Historic Sites

Teaching the Sciences in Philadelphia

Today the Atwater Kent Museum is a modest-sized museum of city history, but it was built in 1826 as the original Franklin Institute – a school dedicated to the mechanical arts, science, technology and research.

The groundwork of the industrial revolution was laid in the early decades of the 19th century with the advent of steam power, small machine shops, and advances in chemistry and physics. Philadelphia was among the cities in the forefront of the nascent industrial age. Technical schools were being founded at this time in European and some American cities.  Local businessman Samuel Vaughn Merrick and science professor William H. Keating hatched the idea for such a school in Philadelphia in late 1823. Other leaders of the city joined the effort and a series of lectures was soon launched the next year in rented space at Carpenters’ Hall and the original University of Pennsylvania at 4th and Arch. The school was an immediate success with 600 paying members in the first year. Mostly these members were young craftsmen and apprentices interested in improving their knowledge of engineering, the science behind the new advances.

Naming the organization after Philadelphia’s most famous man of science, Ben Franklin, was a natural. After only one year, the Institute was planning it own building on a vacant lot on 7th Street near Market, and a source of funding appeared when the federal government agreed to a long-term lease for federal courts in part of the proposed building. John Haviland was selected as architect. Perhaps his most famous work is Eastern State Penitentiary, which influenced the design of prisons around the world. The new building for the Institute was about 60 feet wide and 100 feet long in the neo-classical style.

Some of the most important names in Philadelphia science and industry taught or lectured there. Men such as architects William Strictland and Thomas U. Walter and industrialists Matthias Baldwin, Isaiah Lukens, William Sellers. A host of scholars and scientists were associated with the Institute including Alexander Dallas Bache and Frederick Graff.


Today the Franklin Institute on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway is known as an outstanding science museum, but for decades it was much more. The Institute took on scores of research projects. It was also an early testing lab trying to determine if new inventions really worked. The first scientific study of water power drew international attention. The federal government helped finance a study there to determine how to make steam engines safe following disastrous explosions on steamboats. Later, it was the Franklin Institute that spearheaded a movement and devised ways to standardize threads and sizes for nuts and bolts.

The Institute also published a technical and science journal and sponsored contests for inventors. Evening lectures were a huge success. Those who paid their annual $3 dues could attend all lectures for free. From the start, women were admitted to all lectures. Drafting classes were particularly popular.

After 109 years of use, the building was abandoned when the Franklin Institute moved to the Parkway in 1933. It stood vacant and was scheduled for demolition when dynamic society woman Frances Ann Wistar launched a campaign to save it. She enlisted the aid of industrialist A. Atwater Kent, who had already provided the funding to preserve the Betsy Ross House.

Kent had been a pioneer in manufacturing auto parts and electrical appliances. He jumped into the new radio business in 1921 with much success. His Atwater Kent radio factory employed 12,000 workers at its peak. He purchased the building that now bears his name, which was dedicated in 1941 as a museum of Philadelphia history. The facade of the building hasn’t changed since the day it opened.

  • Sinclair, Bruce. Philadelphia‘s Philosopher Mechanics: A History of the Franklin Institute, 1824–1865. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Historic Sites

From Musket Balls to Basketballs- The Sparks Shot Tower

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Perhaps it is still standing because it would cost too much to demolish. The Sparks Shot Tower – for many years the tallest structure in Philadelphia – is now part of a city recreation center. Instead of making tons of musket balls, birdshot and bullets, the 142-foot tower looms above an indoor basketball court.

The Sparks Shot Tower has been a South Philadelphia landmark since 1808. Located at Front and Carpenter Streets, it’s easily seen by passing motorists on I-95. Most people probably assume it’s a tall smoke stack from some long-defunct factory. It is, indeed, a 200-year-old industrial artifact. When the brick tower was first built, it represented a revolutionary new technology in the manufacture of lead ammunition. The technology was born in Great Britain where it was discovered that dropping molten lead from a high place caused it to form perfectly round balls as it fell. The lead was poured through a mesh that gave the balls the proper sizes. The hot balls fell into a large vat of water.

Until this discovery, musket balls were fashioned by pouring the lead into wooden molds. The new technique made it many times quicker and cheaper to make ammunition. Tons of shot was imported to America until President Thomas Jefferson imposed the Embargo Act in 1807. During the Napoleonic Wars, both France and Great Britain began seizing ships from neutral nations headed toward enemy ports. Jefferson’s answer was to ban trading with both nations.

According to a long-told story, Thomas Sparks and John Bishop were out hunting water fowl in the swamps in South Philly when they began discussing the high price of lead shot caused by the embargo and hit on the idea of building their own shot tower. Another partner in the project was James Clement.  All three were experienced in working with lead. The partners found someone who had worked in a British shot tower to advise them. The tower is said to be a sterling example of Philadelphia brickwork. Topped by a cone-shaped roof, the tower is 30 feet in diameter at the base and tapers to 15 feet. “Members of the United States Lighthouse Board have frequently repaired to its site to copy the model and afterward re-embody it in a lighthouse,” according to an 1875 book on Philadelphia industry.

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There is some debate over the claim that the Queen Village landmark was the first American shot tower. A stone shot tower in Wythe County, Va., along the New River, was built about the same time. It still stands along with Sparks and three other American shot towers. Within a year of the opening of the Sparks Shot Tower, Philadelphian Paul Beck built an even larger tower along the Schuylkill River, but it is long gone.

During the War of 1812, the Sparks Shot Tower was in full operation selling ammunition to the federal government. Bishop left the enterprise because he was devout Quaker who felt he could not support war in any form. The third partner also eventually left. At some point machinery was installed in a nearby building to make the conical bullets that replaced most lead shot. Four generations of the Sparks family continued operations until 1903 when the business was sold.

In 1913, the city purchased the shot tower and surrounding grounds to create a playground for a neighborhood teeming with immigrants and the poor. The entrance to the tower is sealed off and few have entered it in decades.


Avery, Ron. Beyond the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia: Broad Street Books, 1991.

Workshop of the World. Oliver Evans Press, 1990.

There is also a large amount of research on shot towers available on various websites.   

Historic Sites

Bringing the World to Philadelphia

During its last decades, the Commercial Museum was a forlorn and forgotten anachronism – little more than a hazy memory for aging Philadelphians of a long-ago junior high school field trip. When it was demolished in 2005, few mourned its passing. But during its first decades, there was probably no Philadelphia institution more dynamic, useful or better-known around the globe. It was much more than a mere museum. It was the de facto U.S. Department of Commerce, before the federal government established that department.

The idea for the museum was born with a visit by University of Pennsylvania biology professor Dr. William P. Wilson to the great Columbian Exhibition of 1893 in Chicago. He convinced City Council and Mayor Edwin S. Stuart to purchase 24 railcars filled with materials from the fair when it closed. Wilson became director of the museum and added tons of new material from big fairs and exhibits around the world.

Six years after its founding in 1894, the museum consisted of five buildings along 34th Street near Spruce. Its large staff promoted world trade in a dozen ways including the collection of countless items of trade goods from every nation in the world. Collecting tons of foreign goods and raw materials was aimed at showing American businesses what other nations offered in the way of trade goods and what they might want to buy. The museum even compiled lists on which foreign firms to avoid.

The museum also spewed out an ocean of publications, reports and statistical data and did translations in two-dozen languages. It put together international buyers and sellers, boasted up-to-date scientific testing labs, and had a network of 20,000 overseas correspondents feeding statistics and facts on trade back to Philadelphia headquarters. It had a huge library of books and publications relating to world trade. Along with lectures for adults, it provided classes on trade and geography for school students and gave them a glimpse of exotic lands.

It was such a unique and useful concept that President William McKinley came to Philadelphia to speak at its birth – an address covered by the New York Times. The President also sent a message in 1899 for the dedication of the museum’s buildings and to welcome a Commercial Congress attended by trade officials from 60 nations.


While the City had provided the initial cash to launch the museum and start its collecting activities, the exposition and trade congress were authorized by both houses of Congress. The federal treasury gave $350,000, and money from Pennsylvania, the City of Philadelphia and private capital brought the total to $800,000. A major source of continued funding for the museum was membership fees of about $100 a year from businesses with an interest in export/import. Seventy percent of the member businesses were from outside the Philadelphia region.

When the U.S. Department of Commerce was born in 1914, the museum began to lose its unique position in the country. In 1930, the Philadelphia Convention Hall opened in the middle of the museum buildings. Buildings south of Convention Hall were replaced with modern exhibit space in the 1960s. Eventually, the complex became known as the Civic Center on Civic Center Boulevard although the ornate northern-most building retained its role as the Commercial Museum It enjoyed some brief glory in the early 1960s with gala trade fairs and fashion shows focused on Italy and France.

The complex became derelict in the late 1990s after the opening of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Center City. The University of Pennsylvania eventually purchased the complex to expand its medical research facilities. Although truckloads of museum material had been discarded over the decades, there were still about 27,000 items in storage including some rare and expensive craft and folk items from Africa and Asia. Curators at the University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and other museums were delighted to share the hidden treasures.


  • Hunter, Ruth. The Trade and Convention Center of Philadelphia: Its Birth and Renascence. City of Philadelphia, 1962.
  • Philadelphia Daily News. “A Museum is Set to Pack It In,” June 13, 1994.
  • Philadelphia Daily News “Museum Exhibits Parceled Out,” June 19, 2001.