Engineering Day – and a special engineer – at the Franklin Institute, 60+ years later.

So I just saw that this coming Saturday, September 29, 2018 is Engineering Day at the Franklin Institute! This seems like it will be a great event, with local engineering groups leading demonstrations, story time, hands-on activities, and even a book giveaway. And its Free dollars and nonedy-none cents! That means it doesn’t cost money if you don’t count parking and snacks and…well, we’ve all visited a museum before. I love them, they are my life, but they aren’t cheap. Enjoy the freebies when they come.

Anywho, this made me think about Engineering events of years past at ye old Franklin Institute, particularly those held at the Franklin Institute Science Museum (FISM) during the Cold War, largely because I’ve been writing a paper about them so they are burned into my brain.[1] Until I write another paper, of course.

During the Cold War, the Franklin Institute used its museum to host several career forum events to recruit more talented students into technical and scientific professions, including some specifically on engineering. Each of these events was structured somewhat like this month’s Engineering Day program, with several partnering groups and demonstrations, but with a much stronger focus on teaching students about career opportunities, including personal consultations with engineers working with major corporations. Almost all of the career forums shared this format, even the first one dedicated to metallurgy in 1955. I want you to think about how you’ve probably never been to a program on metallurgy, and that you probably never will, and feel that empty feeling one gets when they realize they’ll never get to learn about metallurgy. Stings, don’t it?

One such Engineering Career Forum, co-sponsored by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, was held over three days at the FISM in November 1957. The event was held just weeks after the Russian satellite Sputnik reached orbit, and befitting the fearful urgency of the time, earned a greeting from the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower.[2] Eisenhower sent a telegram to Robert Neathery, then the Director of Education at the FISM, after having worked as a classroom science teacher, and before he was named Director of the entire museum. Shocking as it may seem, during a period when science education was deemed a national priority, some people actually valued the expertise of educators. People sure were wacky back in the 1950s!

Female students were targeted for engineering careers in the 1950s, but the field still lacks gender equality. What-had-happened-was…

As printed in a story in the December 1957 issue of the Franklin Institute’s member newsletter, The Institute News, Eisenhower’s telegram to Neathery reads as follows:

“Robert Neathery, Franklin Institute

Please give my greetings to the young people of Philadelphia attending the Engineering Career Forum sponsored by The Franklin Institute and the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. It is encouraging to learn of this fine effort to advance study of science in our high schools. For the continuing progress and protection of our land, it is essential to broaden the base of our trained scientific personnel. Best wishes for a splendid Forum.

Dwight D. Eisenhower.”

The 1957 Engineering Career Forum was attended by over 800 students from area high schools who “received general and specialized advice concerning the choice of engineering as a career from more than 60 educators and industry representatives.” The program featured talks by industrialists and educators including “An Engineering Career,” by Cullen T. Pearce, Westinghouse Corp.; “A Young Engineer in Industry,” by Dennis L. McDonald, Philadelphia Electric Co.; and “Electrical Engineering Education,” by Dr. Howard E. Tompkins from the University of Pennsylvania. After the talks, Dr. A.L. Charley of Bell Telephone Company gave a Solar Battery Demonstration. The program closed with and individual counseling sessions in the museum’s Franklin Hall. A good time, apparently, was had by all.

Totally candid. Nothing staged here.

It’s telling that during the height of the Cold War with Russia, a career program at a science museum would draw the attention of the sitting president of the United States. At this point, the fact that a president expressed concern about anything untoward done by Russians seems both heartbreaking and reassuring. It’s also worth noting that this wasn’t the first time that Dwight D. Eisenhower had sent a letter to the Franklin Institute, as he’d once thanked the Institute’s leadership for their contributions to the Army during WWII. But that’s a blog for another day.


One last thing – I’m using this post as an excuse to shout out Fred Gaskins, an engineer – and supposedly the “first” black person employed at the Franklin Institute – who worked in the colloids section of the Franklin Institute Laboratories for Research and Development (FILRAD) in the mid-1950s. It’s hard to imagine he was really the first black person ever hired at the Franklin Institute, but I’m the weirdo who deeply appreciates and values the work of janitors, cooks, and laborers, which are the kinds of positions I’m guessing black people were relegated to before Fred Gaskins broke through into an important research group.  In any event, I hope to find out more about Fred Gaskins. He is important and his example reminds us why programs like Engineering Day can be transformative. We can’t afford to let systemic racism artificially limit the number of engineers available to contribute to building a brighter, sustainable future. I hope this coming September 29 at the Franklin Institute will be just that type of event.

Fred Gaskins_Cropped
In celebration of Fred Gaskins and engineering at TFI


[1] D.O. McCullough, “The Franklin Institute Science Museum’s Cold War Consortium for Science Education, 1954-1960.” Paper presented at the Organization of Educational Historians 2018 Annual Conference, Chicago, IL, October 2018.

You’ll notice that I’ve made a distinction between the Franklin Institute (TFI) and the Franklin Institute Science Museum (FISM). That is intentional. Before the 1980s, the Franklin Institute was a far more diverse and wide ranging organization with an active research program and a robust library. So when writing about the Institute’s history it is necessary to distinguish between the overarching institution and the museum that was but one division. Once, a non-historian academic, after reading a draft of a historical paper I’d written about the FISM and participating in a group discussion about that paper, sidled up to me. Attempting to help, they said, “you know, its just called the Franklin Institute now.” Don’t be that person. I’m not writing about the Franklin Institute now. I’m writing about the Franklin Institute of the past. It was different. Yes, I’m still bitter. For more, see Coulson, Thomas. “The Franklin Institute from 1824 to 1949.” Journal of the Franklin Institute 249, no. 1 (1950): 1–48. 10.1016/0016-0032(50)90001-9.

[2] “Eisenhower Congratulates Engineering Career Forum,” The Institute News, Vol. 22, No. 4, December 1957, p. 3

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