Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Deptford Mechanics' Institution (1): Olinthus Gregory

Like many nineteenth-century towns, Deptford had a Mechanics' Institution. Indeed, the proposal for this institute pre-dates Victoria's reign. In 1825, Olinthus G Gregory held a meeting of local mechanics at which he proposed its establishment to enable 'diffusion of knowledge'. Gregory told his audience that practitioners were more likely to make advances in science than those dedicated to theory; he backed up his claim with examples including Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame, and James Watt of steam engine fame. These men may have been 'low born', argued Gregory, but they had the advantage of being Englishmen,* 'the most free, the most intelligent, the most inquisitive, the most virtuous people on the face of the earth'.

Gregory himself was an example of someone who had achieved a great deal although his parents were sufficiently humble that their identity is now unknown. In 1802, he came to public notice with his Treatise on Astronomy; the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich snapped him up as second mathematical master. There, he continued to publish copiously and in 1823 determined the velocity of sound. He was also an honorary member of the Institute of Civil Engineers.

When Gregory came to Deptford then, he was an eminent man as well as one actively involved in education. His commitment to institutions such as the one he proposed here is illustrated by the fact that his last lecture before his death would be at the Woolwich Institution. As a Dissenter, he was also involved in the proposals for London University.

The meeting must have been a success: Deptford got its Mechanics' Institution, established 'for the promotion of useful knowledge among all persons, but more especially the working classes'. Gregory returned to give the lecture which marked its first anniversary. Once again, he spoke of humble men who had gone on to make great contributions to scientific knowledge. Among his examples was that of a coal miner with whom he corresponded on higher mathematics. With such an emphasis on self-improvement, it is unsurprising that this lecture was cited approvingly by none other than Samuel Smiles, famed as the author of Self Help.

*James Watt was Scottish.


Chris Partridge said...

"Olinthus" - what a name. Samuel Smiles didn't have far to go to speak at Deptford - he lived in Blackheath.

CarolineLD said...

Isn't it great - and according to the White Pages, there are two Olinthuses in the USA today.