Franklin Institute (Philadelphia, PA) Committee on Science and Arts Records,
Hagley Museum & Library
Manuscripts & Archives Department
P.O. Box 3630
Wilmington, DE 19807-0630
The Franklin Institute was founded in Philadelphia in 1824 by the city's leading engineers, scientists, technicians and manufacturers for the purpose of promoting and advancing technical progress. In 1825 it established its Committee on Inventions under Samuel Vaughn Merrick and Alexander Dallas Bache. This was the first attempt in America to set up a permanent body to direct technical innovation. Membership in the committee was originally limited to members of the Institute's board of managers. In 1834 Bache reorganized the committee as the Committee on Science and the Arts and opened it to all Institute members. The committee would appoint subcommittees of experts to examine and report on inventions submitted to it. It filled a purpose not met by the 19th century Patent Office, which granted patents liberally without proof of workability or priority and left questions of interference to the courts. By the 1890s the emergence of engineering professional societies, research universities and independent laboratories began to undermine the need for the Institute's program, and by 1924 it was reduced to awarding medals. The records document the committee's role as a clearinghouse for technical information in the 19th century. The minute books contain entries on committee business, policy and procedures, and on the disposition of applications from inventors and their agents. The more than 1600 individual subcommittee reports document the inside story of 19th century American technology, from the early years of the steam era through the rise of electrical technology. In addition to power systems, the records contain important details on the development of textile machinery, mining equipment and methods, ship construction, bookbinding and bookkeeping, optics, metallurgy, measuring instruments and telegraphy. Major inventions investigated include: Morse's telegraph, Singer's and Wheeler & Wilson's sewing machines, Yale's locks, Berliner's gramophone, Hall's typewriter, the Westinghouse air brake, Fresnel's refractory apparatus for lighthouses, Eastman's camera, Hollerith's punch-card tabulating system, Gestetner's duplicator, Mergenthaler's linotype machine, Diesel's engine, Edison's electric pen and mimeograph, Hyatt's roller bearing, Joseph Dixon's process for cast steel, Pelton's water wheel, Elisha Gray's telautograph, H. W. Johns' work with asbestos and Roentgen's discovery of X-rays. Important secondary inventions include the Wootten locomotive firebox, Shay's and Heisler's geared locomotives, Vauclain's compound cylinders, Herman Haupt's lattice truss bridges and Joseph Battin's coal breaker. Among the new materials discussed are celluloid and carborundum. In the early 19th century, the committee also issued a number of special reports and investigations. Among them are a description of the Southwark Foundry of Merrick & Towne, and reports on the explosion of the gun "Peacemaker" on the frigate U.S.S. PRINCETON, on steam boiler and steam engine explosions, on the best form of paving highways and the best form of gas lamps and on the state of the patent laws.