From Benjamin Franklin to the BFIT: A History of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology

by Faye Charpentier, SEHS Intern

The Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology (BFIT), located at the corner of Appleton and Berkeley in Boston’s South End, first opened its doors 1908 as the Franklin Union. The BFIT’s history, however, goes back nearly 120 years earlier than the building itself. What are the early roots of this important technical institute and how did the school come into existence, despite controversy surrounding its establishment?

Portrait of Benjamin Franklin by Joseph-Siffred Duplessis, via WikiMedia Commons

The BFIT’s history begins with the school’s namesake: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin prided himself as a self-made man, taking his own steps to ensure his success as an individual. Franklin’s autobiography details his years working as a printer’s apprentice before mastering the trade. In life and in death Franklin boasted his pride in his trade, signing letters “B. Franklin, Printer” and requesting that “printer” be included at his grave. On June 23, 1789, Franklin added a codicil to his will. His codicil intended to aid future generations of young men working as tradesmen and artisans as they moved from apprentice to journeyman to master. This codicil allotted ₤1000 sterling to Philadelphia and Boston. For the first 100 years following Franklin’s death, this money would be invested and used for loans to support young tradesmen to beginning their careers. After a century, ¾ of the money would be transferred to the cities for public works. The remaining ¼ would be invested and used for loans for the following century. While Franklin’s intentions were noble, he could not have anticipated the changing industrial face of the United States.

As the apprenticeship system virtually disappeared as America industrialized, Bostonians worried about the situation the city and the fund’s managers faced. A November 23, 1884 Boston Globe article was particularly critical of Franklin’s fund: “The experience of the trustees and managers of this fund shows how useless it is for man, however wise, to make inflexible conditions in regard to his property, which shall continue in force for a century, or even for fifty years. The changes in population, business methods and social life cannot be anticipated by any man for a single generation.” At the time the article was written, only three of the loan recipients were using the funds as stipulated by Benjamin Franklin’s codicil. The trustees of the funds had removed the provision concerning an apprenticeship, “because of the fact that indentures are no longer a part of our industrial system; but they still insist upon the other conditions – that the applicant shall be a mechanic, married, under 25 years of age, and furnish responsible bondsmen.” Qualified applicants for these loans were few and far between. Boston remained unsure about how the funds would be used after the first century, since Boston was so vastly different from when Franklin lived there.

As the end of the Franklin Fund’s first century came to a close, Boston’s fund was in much better shape than Philadelphia’s. By 1887, Philadelphia’s ₤1000 grew to $70,800. Boston, on the other hand, transformed their ₤1000 into a massive $327,799.45. How Boston would use their funds after 1890, however, remained uncertain. Leading up to the 100 year mark, some Bostonians wanted to use the money to build a park: Franklin Park in West Roxbury. The park was ultimately completed with city money, but Franklin’s name was given to the park in his honor. In the 1890s, Bostonians pushed the idea of using Franklin’s funds to build a trade school, which would benefit young men entering the workforce as Franklin had specified.

Postcard of the Franklin Union Building
Postcard of the Franklin Union Building

By the hundredth anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s death, this fund amounted to about $391,000. But, the Franklin Union did not open its doors to students until 1908, 15 years after Boston decided to construct the school. During the 1890s, there were a series of course cases aimed at properly interpreting Franklin’s will. The courts needed to determine if a school was a proper allocation of the funds, given this was not explicitly suggested by the codicil. By the early 1900s, it was decided that a trade or industrial school would properly use Franklin’s fund. As plans moved forward towards establishing this school, the committee discovered that the Franklin Fund was not enough money to build the school and provide an endowment. For additional funding, the trustees turned  to industrialist Andrew Carnegie. MIT President Henry Pritchett contacted Carnegie, who offered to match the Franklin Fund in order to provide the school with an endowment. His conditions were that it had to be an industrial school and that the city of Boston had to provide the land for the school. In 1906, the Franklin Fund trustees purchased a plot of land at the intersection of Appleton and Berkeley Streets in the South End, where the school still stands today. The building was dedicated on September 25, 1908.

Throughout its history, the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology has had its share of historic firsts. With roots in the school’s early Gas and Gasoline Engines course, the BFIT now has the oldest automotive program of its kind in the United States. The school also hosted the nation’s first group telephone call on May 15, 1916. Over 900 people gathered in the Franklin Union’s hall to listen to speakers from across the country, including Alexander Graham Bell, converse remotely. Then on November 14, 1927, the Franklin Union exhibited the first public demonstration of what we now call faxing. The American Telephone and Telegraph Company transmitted a five-by-seven inch photograph across the country by telephone wires in just seven minutes. During World War I, the Franklin Union was the site of the country’s second Occupational Therapy program. Women enrolled in this 12 week course, where they learned skills like basket-weaving, knitting, and wood-carving. Graduates of this program taught these handicrafts to veterans to aid their recovery from physical injuries and mental disorders like shell-shock. Although this program was discontinued after the war, the Franklin Union provided veterans with vocational training until 1924.

After nearly 120 years in the making, the Franklin Union school opened its doors in 1908. During its first year, 553 students enrolled in courses ranging from  Drawing for Carpenters and Builders to Industrial Electricity. Under the leadership of its first director Walter B. Russell, the school continued to grow and transform to better serve its students and wider community.  Russell structured courses into series of one- and two-year certificate programs, providing students with suitable training and experience to enter the workforce. Additionally, he initiated preparatory coursework programs, so prospective students without the necessary background for Franklin Union programs could prepare for enrollment – concepts still in practice at the contemporary Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology. By 1957, the school was authorized to grant associates, bachelors, and masters degrees for the completion of programs. Today, the BFIT offers two bachelor degree  programs, twelve associates degree programs, three certificate programs, and two continuing education programs, all preparing students for competitive careers in technical and industrial fields.