School of Arts and the Watt Institution & School of Arts

Scope and Content

Records of the School of Arts, 1821 - 1852 and of the Watt Institution and School of Arts, 1852 - 1885

Administrative / Biographical History

'The School of Arts of Edinburgh for the Education of Mechanics in such branches of Physical Science as are of Practical Application in their Several Trades', the first Mechanics Institute in Britain, was opened at the Freemasons' Hall, Niddry Street, on 16 October 1821. The first Secretary of the School was its main founder, Leonard Horner. He was responsible to a governing body of Directors. The first courses offered by the School of Arts were in Chemistry (Tuesday evenings), and Mechanics or Natural Philosophy (Friday evenings). In the first month courses in Architecture and Farriery were added. Mathematics, although not formally offered in the first year, was taught with the approval of the Directors by the students themselves. In the first Summer Session courses in Mechanical and Architectural Drawing were opened (Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings). In 1833 a three year course was established leading to the award of a Diploma of Life Membership of the School of Arts to every student who gained proficiency in the three classes of Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics. In 1837 the School of Arts moved to rented premises in Adam Square.

In 1852 funds raised by a public subscription in memory of James Watt enabled the School to buy its own premises in Adam Square. In honour of the illustrious inventor and engineer, the School changed its name to the Watt Institution and School of Arts. The Institution received its first government support in the form a scholarship of 50 per annum from the Department of Science and Art. Classes were introduced in Physiology (1863), German (1866), Botany (1870) Geology (1872) Latin (1874) Greek (1876) and Biology, Freehand Drawing, Theory of Music, History and Economic Science (1877).

The School initially accepted male pupils only; the first women students were enrolled in 1869.

The Adam Square building was demolished for city improvements in 1871 and the Institution rented premises in Roxburgh Place in 1872, before acquiring new buildings in Chambers Street in 1873.

In 1885 the Watt Institution and School of Arts joined with George Heriot's Trust to form Heriot-Watt College.


The collection is listed and arranged chronologically according to provenance.

Access Information

By appointment. Access to records in a fragile condition may be restricted.

Other Finding Aids

Fonds, series and item level printed and computerised list available in the Searchroom.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for educational use and private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents. Permission to publish material from the Archive must be sought in advance from the University Archivist. Responsibility for obtaining copyright clearance rests with the applicant.

Custodial History

The records were inherited by Heriot-Watt College and subsequently Heriot-Watt University as successor bodies to the Watt Institution and School of Arts.


Not expected.

Related Material

Records of successor bodies: Heriot-Watt College (GB 582 HWUA HWC); and Heriot-Watt University (GB 582 HWUA HWU)


  • J.S. Boyle Heriot-Watt University: From Mechanics Institute to Technological University 1821-1973,Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, July 1973
  • Leslie A. Wallace 1921-1992: a History of Physics at Heriot-Watt University,Heriot-Watt University, 1993
  • Alex Anderson and Brian G Gowenlock, Chemistry in Heriot-Watt 1821-1991Heriot-Watt University, 1998
  • Heriot-Watt University History forthcoming.

Family Names