, Murray Gell-Mann, Edwin H. Land, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Quick to recognize the importance of public aware­ness, the Franklin Institute hosted the first public exhibi­tion of domestic products in 1824, which Sydney L. Wright characterized in his 1938 book, The Story of the Franklin Insti­tute.

Robert Hare, John Harrison, and John P. Wetherhill composed the committee on chemicals, and Thomas Sully, William Strickland and Rembrandt Peale served as the committee on fine arts. Fifteen other committees were formed, and their comments … throw an interesting light on the state of industry at the time. A bronze medal was awarded to “George Catlin, for a bassoon exhibited by him which had many improve­ments not before introduced in this instrument and the tone and finish of which are excellent.” A silver medal was awarded to Joseph Sacton for a clock “Its ‘scapement is upon an entirely new principle and it has a kind of compensating pendulum.” …. a self-sharpening plough by C. and O. Evans “capable of being con­verted into a never-dulling plough, by substituting a share of a new construction.” Another exhibit was “machine paper of J. and T. Gilpin twelve feet long, capable of being made any length, of good materials and well made.”

There were also two pairs of stockings “made of cotton grown in Bartram’s Garden,” cotton and linen goods from Rhode Island and Maine, plus woolen goods from Massachu­setts, Maryland, and Ohio, as well as from W. and C. Du Pont and Company of Delaware. Books and statuary, japanned goods, satinettes, blister steel, and straw and grass bonnets were among other items exhibited. These exhibits were continued regu­larly until 1858, but only spo­radically after that. Popular as they were, industry had be­come so advanced in the United States that by the mid­-nineteenth century exhibitions were hosted by specialized groups, such as iron manufac­turers, textile factories, and glass houses. Nonetheless, the Franklin Institute had been the first to seize an opportunity to show Americans and foreign observers the range of manu­facturers and the quality of goods.

With each passing year the Institute moved farther from “mechanics” and closer to science. While its early exhibits had been designed to “ad­vance the technical level of manufacturing skills, to in­crease the use of mechanical power, and to develop mineral resources,” they were essentially static and influenced by the old guard, including Ca­rey, Browne, and Strickling. Inevitably, a younger set began to tug on the reins of leader­ship. Foremost among them were Samuel Vaughan Merrick and Alexander Dallas Bache, the great-grandson of Ben­jamin Franklin and, according to many, the founding father’s greatest legacy.

Alexander Dallas Bache was a well-trained scientist, a grad­uate of West Point, and a tal­ented administrator blessed with curiosity and diplomacy (which, of course, character­ized his great-grandfather). He was serving as a faculty mem­ber of the University of Penn­sylvania when he became interested in the Franklin Insti­tute and began working with Merrick to steer the organiza­tion towards technical re­search, scientific experimentation, and educa­tion. The duo also introduced strict business policies which caused some unhappiness and prompted one indignant mem­ber to vow he would “never again visit the hall while the Institution is under Aristocrati­cal regulations.”

During Bache’s administra­tion, the first experimental research program funded by the federal government was promoted by – and awarded to – the Franklin Institute in 1830. A series of steam boiler explosions, especially on ships, was stirring grave public concern; boilers were being subjected to higher pressures to gain greater efficiency and the results were often cata­strophic. Under Bache’s direc­tion, a special apparatus was designed to carry out experi­ments on various types of boiler construction and materi­als operating under varying firing conditions. After thor­ough research, the Institute made its report and recom­mendations to the government in 1835. The complexity of the problem, the lack of proper testing apparatus, and the investigating committee’s insistence that the report be fully supportable and provide measures to assure safety in the future slowed the Insti­tute’s final conclusions. Gov­ernment officials moved slowly and it was not until 1838 that a bill containing a greatly diluted version of the Institute’s rec­ommendation was passed. The bill lacked enforcement and an outraged public de­cried the mounting death toll from boiler explosions – by 1848 two hundred and thirty­-five explosions had claimed the lives of twenty-five hun­dred individuals! Congress responded by passing a bill in 1858 which essentially carried out the recommendations originally made by the investi­gating committee twenty-three years earlier. Boiler explosions eventually became rare, and more often than not were the result of carelessness rather than poor manufacture.

“The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention,” wrote Alfred North Whitehead in Adventures of Ideas. Were it not for the insis­tence of the Franklin Institute that the availability of patent claims filed with the U. S. Patent Office was vital to in­ventors and, indeed, to the public as a whole, the inven­tive development of the nation would have been severely restricted. Until the Institute won its case – with the inter­vention of Secretary of State Henry Clay – it was the policy of the Patent Office to keep patents confidential and to refuse specifications to inquir­ers unless the patents had expired or the patentee’s con­sent had been given. These restraints hampered many inventors. Not many could afford to work on an invention without knowing early on if a patent had been issued for such a device. Thanks to the Franklin Institute’s dedication to the public right to know, policies were changed. The Institute also began collecting copies of patents which be­came invaluable when the Patent Office and its files were later destroyed by fire.

A project that engages the interest, support, and partici­pation of the community car­ries promise for resounding success. For nearly one and three-quarters centuries, the Franklin Institute has de­pended heavily upon volun­teers; indeed, it’s doubtful it would have thrived without the time and experience given so readily by Merrick, Bache, and a host of others. The many contributions of volun­teers through the years cannot be easily assessed. So many individuals – founders, board chairmen, trustees, educators, committee members, scientists – have donated their help that it was once said “half of Phila­delphia gives its time to the Institute, the other half to the Museum of Art and the Acad­emy of Music.”

The Franklin Institute has undeniably captured and held the public’s affection through varied educational programs, lectures, and exhibitions. Lec­tures, originally designed to help young men in the me­chanic arts, were dropped in favor of such subjects as anat­omy, astronomy, philosophy, and zoology because of the broader appeal. Members were admitted free, and minor sons and apprentices of members were charged one dollar, as were “ladies.” To the surprise of everyone except themselves, women attended in large, enthusiastic numbers.

The Franklin Institute had been created by men, man­aged by men, and was in­tended for the increased knowledge of men. During the early years women were toler­ated but not truly encouraged in either programs or projects. All changed dramatically in 1850, however, when a School of Design for Women was incorporated in the work of the Institute.

The school originated infor­mally when Sarah Worthing­ton Peter, wife of the British consul, convinced the board her classes should be a part of the Institute’s offerings. Samuel Vaughan Merrick embraced the idea because it would provide valuable em­ployment for women, as well as help industries “by giving them that originality of design of which they are now defi­cient.” Located adjacent to the Institute, the school’s purpose was to provide employment for “young women who might otherwise be tempted into less wholesome occupation.” Gasses were given in elemen­tary drawing and coloring, industrial art, wood engrav­ing, and lithography under the supervision of a committee of three men and three women. An immediate success, nearly one hundred young women enrolled the first year! How­ever, Sarah Peter was a woman of strong opinions and even stronger will, and dissension arose regarding the direction the school should take. In 1853, the school severed con­nections with the Institute and became independent; it later merged with another institu­tion and is now internationally known as the Moore College of Art. Despite the redoubtable Sarah Worthington Peter, ami­cable ties have for many years existed between the college and the Institute, still close neighbors and cooperative friends.

Philadelphia, with a popu­lation of only sixty thousand inhabitants the year the Franklin Institute for the Pro­motion of the Mechanic Arts was founded, attracted atten­tion as a leader in scientific research and professionalism. James Espy, Joseph Henry, Walter R. Johnson, Sears Walker, and Bache – all of whom claimed ties to the Insti­tute – were among the first generation of Americans to make science a full time occu­pation. The fact that they were Philadelphians – either by birth or adoption – added an undeniable glimmer to the city’s lustre within scientific circles. The eminent Joseph Henry perhaps said it best as early as 1839.

I almost always return from New York dispirited in the way of science. I am thrown among, it seems to me, all the Quacks and Jimcrackers of the land. 1 am disgusted with their pretensions and annoyed with their communi­cations. How different is my feeling on a return from the City of Brotherly Love!! There is jeal­ousy and rivalry, but also science and intelligence, and trade and money are not the only things which occupy the mind.

The interest shown from decade to decade in its cele­brated “Cabinet of Models” led the Institute to create a Mu­seum of Arts and Manufactur­ers. The idea was a popular one, new to the United States but certainly not to Europe. Oxford had the Ashmolean Museum founded in 1683, and the Conservatorie des Arts et Metiers, the first industrial museum, had been attracting visitors in Paris since 1799. The Franklin Institute’s new exhibit – showcasing industrial models, pickled reptiles, and a souvenir brick from Rome’s Coliseum – was a smashing and popular success.

While the Institute con­cocted popularly-styled pro­grams for Philadelphia’s seemingly insatiable public, its members worked tirelessly to carry out its original mission of service to industry. Its report on weights and measures prompted Pennsylvania’s adoption of standards in 1834, highly important to the Commonwealth’s industry. Unfortunately, a recommenda­tion for national standards fell upon deaf ears, despite the committee’s “decided opinion that the most imperfect set of weights and measures which has ever been framed, would if applied in all states of our union, be preferable to the most perfect system which should be adopted by any one commonwealth singly.” In spite of this setback, the Franklin Institute continued its tradition of contributions to not only industry but to sci­ence and technology as well. The Institute’s large exhibition of American machinery in 1874, to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, is cited as the inspiration for the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia two years later. Elihu Thompson and Edwin J. Houston carried out the first truly scientific testing of dynamos in 1878.

A long and popular debate has focused on whether events made leaders or leaders made events. ln the case of the Franklin Institute for the Pro­motion of the Mechanic Arts, both views are valid. Bache and Merrick moved in the direction of science against a prevailing interest in promo­tion of industry. Businessman (and, oddly enough, philoso­pher) John C. Cresson, Insti­tute president from 1856 to 1864, assumed the task of rescuing the organization from financial disaster caused partly by overzealous expansion and partly by the Civil War. No doubt with relief, he and Fred­erick Fraley, corresponding secretary, turned over the reins to “the younger and more active members who are now to guide its destiny.” William Sellers, an entrepreneurial industrialist, saw the Insti­tute’s role in the post-Civil War economy as one dedicated to the technology of industry, exemplified by the Electrical Exposition it conducted in 1884.

Ultimately, the Franklin Institute evolved to adopt its most far-reaching objective: education. Its goal was to create a greatly enlarged, mod­ernized, and improved science museum featuring a state-of­-the-art planetarium, in addi­tion to embodying a new emphasis on the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial and its awards program. (Opened in 1938, the memorial was designated as the coun­try’s official monument to the patriot, scientist, diplomat, printer, and writer. It was actually conceived in 1927 by Morton Gobbons-Neff, presi­dent of the Poor Richard Club, an organization whose mem­bership was associated with the news media.)

The year 1987 witnessed the much publicized launch of the Franklin Institute’s most ambi­tious fund raising effort: a fifty-eight million dollar cam­paign to fund construction of a Futures Center and Omniverse Theater, a unique facility dedi­cated solely to the science and technology of the future. Wal­ter Cronkite served as honor­ary chairman and the Late George Bartol, former Institute chairman, was campaign chairman. Within two years, the campaign raised more than seventy-two million dollars! Credit for this outstanding development feat is attributed to the Institute’s international reputation, the quality of its leadership, and the over­whelming support of Philadelphians.

Samuel Vaughan Merrick, Alexander Dallas Bache, and generations of Franklin Insti­tute leaders and lecturers would be pleased to know that their beloved organization has come such a long way. They would be delighted to know that a fifth grade student, when asked during a recent visit why he enjoyed the Franklin Institute, un­abashedly replied, “I like it because every time I come here I learn something new.” It seems that noble ambitions, like dreams, do come true.


For Further Reading

Allen, Henry Butler. “Alexander Dallas Bache and His Connection with the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania.” American Philosophical Society Proceed­ings 84 (May 1941): 145-149.

Baltzell, E. Digby. Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Glencoe, Ill.: The Free Press, 1958.

Bates, Ralph S. Scientific Soci­eties in the United States. Cam­bridge, Mass.: The M. I. T. Press, 1965.

Bell, Whitfield J. Early Ameri­can Science: Needs and Oppor­tunities for Study. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1955.

Bennett, Charles A. A History of Manual and Industrial Edu­cation up to 1870. Peoria, Ill.: The Manual Arts Press, 1926.

Daly, Charles P. Origin and History of the Institutions for the Promotion of Useful Arts. Albany: American Institute, 1864.

Edmonds, Franklin Spencer. History of the Central High School of Philadelphia. Phila­delphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1902.

Macfarlane, John J. Manufactur­ing in Philadelphia, 1683-1912. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Com­mercial Museum, 1912.

Oberholtzer, E. P. Philadelphia: A History of the City and its People. Philadelphia, N. P., 1911.

Odgers, Merle M. Alexander Dallas Bache: Scientist and Educator, 1806-1867. Philadel­phia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1947.

Sack, Saul. History of Higher Education in Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Histor­ical and Museum Commission, 1963.

Sinclair, Bruce. Philadelphia’s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Insti­tute, 1824-1865. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Wright, Sydney L. The Story of the Franklin Institute. Philadel­phia: The Franklin Institute, 1938.


Kershaw Burbank, a freelance writer currently living in Florida, resided in Devon for a number of years. Following graduation from Yale University, he was associated with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, and the Walt Disney Studios. In addition to serving as vice president of the Franklin Institute, he also acted as vice president and corporate secre­tary of Educational Broadcasting Corporation (WNET) of New York; advisor on public affairs to the Rockefeller family and associ­ates; consultant to Sleepy Hollow Restorations, Inc., and Palisades Interstate Park Commission; and director of public information for Colonial Williamsburg. He is also a trustee of the Elsie Lee Garth­waite Memorial Foundation, Rosemont. His previous contribu­tions to this magazine included “Those Beautiful Bodies of Yester­year,” which appeared in the winter 1991 issue and “Lee of Conshohocken,” which appeared in the spring 1990 edition.