The aim of the four institutions found in London was to foster and disseminate scientific, technical, and literary knowledge and understanding among a wider public. The Institutions offered proprietors and subscribers the use of extensive reference libraries and reading rooms. Most importantly, they provided the opportunity to attend courses or lectures on scientific, technological, and other subjects. Though popular in approach, the lectures conformed to high educational standards and were delivered by recognized authorities in their fields. As a meeting place for scientists and men of business with mercantile and manufacturing interests, as well as women, these Institutions performed an important function in cross-fertilizing and reinforcing ideas on innovation and enterprise against the background of the ongoing Industrial Revolution.
ROYAL INSTITUTION was founded in 1799 by the leading British scientists of the age, including Henry Cavendish and its first president, George Finch, the 9th Earl of Winchilsea, for:
…diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life.
The Royal Institution became the inspiration for three additional educational institutions during the Regency, but is the only one to remain to the present day.
Throughout its history, the Royal Institution has supported public engagement with science through a programme of lectures, many of which continue today. The most famous of these are the annual Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, founded by Michael Faraday in 1825. Thus the Institution has had an instrumental role in the advancement of science since its founding. Notable scientists who have worked there include Sir Humphry Davy (who discovered sodium and potassium), Michael Faraday, James Dewar, Sir William Henry Bragg and Sir William Lawrence Bragg (who jointly won the Nobel prize for their work on x-ray diffraction), Max Perutz, John Kendrew, Antony Hewish, and George Porter.
LONDON INSTITUTION followed in 1806, preceding the University of London (founded 1826) by making scientific education widely available in the capital to people such as the Dissenters, who adhered to non-orthodox religious beliefs and were consequently barred from attending Oxford or Cambridge.
The philosophical aim of the London Institution was “to promote the diffusion of Science, Literature and the Arts”, and the objects were to provide a “Library to contain Works of Intrinsic Value, Lectures for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and Reading Rooms for the Daily Papers, Periodical Publications, interesting Pamphlets, and Foreign Journals.”
A number of strict rules were laid down: members had to apply to the Librarian or an attendant to obtain a book, no books were to be removed from the premises, and ladies could only be admitted as “subscribers to the lectures”.
The Gentleman’s Magazine reported:
“In the winter time when the lectures are delivered by leading men of science, the theatre is as full as can well be imagined and it is by no means a quiet resting place…..but the reading room is a treat, and it is pleasant to get away from the City bustle…”
The library came to hold over 70,000 volumes and was particularly rich in topographical works. Lasting into the 20th century, it closed in 1912.
SURREY INSTITUTION in Blackfriars was founded in 1808, modeled after the Royal Institution and London Institution. The institution chose its name after a property convenient for its needs was found: the Rotunda Building (formerly the Leverian Museum) on the south side of the Thames, at the time part of the county of Surrey. The Institution renovated the building to include a large lecture hall capable of accommodating 500 people and a galleried library of 60 feet in length. Other facilities in the building included committee rooms, a library with lending facilities, a reading room, chemical laboratory, and contemporary philosophical apparatus.
Surrey Institution offered members and visitors lectures on a variety of subjects, the earliest of which included chemistry, mineralogy and natural philosophy, given by employed and visiting scientists, scholars and artists. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, lectured on belles lettres in 1812–13, William Hazlitt on the English Poets in 1817, and the English Comic Writers in 1818.
The Institution dissolved in 1823.
RUSSELL INSTITUTION, founded by private subscription, also opened in 1808. The objectives of the Institution were the “gradual formation of a library, consisting of the most useful works in ancient and modern literature; the establishment of a reading room provided with the best foreign and English journals, and the periodical publications, and lectures on literary and scientific subjects. The books in the library will be circulated for reading among the proprietors.”
Two or three courses of scientific lectures were given per annum. It was relatively long-lived, being listed in the 1881 Post Office directory, but not in the 1891 directory.