Mechanics’ Institutes Worldwide 2021

Conference to mark 200 years of mechanics' institutes

On 16 October 1821, the world’s first mechanics institute was inaugurated as the Edinburgh School of Arts. To celebrate this event, the direct descendant institution of the Edinburgh School of Arts – Heriot-Watt University – is hosting a unique and globally significant conference to mark the 200th anniversary of the foundation of the mechanics’ institute movement (MIW2021).

From this start, grew a global movement that within a century could boast of over 9,000 mechanics’ institutes around the world that trained the engineers for many different industrial revolutions, in steam energy, electricity, rail, canal, civil infrastructures, fossil fuels and now renewable energies.

But more than that, these institutes also transformed societies, enabling social mobility and economic development, but also enhancing civil society in cities and rural regions.

We want to celebrate such extraordinary achievements in this 200th anniversary event, and also to capture the moment in poetry and photographs. 

International advisory committee

  • Lesley Scanlon - AUS
  • Joanna Bourke - England
  • Ellen Grandberg - USA
  • Steven Houston - Scotland
  • Tom Lonsdale - England
  • Roger Morris - Australia
  • Lynn Verge - Canada
  • David Verran - New Zealand
  • Martyn Walker - England
  • Lauren Weiss - Scotland
  • Sian Williams - Wales

Organising committee

  • Alice Bracks - HWU
  • Patrick Corbett - HWU (Chair)
  • Jim Lowden - Victoria
  • Gavin Rennie - HWU
  • Sue Roaf - HWU

Technical Programme

The programme will be online on Friday 15th October from 9:00 to 16:30 UK time.
The programme opens with a session capturing the start of the Mechanics’ Institute movement in the 19th Century:

  • Patrick O’Farrell (Heriot-Watt University) “Foundation of the World’s First Mechanics’ Institute: Edinburgh School of Arts”
  • John Gardner (Anglia Ruskin University) “Gaslight”
  • Lesley Scanlon (Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts) “The Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts: The Early Years (1833-1850)”

The following on session will explore the diversity of the early Mechanics’ Institute movement:

  • Jim Lowden (Victoria) “Henry Brougham and his Practical Observations Upon the Education of People”
  • Mike McCausland (Friends of Launceston Mechanics Institute) “Adapting MI principles in an enterprising colonial outpost”
  • Liz Call (Rochester Institute of Technology, New York) “Stewarding RIT’s Historical Record: Reconstructing the Extraordinary Lives of Ordinary People”
  • Kirstie Blair et al. (University of Strathclyde et al.) “Mechanics’ Institutes, Literary Culture, and the Victorian Industrial Worker”
  • Joelie Hancock (Flinders Univ, South Australia) “Mechanics Institutes in South Australia: launching”

The Mechanics Institute movement then grew and consolidated though into the 20th Century:

  • Joanna Bourke (Birkbeck, University of London) “The London Mechanics' Institution: Radical Origins and Useful Knowledges”
  • Ciarán O’Donohue (Birkbeck, University of London) “From Treading the Boards to Mortarboards: Women and the Birkbeck Theatre, 1830 to 1921”
  • Susan Roaf and Anne Ormston (Heriot-Watt University) “19th Century spread of Mechanics Institutes across Scotland”
  • Ellen Coates and James Baker (Prahran Mechanics’ Institute Victorian History Library and Melbourne Athenaeum Incorporated) “Ama-Zine Mechanics’ : old history, new engagement”

We bring the movement up to date in the final session:

  • John Cunningham (National University of Ireland Galway) “The Galway Mechanics Institute”
  • Jonny Matfin (Birkbeck, University of London) “In pursuit of 'Useless Knowledge': Classics at Birkbeck, University of London, 1963-2003”
  • Corinna Schlombs (Rochester Institute of Technology, New York) “Giving women a practical education: Domestic Science at Rochester Institute of Technology”
  • Tom Lonsdale (Marsden Community Trust) “Marsden Mechanics”
  • John Milne (Consultant, Denver Colorado) “Entropy-based Resource Management: An organizing principle for the development of sustainability strategies.”
  • Stephen Houston (Heriot-Watt University) “A Mechanics’ Institute's students of today – excellence in engineering”

This programme will be a testament to the continuing diversity of the Mechanics Institute movement.

Poetry competition

The will be a poetry competition with prizes of £300 (1st), £150 (2nd) and £50 (3rd) on the theme of the conference. The poems can be submitted on the abstract form and should be of unpublished work. There is a limit of 40 lines and any poetic structure can be submitted. 

The University will have the right to include works submitted in any publication associated with MIW2021 and the copyright will remain with the author.

Photographic competition

The will be a photographic competition with prizes of £300 (1st), £150 (2nd) and £50 (3rd) on the theme of the conference. The photos can be submitted (high-quality graphic image) along with the abstract form, once available, describing the work and should be unpublished work. You can submit up to three images.

The printed copy of the photo will be at least 300dpi to be printed approx. A2 (594mm x 420mm) and then framed.  The winning photographer will get a framed copy.

The University will have the right to include works submitted in any publication associated with MIW2021 and the copyright will remain with the author.

Call for photos and poems

  • Photos – Extended deadline to 17 September. Please submit your photos using this abstract form.


The event on 15th October is a FREE online day event. Registration for the celebration on 15th October is here. Registrants will be sent details of further events on 16th October related to the founding of the Edinburgh School of Arts as they become available. To register interest in these other events (being held as part of Heriot-Watt University’s 200th Celebration) you can also contact Gavin Rennie.

Conference chair

You can also contact the conference chair, Patrick Corbett for further information on the event.