Meet Timothy Claxton, the founder of the first Mechanics’ Institute in London (1817). He had been refused membership by the City Philosophical Society of London, where he had applied to attend courses on Natural Philosophy and Chemistry run by Mr John Tatum. These famous courses were attended, for example, by the young Michael Faraday, who was also working class but better at pleasing rich patrons. As Claxton recalled in his Memoirs of a Mechanic, he was confused by the ‘very names of the subjects to be treated, such as pneumatics, Hydrodynamics, Aerostation, etc.’, because ‘they were all Latin to me’.
Even access to science courses required an understanding of the classical languages which he did not possess; it is not clear whether he was aware that the terms he was describing as ‘all Latin’ to him were actually Greek, or whether he is making the mistake deliberately to emphasise his rhetorical point. He knew why he had been rejected from the Society: it was because ‘I am a mechanic: that is the difficulty’. Nothing daunted, he set up the proudly named Mechanics’ Institute in London, and subsequently moved to Massachusetts to work in a cotton factory. He then founded both the Boston Mechanics’ Institute in 1826 and the Boston Mechanics’ Lyceum in 1831.