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The world's first Mechanics' Institute was established in Edinburgh, Scotland in October 1821 as the School of Arts of Edinburgh (later Heriot-Watt University), 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 in November 1823, built on the foundations of a group started at the turn of the previous century by George Birkbeck. 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 formalise their organisation by incorporating themselves as the Mechanics' Institute.
The first Mechanics' Institute in England was opened at Liverpool in July 1823.
The London Mechanics Institute (later Birkbeck College) followed in December 1823
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.
In Australia the first Mechanics' Institute appeared in Hobart in 1827, followed by the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1833, Newcastle School of Arts in 1835, then the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute established in 1839 (renamed The Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873). From the 1850s, Mechanics' Institutes quickly spread throughout Victoria wherever a hall, library or school was needed. Over 1,200 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 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 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.
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 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, Mechanics institutes, also provided lecture courses, laboratories, and in some cases contained a museum for the member’s entertainment and education. The Glasgow 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).