The year 2021 will mark the 200th anniversary of the first Institute of Mechanics, first known as the Edinburgh School of Arts.
This pioneering educational institution, which later became Heriot-Watt University, has transformed the world in a way that is barely perceived today.
Taken from Panmure House Perspectives issue 4: For Heriot-Watt, the pioneering global reach of the first Institute of Mechanics and its focus on widening access to education remain embedded values.
Leonard Horner was one of those truly extraordinary individuals who did not complete a formal university education, was largely self-taught and acquired deep knowledge of society, geology and significant proficiency in French, Dutch, German, Italian and Latin. The notion of a ‘formal’ education needs to be seen in the context that in the late 1700s students paid to attend lectures by professors, and they were in effect offered great choice and exotic pathways of study. Whilst at Edinburgh, Horner took great pleasure in learning chemistry, mathematics and philosophy, but left aged 19 to join the family business. This was a period when science was expanding horizons and feeding intellectual and practical endeavours. Horner was an avid reader and debater and in 1804 was well acquainted with Adam Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations and associated debates of this enlightenment period that was such a feature of life in Edinburgh. He was soon to move to London but returned to Scotland after some ten years, subsequently travelling widely over Europe in part as an underwriter for Lloyd’s Insurance and later as a linen trader. Horner’s legacy was to be profound not only in the establishment of inaugural Institutes of Mechanics in Scotland and England, but also as a driver of education and industry and a geologist of repute. His passion for education ensured that the Industrial Revolution, giving rise to manufacturing factories across the UK, was not executed at the expense of child labour. He was the overseer of the Factory Act (1833) for over a quarter of a century.
As President of the Geological Society of London he took great delight in geological field work and the discoveries made in earth and natural sciences. He is also known as the first warden of the University of London. His life has been the subject of several accounts, most notably the biography by Patrick O’Farrell (Leonard Horner: Pioneering Reformer, 2010), of Heriot-Watt University’s Edinburgh Business School.
I draw attention to Horner’s passion and journey as a backdrop to my assertion that the development of the first Institute of Mechanics arose from a warmth and concern for the development of human talent to meet local business needs, not from a political or religious movement or other external drivers. Horner has been described as a force that set out to humanise urban capitalism – and indeed from my reading this describes him well. It was this intense passion that became ignited on the meeting of Horner and Edinburgh clockmaker Robert Bryson.
When Horner called into 8 South Bridge Street in Edinburgh’s Old Town he spoke to the owner Robert Bryson about his relatively new clockmaking business. Bryson was an inventor of scientific instruments and an horologist. They had much in common since Bryson had an interest in the cosmos and had designed a sidereal clock (used to enable astronomers to locate celestial objects at the Calton Hill Royal Observatory in Edinburgh). He knew about the deployment of gravity using mercury, weighted wind-up clocks and novel clocks such as the rolling-ball clock. He had an eye for precision and also developed compact pressure barometers in the family business. Horner and Bryson talked of the difficulty of developing mathematical skills in employees, since knowledge of physics and maths was so important to the design and manufacture of these technical objects. There were two issues: the cost for the individuals and also the timing of existing classes in mathematical education. As Horner developed the concept, Bryson was highly supportive of the notion of a new night school for technical arts.
The first public chemistry lecture
Within just a few weeks Horner had developed the plan with a wider group that met on 19 April 1821. They then published a prospectus for fundraising. The spirit of the business plan was to enable wide access to a scientific education, but with students being expected to contribute something towards the cost and the wider business community providing the start-up and some operational funds. The prospectus was published and through the network of the enlightenment a strong list of subscribers emerged, supported by wealthy Edinburgh citizens such as Sir Walter Scott, Lord Cockburn, Robert Stevenson, Alexander Nasmyth, William Playfair and the Craig family of Riccarton. Many agreed to give annual subscriptions to help pay for the cost of classes and so to set up evening classes with fees that working men could afford. It is interesting to scan some of the well-known names in the full list of subscribers provided in the first annual report in May 1822. One might also comment that such reports were very full in length and detail, suggesting the voracious appetite for and dedication to reading in that era. Following the rapid raising of funds, notices appeared advertising the new classes. Prospective students purchased tickets in instalments (from Bryson’s shop) and within a month over 450 students had enrolled. The institute had been established in just a few months! So on 16 October 1821 the Edinburgh School of Arts “for the instruction of mechanics in such branches of physical science as are of practical application in their several trades” held the first lecture in chemistry at St Cecilia’s concert hall in the Old Town, the home of the Grand Lodge of the Freemasons of Scotland. It was indeed a grand location for the new students. The curriculum was resolutely focused on mechanics, physics and chemistry (that included earth sciences). Later it included a broad range of mathematics. Attendees could also borrow books. This first Mechanics Institute had a simple curriculum that focused on a scientific syllabus.
Some have commented that it was ‘not applied’ or based on ‘speculative philosophy’. For this reason the Edinburgh institute has been called the purest expression of the original idea of a Mechanics Institute. My examination of the curriculum would draw a slightly different conclusion since, with subjects such as farriery, smithery and the motion of machines, these were all issues of direct relevance to the emerging life of the Industrial Revolution. The education was focused on practical professions. Whatever the taxonomy, it was clear the education had an impact. Within 30 years there were 700 Mechanics Institutes in Britain.
The flourishing of an institute
Over the years the syllabus was extended to include English, French and drawing. Other significant developments included the first working-class representatives joining the School’s Board of Directors in 1835, and in 1837 the School moved to new larger leased premises in Adam Square. As the posters advertising the School showed, the syllabus remained in its purest form and tickets could still be obtained from Bryson’s shop. However, as time progressed, the School encountered financial difficulties as donations dwindled. A solution was found through a subscription fund which was set up in the name of James Watt. The late engineer was considered an inspiration to staff and students, and indeed proved to be a very successful motivation. In 1851 enough revenue was generated to
allow the purchase of Adam Square and in 1852 the name was changed to the Watt Institution and School of Arts. Watt had become a world-renowned name for his work on power systems and engines. His work was very visible in the inaugural years of the School of Arts, as shown powerfully in paintings that depict the arrival of George IV in the port of Leith, in a sailing ship that is being tugged into the port. Initially most students of the Institute were from poorer backgrounds, but there were some wealthy scholars such as James Nasmyth, son of landscape and portrait painter Alexander Nasmyth. James Nasmyth was one of the first students of the Watt Institution and later invented the steam hammer. As the School of Arts developed, it became clear that there was one glaring omission – all the students were male.
Pioneering local campaigner Mary Burton led a successful campaign to admit women in 1869. The Watt Institution was some 20 years ahead of other Scottish universities, where women were only allowed to graduate following an Act of Parliament in 1889. This heritage for widening access and equality of opportunity remains a strong value for the university. Burton became the first woman on the School’s Board of Directors and a Life Governor of (the latterly named) Heriot-Watt College.
Further financial difficulties were encountered by the Institution following widespread city redevelopment, including the demolition of Adam Square and an enforced move to premises in Chambers Street. In 1873 the directors of the institution agreed a merger with the George Heriot’s Trust endowment. George Heriot had been a jeweller and goldsmith in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and had become wealthy due to patronage from the royal family. Upon his death his estate was largely left to philanthropic causes forming the endowment trust. The main consequences of the financial agreement with the George Heriot’s Trust were a repositioning of the Institution to become a technical college, and a renaming to become the Heriot-Watt College in 1885. The College’s links with industry had inspired and fuelled the growth of new specialist departments: Pharmacy, Brewing, Physics and Civil Engineering, each with its own professor. The College’s power to appoint professors was a relatively rare accolade in non-university institutions, with only two other colleges in the UK having this ability at that time. Lack of space at Chambers Street led Heriot-Watt to expand yet again, into the Grassmarket beneath Edinburgh Castle. The Department of Mining used this extended space to open a mine rescue station, which enabled the teaching of vital lifesaving skills to engineers from collieries across southeast Scotland.
The College had also forged academic partnerships with Edinburgh University. This included teaching Mining, Electrical and Chemical Engineering, and delivering Building Science courses to the architect students at the Edinburgh College of Art. Over time the College moved its focus to degree level and postgraduate studies. The printing department moved to Napier College in 1964, signalling the end of an era, and the evolution from college to university was almost complete. In 1963 the now famous UK government committee chaired by Lord Robbins made momentous proposals for the expansion of higher education. In 1964 the government announced that Heriot-Watt was to be one of the first of ‘a new breed of technological universities’. The University gained its Royal Charter in 1966. With this new status, the College Principal Hugh Nisbet became Heriot-Watt University’s first Principal and Vice-Chancellor. In line with the significant status change, but also in the historical spirit of the institution’s pioneering approach, a new degree course in Computing Science was launched. It was the first in Scotland and had a profound impact on the economy and global digital industry. Like so many things, the University was pioneering in the frontier programmes it offered. Further expansion continued, including the opening of the Mountbatten building in the Grassmarket in 1968 for Electrical engineering, Management, Languages and a ground-breaking new television centre. But there was precious little room in the crowded Edinburgh city centre to build new research and teaching laboratories. A new campus community was needed to combine academic buildings with sports and social facilities and student accommodation. The University needed a new home and one was provided in the west of Edinburgh in the wonderful grounds of the former Riccarton Estate comprising over 280 acres of land.
The Continuing Ethos
The new campus accelerated new opportunities for research, again based on the ‘pure’ sciences of Mathematics, Physics and Geology that gave rise to world-leading capabilities in Laser Science (and now Quantum Science), Petroleum Engineering, Civil Engineering, Actuarial Science and Artificial Intelligence. In the usual spirit of the Institute of Mechanics, the University retained an uncanny knack of deep scholarly excellence in research coupled with a passion for application to professions and society. In 1990 it pioneered the UK’s first ever online MBA through the establishment of the Edinburgh Business School, which today is still the largest online business school in the UK.
The University had a strong sense of international reach and was amongst the earliest in the UK to develop a substantial campus in Dubai, and later in Malaysia. Currently the footprint of the University involves around 30,000 students with one third studying in Scotland (at three campuses in Edinburgh, Galashiels and Orkney), one third online and one third at either Dubai or Malaysia. These have evolved not as a series of branch campuses but as an integral part of a global university in which, for many programmes of study, students can choose to study at multiple locations and take identical examinations and receive a single degree certificate. This extraordinary and unique model is distinctive to Heriot-Watt and exemplifies its roots.
Heriot-Watt has also retained a strong sense of public mission and partnering, again in keeping with the educational outreach to businesses and communities associated with the Mechanics movement. For example, it has developed a national performance centre for sport (‘Oriam’, meaning ‘gold I am’) and a collaborative research centre for geosciences with the British Geological Survey (the ‘Lyell Centre’, named after Sir Charles Lyell, a famous geologist who was married to the eminent conchologist and geologist Mary Horner Lyell, the eldest of the six daughters of Leonard Horner).
A further example of the University’s intent on outreach and connectivity was the purchase and care of a famous building, Panmure House, the home of the economist and moral philosopher Adam Smith, just off the Royal Mile in the Edinburgh Old Town. It is now refurbished to its almost original state as a place of debate and economics research for Edinburgh Business School.
Just as the Edinburgh Institute of Arts initiated a night school for employed workers, the University continues to focus on what is often referred to as ‘work-based learning’. In recent years it has facilitated a cadre of graduate apprentice degrees, in which students study whilst employed in a company. The class has a wide range of ages working with 70 companies from across Scotland. The spirit of the Mechanics Institute is still very much alive. Looking ahead, the University has plans to ensure equality of opportunity for access to excellence in discovery and learning. The adoption of a ‘positive education’ model and mind-set will ensure development of a flourishing community of staff and students yielding resilient graduates suited for the global and digital world. 2021 will mark the bicentennial anniversary of the University and, of course, the Institute of Mechanics movement.
Who could have guessed that a conversation in a clock shop that triggered the creation of the world’s first Mechanics Institute would have this impact in the world!