The Franklin Institute of Boston began enrolling students in September 1908. Its name then was the Franklin Union, and its mission was what it remains today: to be a place for working men and women to advance themselves through technical training. New as it was, its origins could be traced back over a hundred years to one of the last public acts of the greatest American of his generation.
Benjamin Franklin died on April 17, 1790, and after learning of his will and codicil, the people of Boston voted at a town meeting on June 1 to accept the 1,000 pounds gift for the loan program and the 100 pounds gift for school medals. They also authorized the board of managers named in Franklin's will to carry out his instructions for the loan program. From that day until the present time, the Franklin Fund of Boston has been in the hands of the managers and their successors. Because it is an accumulating trust, Franklin's will dictates the uses of the Fund until its termination.
Nine selectmen and two ministers promptly put the Fund to work after appointing a committee to arrange the details of securing each loan and to invite applicants through newspaper advertisements. In May alone, the managers heard from twenty-two young married artificers in fourteen different trades from housewright and bricklayer to hairdresser, jeweller, and tanner.
Despite the Fund's early popularity, the managers soon had to adapt to changing circumstances. The onset of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s brought on the decline of the traditional system in which a young man rose from apprentice to journeyman to master. By the 1830s, many people simply went to work as "mechanics" in factories and had no plans to set up on their own. The managers eased their loan requirements; an applicant could now "be simply a mechanic, or...intend to adopt a mechanical trade." Even so, by the middle of the century, demand for loans from the Franklin Fund had all but disappeared. The Boston Fund's managers began to invest the capital in prudent instruments such as savings accounts and a life insurance company. In February 1866, the Fund had total assets of over $110,000. When the Fund reached its hundredth anniversary in July 1891, its value was more than $391,000.
The arrival of the Fund's hundredth anniversary meant that three-fourths of the money would now be turned over to the city of Boston for public works. The rest, about $100,000, would continue to be loaned and invested by the board until 1991, the two hundredth anniversary of Franklin's bequest, when the proceeds would be divided between Boston and the state of Massachusetts. It had been decided in 1882 that Boston's three-fourths share of the first century's proceeds should be used to pay off the bond issue that financed the creation of Franklin Park. But a suit brought by Franklin's heirs in Philadelphia tied up the money for several years, and the park debt was retired with other funds.
The Franklin heirs' final appeal failed in May 1893, and in November, after public hearings, the board of managers recommended establishing a trade school with the three-fourths share. The managers decided on the trade school because it seemed a perfect successor to the apprenticeship system, enabling Franklin's legacy to help young tradesmen in a way that suited the industrial age.
Boston received its part of the Fund in January, 1894, and the managers moved ahead with plans for the school by locating a building site. But when they chose a site late in 1895 and began to make arrangements to pay for it, the Boston city treasurer challenged their authority to spend the three-fourths share. This challenge touched off a legal dispute which would continue until 1904.
The dispute arose because the Fund was becoming a sizable pool of capital, and political forces in Boston were growing more interested in its future.
By April 1902, this board had decided to build a technical institute, a much broader type of school than the trade school proposed in 1894. But before this plan could advance, the board faced another suit. Boston's new mayor, Patrick A. Collins, had gone to the Supreme Judicial Court challenging the managers' right to authorize any expenditure of the city's portion of the Fund and to serve as Fund managers.
On March 16, 1904, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision which remains legal basis of the management of Franklin's codicil bequest. The court stated that Franklin's legacy to Boston was a public charity, assigned itself the right to appoint its managers, and declared that the three ministers were the only legal managers at that moment. The court removed the aldermen from the board, declaring that as Franklin had not said what to do if the selectmen ceased to exist, the mayor and the aldermen were holding office illegally. Because Franklin had specified twelve board members, twelve would serve on the new board: three ministers, the mayor, and--following the words of the codicil--eight "virtuous and benevolent citizens willing to bestow a part of their Time in doing good." Lastly, the court gave the new board control of all the combined assets of the Franklin Fund of Boston, and authorized it to decide how to spend the money and then to actually go ahead and spend it.
Now that the legal issues surrounding the Franklin Fund had been settled, the new board of managers could carry out Franklin's intentions with a project that would serve the people of Boston. In December 1906, they held a public hearing and heard testimonials from twenty-two people. All but three advocated using the money for public education. Five supported the idea of a trade school, while four others preferred a more technically-oriented institution. But establishing a school was expensive. Although the First Part of the Fund had now grown to over $400,000, that amount would not really suffice to purchase land, construct a suitable building, and maintain an endowment for operating expenses.
When the managers met again on December 20, Henry Pritchett told them of a remarkable offer from a friend--Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born American steel magnate. Benjamin Franklin was one of Carnegie's heroes, and the technical school plan fit in with his philanthropic vision, so the multimillionaire offered to provide the school with an endowment by matching the amount in the Fund.On Friday, September 25, 1908, the Franklin Union building was dedicated with a ceremony attended by 750 people. Classes began the following Monday with an enrollment of 533 students. The first term's course offerings were Mechanical Drawing, Machine Details, Mechanism, Drawing for Carpenters and Builders, Industrial Chemistry, Steam Engines and Boilers, Industrial Electricity, and Mechanics.