Sarah Comyn: Transpacific Agency in the Mechanic’s Institutes of the Victorian Goldfields

In 1872 R. G. Bachelder’s ‘Grand Colossean Pantoscope’ successfully toured Australia visiting numerous mechanics’ institutes, including on the goldfields of Victoria. On display at the Ballaarat Mechanics’ Institute, Bachelder’s ‘pantoscope’ was reported in local newspapers as painting scenes that were ‘wonderfully grand and true to nature’, depicting the ‘progress of the traveller from the Atlantic to the Pacific’ and ‘from the Golden Gate to Australia’.[1] A year earlier, the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute—established in the same decade as many of the Victorian goldfields institutes—invited ‘the people of Australia and New Zealand’ to send items for their ‘industrial exhibition’.[2] Examining these forms of Transpacific encounter and their concomitant knowledge exchange, this paper focuses on the literary sociability created by the institutes’ lecture series, soirées and exhibitions. It aims to trace the transnational literary networks formed by events such as Mark Twain’s lecture tour of Australian mechanics’ institutes in the 1890s, and considers the ways mechanics’ institutes became Transpacific agents of cultural exchange. While this paper explores the intersections of different literary cultures in the goldfields of Australia, it also acknowledges the systems of inclusion and exclusion created by the communities formed around colonial mechanics’ institutes.

Dr Sarah Comyn, Post Doc Research Fellow, UCD School of English, Drama and Film

Sarah Comyn is an Irish Research Council Fellow at University College Dublin. She has most recently published Political Economy and the Novel: A Literary History of “Homo Economicus” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and is currently working on a monograph entitled A New Reading Public: The Mechanics’ Institute on the Goldfields of Victoria, 1851-1901.


[1] ‘Mechanics’ Institute’ in Ballarat Courier, Tuesday, 24 December 1872, 2, available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article192279611

[2] ‘News and Notes’ in Ballarat Star, Thursday, 26 January 1871, 2, available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article197559931


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