A Short History of the Early Development of Science Teaching

(This is a relatively short piece on the early development of science teaching in mainly England up until the mid-20th century. I cannot hope to do justice to all the individuals and organisations/institutions that contributed to its development. Science in some ways experienced a less tortuous and controversial development than technical education but was subjected to the same forms of resistance and prejudice that impeded its development. A great deal of detail reinforces much of what is written in the various chapters of this website and I have attempted to cross reference this wherever possible).

The need for the introduction of science into the secondary school curriculum was only really acknowledged during the nineteenth century. The impetus for this arose from the rapid advances in science made during this period and to the writings of such individuals as Michael Faraday (1791-1867), Thomas Huxley (1825-1895)-(see biography on this website) and Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). These individuals argued strongly for the disciplinary and utilitarian values that the teaching of science would create. The universities up to the end of the 18th century largely neglected the teaching of the natural sciences. Of the very few University Professorships in the natural/physical sciences established in the 17th century the following ones can be noted. At Oxford the Sedleian Chair of Natural Philosophy in 1621, the Savilain Chair in Geometry in 1619 and in Astronomy in 1621. At Cambridge the only endowment was the Lucasian Chair in mathematics (1663). It should be noted that the key scientific discoveries were made by amateurs the majority of whom had not attended university. These included such individuals as Henry Cavendish (1731-1810), William Herschel (1792-1871), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) (educated at a dissenting academy in Daventry), James Watt and many more. As a result of this neglect and a fairly widespread realisation of the gap between educational provision and social need a number of philosophical and scientific societies were created across the country e.g. the Royal Society founded in 1660 (see biography on the Invisible College), the Society of Arts of London for the encouragement of arts, manufactures and commerce of industry founded in 1754 by William Shipley (1714-1803).

The Lunar Society, (see biography), founded in 1766 in Birmingham by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) included such members as Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), James Watt (1736-1819), Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795) and William Herschel (1792-1871) played an important part in disseminating scientific information in the Midlands. Another important institution was the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester founded in 1781 and included amongst its members John Dalton (1766-1844) and James Prescott Joule (1818-89). John Dalton was a tutor in mathematics and natural philosophy at the Manchester Academy one of the Dissenting Academies, (see biographies on this website) see his portrait below.

John Dalton
Benjamin Rumford (1753-1814) was an influential figure in founding the Royal Institution in 1799 in London which initially taught young men in the mechanical professions by way of ‘courses of philosophical lectures and experiments on the applications of science to the common purposes of life’. Rumford intended the Institution to train young men in the mechanical professions and the practical nature of the instruction was emphasised. After Rumford left and under the subsequent leadership of Humphry Davy (1778-1829) and Michael Faraday the aims of the Institution fundamentally changed and the pioneering plans of Rumford for the instruction of young mechanics were abandoned. The Institution then transformed and became a research institution as well as providing the dissemination of scientific knowledge among the so-called more cultivated sections of the population. It also developed later a series of public lectures on science and the scientific discoveries of the day the best example being the Royal Institution Christmas lectures instigated by Faraday that still continue today. Even though the original plans of Rumford were regrettably never implemented the Royal Institution has made unique and valuable contributions to science and science education over the years especially in the early days of its existence. It was in many ways more influential than the Royal Society which was still seen as a cosy gentlemen’s club. A portrait of Michael Faraday is shown below.


Many organisations such as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society flourished in many larger towns during the 19th century under a variety of titles. Some were merely scientific amusement clubs though others did provide scientific instruction and did act as a catalyst for higher education and the subsequent creation of the provincial universities which were more committed to science and technical education than Oxford and Cambridge. The role of these societies was highlighted at the British Association Meeting in 1879. The British Association for the Advancement of Science was established in the 1830s to bring science to the provinces. A number of scientific societies were also being established including those for geology (1807), astronomy (1820), zoology (1826), botany (1836), chemistry (1841) and physics (1874) all these were as you would expect, located in London (see biographies on website). However there were developments outside London. For example in the Midlands the Birmingham and Midlands Institute was founded in 1853 for the education of artisans and miners. The Institute comprised two main departments the first a General Department consisting of a library, museums of geology and natural history, records and archive sections and the administration of lectures on general scientific topics. The second was the School of Industrial Science department organising and delivering classes in chemistry, geology, mechanics and mineralogy all delivered with a very practical bias. Another good example outside the capital was the Halifax Literary and Philosophy Society founded in 1830 complemented by a separate Scientific Society founded in 1874 but there were many more in the larger towns e.g. Newcastle, Leeds. Liverpool etc.

The Working Men’s Clubs and the Peoples Colleges in Sheffield (founded in 1842) and London (founded in 1853) (see website) also contributed to the education of the working class including science and practical subjects. A notable figure in this movement was Frederick Denison Maurice (1805-72) see his portrait below.


Another notable institution was Owens College, Manchester opened in 1851 and incorporated in 1871. From the start it had a scientific bias which had been created and maintained by the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. It was granted a charter in 1880 and became the Victoria University. Four years later University College Liverpool joined Victoria and in 1887 Yorkshire College, Leeds was also included. These and other provisional universities and colleges e.g. Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle increasingly included science and technical subjects in their programmes. Other institutions representing science were created e.g. College of Chemistry founded in 1845 and became the Royal College of Chemistry under the patronage of the Prince Consort and awarded certificates and diplomas rather than degrees to students of all ages many employed in the chemical industries. The first professor was August Hoffmann (1818-1892) a distinguished German chemist. The college only operated as an independent and private body for a short time because of ongoing financial problems and in 1853 was taken over by the Government School of Mining and went through a whole series of name changes including the Royal School of Mines, The Normal School of Science and the Royal College of Science and eventually became part of Imperial College in 1907.

Other initiatives across the country included peripatetic lectures on Natural Philosophy an example being those given in Manchester by Samuel Kaye in 1743 that included lectures in physics and astronomy. Another example of the growing interest in the sciences is the following advertisement in the Manchester Mercury for 1762 stating that ‘A course of 20 lectures on Experimental Philosophy to be given at the late Angel Inn, Market Place, by James Ardenn on Natural History, Mechanics, Geometry, use of Globes, Hydrostatics, Pneumatics and Optics. These lectures and the large number of local societies that developed nationwide were usually supported by individual enterprise and subscriptions of members.

Another important set of contributions to the development of science teaching was that of the Mechanics’ Institutions movement. One of the earliest attempts to teach ‘popular science’ can be traced to John Anderson (1726-1796), (see biography of John Anderson and the Anderson Institution), who delivered a course of lectures in around 1760 on ‘Experimental Physics’ to an invited audience comprising tradesmen and mechanics in Glasgow. Anderson continued to be committed to the importance of teaching science and technical subjects and bequeathed his estate to found a university which would be based on science teaching for mechanics and artizans. George Birkbeck (1776-1841) was the first professor at the Anderson Institute, (see biography), who continued to deliver lectures and demonstrations to artizans and mechanics. The Glasgow Mechanics’ Institution was founded in 1823 and this eventually led to the creation of other Mechanics’ Institutions that so influenced and largely laid the foundations for the development of technical education and training in Britain.

One of the foremost advocates of popular education in the early 19th century was Henry Brougham (1778-1868) who wrote extensively on the importance of education for all. He founded and was the first president of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’ (see biographies on this website), and did much to popularise the Mechanics’ Institutions. The Institutions frequently combined into unions and exchanged resources such as books and scientific and technical equipment to assist travelling lecturers. The ‘Working Man’s Educational Union’ prepared sets of diagrams and charts on astronomical and scientific equipment. The Mechanics’ Institution movement made a massive contribution to the development of scientific and technical education. The movement greatly assisted the cause of scientific education during the first half of the 19th century. They not only provided though their existence and through the support of such people as John Anderson, George Birkbeck, Henry Brougham and Charles Knight an intellectual interest to the working man but also helped to spread some knowledge of science amongst a section of the population who would otherwise remained excluded and ignorant. As the history of technical education and training on this website has shown many such institutions were founded in the 19th century along with other similar institutions that provided instruction in the sciences and technical subjects to those involved in associated occupations in factories and workshops. Many went on to become, in the late 19th and early 20th century, technical colleges and universities.

Running parallel with the mechanics’ institutions movement were other developments including the creation of more philosophical societies and societies associated with the poor. Amongst the latter were the National Society founded in 1811 and the British and Foreign Schools Society founded in 1814. These societies with many supporters gradually developed to establish schools in nearly every town and village in the country but they only possessed the most rudimentary resources that precluded the teaching of science. Only the existing grammar and public schools were in any sort of position to offer science but in the majority of cases like the existing universities neglected the teaching of science preferring instead to focus on a classical curriculum. School science teaching had to wait until the subjects were sufficiently established and systematised and there were sufficient teachers who were aware and knowledgeable about the fundamentals of the subjects. One of the first examples of science teaching in schools was at the City of London School under the part-time tutorship of William Cook of Trinity College, Cambridge who taught chemistry and natural philosophy. The school was equipped with a range of apparatus including an air-pump, a condensing syringe, a lathe, a small amount of mercury and some glass ware. Later Thomas Hall was appointed in 1847 as a full-time chemistry teacher and the school became possibly the first to teach chemistry in the country. The pupils paid an extra seven shillings, (35p in today’s money) a term for these lessons – a considerable amount of money at the time. The Science and Art Department based in South Kensington awarded grants to schools who were teaching science and whose students sat their examinations. The term ‘Science School’ was at the time applied to any school that received a grant from South Kensington. Certain Mechanics’ Institutions received the grants and by 1867 there were 212 ‘Science Schools’ with 10,230 students. A typical village Mechanics’ Institution is shown below (Yorkshire Union of Mechanics’ Institutes 1877).

Village Mechanics' Institution 1877. Yorkshire Union of Mechanics' Institutes.

Such schools were established after 1870 by the School Boards and recognised in 1872 by The Science and Art Department in order to respond to the increasing numbers of students from the larger urban areas staying on at school after 13 and for pupil teachers aged between 16 and 18. To further encourage the establishment of schools teaching science the Science and Art Department offered attendance grants from 1872 to those institutes who adopted schemes of work set out in the ‘Science and Art Directory’. This led to the creation of Organised Science Schools and laid the foundations for the traditional methods of science teaching in the country. The schools selected were not only ‘higher grade’ elementary schools but also many private and grammar schools which had accepted grants from the Science and Art Department to adopt a predominantly scientific curriculum. The regulations required a school of science to teach not less than thirteen hours a week to a compulsory course comprising not more than five hours of mathematics along with chemistry, technical drawing and practical geometry. The remaining ten hours included two for manual work and two for mathematics – the curriculum was most certainly skewed too much to science with little left for other important subjects – the pendulum had swung too far the other way! Art was in many cases omitted and very scant regard was paid to the teaching of languages. The only experimental science subjects were physics and chemistry, and the biological subjects were not even mentioned in the teaching schemes. In addition to these weaknesses the teaching of science was predominately by rote and the acquisition of facts and figures was emphasised that could be easily reproduced in the examinations. Physics and Chemistry figured largely in the curriculum for boys with little or no Biology. That was taught to the girls along with Botany! Interestingly to note that a further regulation was introduced in 1917 which at last recognised the ludicrous situation of the absence of education for girls in science particularly the physical sciences. The regulation stated: ‘The instruction in science must include practical work by the pupils. For girls over 15 domestic science, as needlework, cookery, laundry work, housekeeping and household hygiene may be substituted partially or wholly for science and for mathematics other than arithmetic’. Note the use of the word may!

The Society of Arts continued to promote and encourage the interest in the practical applications of science through its publications, exhibitions and the awards of prizes for inventions. In 1852 the Society of Arts founded a Union of Mechanics’ Institutions and proposed an examination system in order to qualify for membership and in spite of a very slow start, (only one candidate presented themselves in 1855), the system finally became established and a wide range of subjects were examined including botany, chemistry, mathematics, mechanics and physiology. The examinations were intended for students who had left school and were at least 15 years of age. The Society even published guidance annually for students entitled ‘How to learn and What to Learn’. The action by the Society of Arts of promoting examinations galvanised both Cambridge and Oxford to create the local examinations, (see history of technical and commercial examinations on this website). These examinations instigated in 1857-58 were intended to meet the needs of the so-called middle class schools+. The Schools Inquiry Commission published in 1868 recommended that endowed schools should offer external examinations and tests. In 1873 the Oxford and Cambridge Examination Board, or Joint Board was created for the purpose of examining those schools who sent large numbers of students to these older universities. The subsequent development of examinations further advanced the development of school and technical education. Progress was as stated in the histories still relatively slow compared with other countries and the teaching of science and technical subjects took much longer to become established and embedded in the mainstream curricula of schools, colleges and universities.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 also reinforced the importance of science as an essential and crucial element in general education and for the first time really highlighted the fundamental weaknesses in the scientific and technical education system compared with our continental counterparts and the superiority of their technologists and technicians. The growing demands that science should be introduced into the school system resulted in the creation of the Department of Science and Art for the ‘encouragement of science and art’. In 1854 Thomas Huxley, John Tynall (1820-1893) and Michael Faraday called for urgent action to introduce science into the existing school system. These important calls were reinforced by other influential figures like Herbert Spencer. Thomas Huxley was by far the most prominent person to advocate the importance of introducing science and technical subjects into the educational system through a series of seminal lectures and articles delivered during the 1860s and 70s (1).

The founding of University of London in 1826 was a seminal point which enabled science to become established, if initially precariously, in the higher education institutions. A Faculty of Science was established at London University and degrees in science were first awarded in 1860 but the university already had a reputation for teaching natural science and in many ways led the way in science education in universities. The first university chemistry laboratories were founded around 1829 at Glasgow University and University College London. Eventually Cambridge established the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1851 and Oxford followed in1853 with the Honours School of Natural Science and these added impetus to the introduce science into the curriculum of secondary schools. However the number of students wishing to study science at the older universities was very small and it was not really until the founding of the Cavendish Laboratory at Oxford in 1871 – Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) , shown below was the first professor that numbers increased at the university.

maxwellIt is interesting to note that Scotland led the way yet again when William Thomson (1824-1907) created the first example of any sort of university physics laboratory in 1846 at Glasgow College even though it did not have any formal university recognition.

Records are fairly sparse on the development of the teaching of science and technical subjects and the majority of our knowledge can be found in the Reports of the various Royal Commissions on Education which blossomed after 1851 i.e. after the Great Exhibition. One of these looked between 1861 and 1864 at the so-called nine great public schools and identified the domination of classical subjects such as Greek and Latin. Elementary arithmetic and mathematics was taught in all nine whilst Natural Science was only taught in Rugby and Winchester and to a lesser extent at Eton. The Commissioners highlighted the almost exclusion of Natural Science to the upper classes in England (note the language which reflects the class structure yet again). The commissioners go on to say ‘that it was a state of affairs which revealed a plain defect and great practical evil’ and that Natural Science should be taught where practicable and should include two branches namely one comprising chemistry and physics, and the other comparative physiology and natural history. The 1864 Royal Commission was appointed to undertake a very comprehensive inquire into the state of education given in secondary schools. This has become known as the Schools Inquiry Commission and reported in 1868 and highlighted not unsurprising that very schools offered science and even if they did only 18 devoted as much as 4 hours a week to the subject. The Commissioners strongly advocated that science as a subject was important but added the caveat that it could be best taught at the beginning exploiting simple observational techniques in such subjects as Botany and gradually build up to the teaching of Chemistry and Physics – a very interesting, insightful and worthy recommendation.

The Devonshire Commission, (full title: The Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction and the Advancement of Science), provided a very detailed survey of science teaching at the end of the 19th century. The sixth report published in 1895 after analysing the difficulties of introducing science into the school curriculum e.g. resources both human and physical, made many worthy recommendations. The two main ones were that science should be introduced into all public and endowed schools and carry a substantial proportion of time throughout the school course and should not be less than six hours a week on average and that school laboratories should be constructed to supply high quality accommodation for practical work in Physics and Chemistry. This was a seminal report and after its publication at long last witnessed the beginning of the widespread introduction of Physics and Chemistry into the curriculum of boys’ schools and Botany into that of girls’ schools – this ludicrous discrimination defeats any rational explanation!

With the growth of the middle class during the 19th century more boarding schools were established and the curriculum began to include more science and mathematics. An example was at Uppingham School under the headship of Edward Thring who between 1853 and 1887 introduced optional subjects including chemistry and other natural sciences. Canon Wilson headmaster at Rugby and Clifton College also did some pioneering work in introducing science but as always such initiatives were few and far between and never realised the necessary critical mass – it mirrors the situation in the development of technical and commercial education and training – a few insightful and progressive individuals fighting the prejudice of the church and the upper classes.

In 1899 the Science and Art Department was merged into the Board of Education. The Organised Science Schools were discouraged and the new secondary schools were required to adopt the curriculum model operated in the existing public and grammar schools – science was not the main focus.

The First World War inevitably raised the importance of science in the eyes of the general public and in 1916 the government appointed a Committee under the chairmanship of J. J. Thomas to enquire into the position of Natural Science in the educational system in Britain especially in schools and universities. The ‘Thomson Report’ as it became known was published in 1918 under the title ‘Natural Science in Education’ and sadly but not unsurprisingly many of its worthy recommendations were not implemented. Neverthe less the Report did bring about some important developments namely the Higher School Certificates, more advanced sciences were created and the general quality of text books was improved. In 1933 the Board of Education appointed a consultative committee under the chairmanship of William Spens but its conclusions and recommendations made little reference to science education or teaching. The science teacher associations and unions were very critical of the Spens Report in regard to science. At least the Cyril Norwood Report published in 1943 looking at the curriculum and examinations in secondary schools did invest more effort and time on the teaching of science. Too often as we have seen in the history of technical education many of these Commissions and Consultative Committees worthy as they may be usually produce little of any real lasting improvement. So often they are just a way for the government of the day tokenistic ally attempting to show they are interested and committed to long term improvement knowing full well the country does not have the resources or the will be bring about meaningful change. They also usually cherry pick the recommendations that confirm their own policies.

However it must be said that since the beginning of the 20th century there has been a gradual increase in the quality of the resources invested in science teaching e.g. in terms of financial, human (teachers and technical support staff), physical (equipment and accommodation). More science subjects have been offered in schools at GCE ‘O’ and ‘A’ Level i.e. separate sciences both in the physical and biological disciplines and general science and these have been open to both sexes! Courses in the sciences and their application were developed in colleges via the Joint Committees i.e. Ordinary/Higher Cerficates and Diplomas along with a multitude of science related technical and vocational subjects and offered primarily by the City and Guilds of London Institute and a number of Scientific and Technical Professional Bodies (see this website for more detail). Universities too greatly expanded their provision as their numbers increased developing science programmes at undergraduate and post graduate levels.

In 1945 the Education Act of 1944 came into force raising the school- leaving age and extended both secondary and technical education system.

It is fascinating to see the similarities between the development of science and technical education. The development was slow both in relative and absolute terms when compared with other countries on the continent and America. Both sectors were slow to develop and can be characterised as ad hoc and random and frequently in spite of real opportunities afforded by far sighted individuals never attained the necessary critical mass to become a national movement – that came much later and even today has major defects in its structures and management. Even more striking is the involvement and influence of a few remarkable individuals such as John Anderson, Henry Armstrong, George Birkbeck, Henry Brougham, Thomas Huxley, Lyon Playfair (1818-1898)) and Joseph Priestley (see this website for biographies of these individuals).

+ Middle Class Schools – private boarding or day schools founded by the National Society after 1838 and were designed to serve the needs of the middle and lower classes. After 1869 many middle class schools were merged with the more ancient grammar schools by the Endowed Schools Commission (1869-74) and the Charity Commission (1874-1902).

(1) Huxley. T. ‘Science and Education’ Essays by Thomas Huxley. Macmillan and Co. London 1905.
(2) Bernal. J. D. ‘Science and Industry in the 19th Century.’ Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. 1953.
(3) Meadows. J. ‘The Victoria Scientist.’ The British Library. ISBN 0 7123 0894 6. 2004.
(4) Adamson. J. W. A Short ‘History of Education’. Cambridge 1919.
(5) Hole. J. ‘Essay on History and Management of Literary, Scientific and Mechanics’ Institutions’. London 1853.
(6) Sadler. M. ‘Evening Continuation Schools in England and Elsewhere’. Manchester. 1907.
(7) Various editions of The School Science Review. ASE.

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>