Taking their name from the early 19th-century term for a rural laborer who had moved to the city to tend the machinery of the new factories that were driving the industrial revolution, the first Mechanics Institutes, founded in London and Manchester in 1823 and 1824, were designed to 'agreeably occupy' the 'mental vacancy' of workingmen in the evening. The movement quickly spread throughout the British colonies, with the Melbourne Mechanics Institute, founded in 1839, one of Victoria's oldest public institutions.
Supported by public donation, the Melbourne Mechanics Institute housed a public library, reading room, and held public lectures. Renamed the Athenaeum in 1873, it aimed to 'afford instruction and to encourage the arts and sciences ... [foster] colonial talent ... and [dispel] the mists of colonial ignorance'. Often the first public building in a community, local Mechanics Institutes saw many uses: primary school, polling booth, auction room, bank, art gallery, theatre and church.
By 1940 there were more than 1000 Institutes in Victoria with a history of providing the sites for local celebrations, ceremonies, memorials and commemorations. However, such traditional functions as adult education and public libraries were gradually taken over by government. While the Institutes folded many of the buildings remained, often renamed 'memorial halls' in the wake of World Wars I or II. The Melbourne Athenaeum is still a significant contributor to the city's cultural life, the Prahran Mechanics Institute is a specialist local history library, and the Brunswick Institute is a community arts complex that includes the Mechanics Institute Gallery. In 1998 the 'Mechanics Institutes of Victoria Inc.' was formed to foster exchange between individual Institutes.