On February 5, 1824, Samuel Vaughan Merrick and William H. Keating founded The Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts. Within three years of its founding, that promotion took place through public lectures, a high school, a library, public exhibitions, and a research journal, and many of these endeavors remain core activities to this day. Since then The Franklin Institute has played a central, yet constantly evolving, role in meeting the educational needs of America in the fields of science and technology. For the organization’s first century, the Institute offered classes in mechanics, drafting, and engineering, and promoted science and invention. In 1930, despite the Great Depression, The Franklin Institute and the Poor Richard Club began to seek funds to build a new science museum and memorial hall. In just twelve days, the community contributed $5.1 million, and in 1932, the cornerstone of the new Franklin Institute was laid at 20th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The Franklin Institute science museum opened to the public on January 1, 1934, titling itself a “Wonderland of Science,” and was one of the first museums in the nation to offer a hands-on approach to learning about the physical world. Three major capital campaigns (1990, 2003, and 2012) enabled physical and programmatic expansion resulting in the existing facility, which contains more than 400,000 square feet of exhibit space, two auditoriums, and the Tuttleman IMAX Theater. The Institute also operates the Fels Planetarium, the second oldest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere. The Institute is home to the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial, which was fully restored in 2010 and which is open free to the public. It is one of just a handful of national memorials in the custody of a private institution.
In June 2014 the Institute opened a new wing: the 53,000-square-foot Nicholas and Athena Karabots Pavilion houses a STEM education and conference center, a climate-controlled traveling exhibition gallery, and the new permanent exhibit Your Brain, in which visitors can explore neuroscience and their own senses. The new building is LEED-Silver certified thanks to its many energy-saving and “green” features, and has received an award from the American Institute of Architects.
Today, the Institute offers 12 world-class permanent exhibits that provide hands-on learning experiences that introduce and reinforce key science concepts in creative and engaging ways. The Institute also hosts renowned traveling exhibits that draw local, national, and international visitors to the museum, such as King Tut, the most visited museum exhibit in the world in 2007, and Body Worlds in 2010. As an American Association of Museums-accredited organization, the Institute holds curatorial collections—particularly those related to Benjamin Franklin and the Wright Brothers—that are considered national treasures.
The 191-year-old Franklin Institute Awards program is America’s oldest and most prestigious recognition of achievement in science and technology. The list of Franklin Institute laureates reads like a “Who’s Who” in the history of 19th and 20th century science, including Alexander Graham Bell, Pierre and Marie Curie, Thomas Edison, Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Jane Goodall, and Stephen Hawking. In recent history, the Bower Business Awards have honored entrepreneurs and philanthropists including Fred Kavli, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Bill George. To date, 117 Franklin Institute laureates also have been honored with Nobel Prizes.
The Institute’s programmatic offerings serve a range of audiences, with a focus on underserved youth, in Philadelphia and beyond. Partnerships with cultural organizations and corporations support unique collaborative outreach initiatives and events, including youth programs that build leadership skills, provide mentorship opportunities and open paths to formal education and careers in science and technology. Gender and family learning programs engage families in science enrichment experiences to increase interest and knowledge in STEM subjects. Community-based programs encourage diverse audiences to explore the value of science education and literacy. The Franklin Institute’s wealth of educator resources and workshops enables teachers to bring the spark for hands-on science interaction into their daily lessons, and helps them to align classroom education with nationally mandated standards.
The Franklin Institute presents public lectures, academic symposia, and opportunities for discussion of current science events as they unfold throughout the year to create an informal and educated dialogue about the most important science issues facing the public. From heart health to neuroscience awareness to immunology, the Institute addresses themes currently impacting residents of Greater Philadelphia and beyond. As founding organizer of the Philadelphia Science Festival since 2011, The Franklin Institute helped its 210 partners to reach more than 90,000 people in neighborhoods across the city with hands-on workshops and demonstrations in its fifth year in 2015. The Institute is currently a lead or partner in more than a dozen federal grant-funded programs through agencies including the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and NASA.