Teaching the Sciences in Philadelphia

Today the Atwater Kent Museum is a modest-sized museum of city history, but it was built in 1826 as the original Franklin Institute – a school dedicated to the mechanical arts, science, technology and research.

The groundwork of the industrial revolution was laid in the early decades of the 19th century with the advent of steam power, small machine shops, and advances in chemistry and physics. Philadelphia was among the cities in the forefront of the nascent industrial age. Technical schools were being founded at this time in European and some American cities.  Local businessman Samuel Vaughn Merrick and science professor William H. Keating hatched the idea for such a school in Philadelphia in late 1823. Other leaders of the city joined the effort and a series of lectures was soon launched the next year in rented space at Carpenters’ Hall and the original University of Pennsylvania at 4th and Arch. The school was an immediate success with 600 paying members in the first year. Mostly these members were young craftsmen and apprentices interested in improving their knowledge of engineering, the science behind the new advances.

Naming the organization after Philadelphia’s most famous man of science, Ben Franklin, was a natural. After only one year, the Institute was planning it own building on a vacant lot on 7th Street near Market, and a source of funding appeared when the federal government agreed to a long-term lease for federal courts in part of the proposed building. John Haviland was selected as architect. Perhaps his most famous work is Eastern State Penitentiary, which influenced the design of prisons around the world. The new building for the Institute was about 60 feet wide and 100 feet long in the neo-classical style.

Some of the most important names in Philadelphia science and industry taught or lectured there. Men such as architects William Strictland and Thomas U. Walter and industrialists Matthias Baldwin, Isaiah Lukens, William Sellers. A host of scholars and scientists were associated with the Institute including Alexander Dallas Bache and Frederick Graff.


Today the Franklin Institute on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is known as an outstanding science museum, but for decades it was much more. The Institute took on scores of research projects. It was also an early testing lab trying to determine if new inventions really worked. The first scientific study of water power drew international attention. The federal government helped finance a study there to determine how to make steam engines safe following disastrous explosions on steamboats. Later, it was the Franklin Institute that spearheaded a movement and devised ways to standardize threads and sizes for nuts and bolts.

The Institute also published a technical and science journal and sponsored contests for inventors. Evening lectures were a huge success. Those who paid their annual $3 dues could attend all lectures for free. From the start, women were admitted to all lectures. Drafting classes were particularly popular.

After 109 years of use, the building was abandoned when the Franklin Institute moved to the Parkway in 1933. It stood vacant and was scheduled for demolition when dynamic society woman Frances Ann Wistar launched a campaign to save it. She enlisted the aid of industrialist A. Atwater Kent, who had already provided the funding to preserve the Betsy Ross House.

Kent had been a pioneer in manufacturing auto parts and electrical appliances. He jumped into the new radio business in 1921 with much success. His Atwater Kent radio factory employed 12,000 workers at its peak. He purchased the building that now bears his name, which was dedicated in 1941 as a museum of Philadelphia history. The facade of the building hasn’t changed since the day it opened.

  • Sinclair, Bruce. Philadelphia‘s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute, 1824–1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

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