The Royal Polytechnic Institution was built by William Mountford Nurse in 1837 and opened at 309 Regent Street on 6 August 1838 to provide (in the words of its prospectus of 1837) “an institution where the Public, at little expense, may acquire practical knowledge of the various arts and branches of science connected with manufacturers, mining operations and rural economy.”
Sir George Cayley (1773–1857), the “father of aeronautical engineering”, was the first chairman and the Polytechnic formally received a Royal charter in August 1839.The Polytechnic housed a large exhibition hall, lecture theatre and laboratories, and public attractions included working machines and models, scientific lectures and demonstrations, rides in a diving bell and, from 1839, demonstrations of photography. Prince Albert visited the institution in 1840, when he descended in the diving bell, and became a patron in 1841. The first public photographic portrait studio in Europe opened on the roof of the Polytechnic in March 1841.
In 1847, John Henry Pepper joined the Polytechnic and oversaw the introduction of evening lectures in engineering, applied science and technical subjects for young working Londoners. Pepper wrote several important science education books, one of which is regarded as a significant step towards the understanding of continental drift.
The entrance to the university’s headquarters at 309 Regent Street
In 1848, a theatre was added to the building, purpose-built to accommodate the growing audiences for the Polytechnic’s optical shows. These combined magic lantern images with live performances, music, ghosts and spectres, spreading the fame of what was arguably the world’s first permanent projection theatre.
In 1862, inventor Henry Dircks developed the Dircksian Phantasmagoria, where it was seen by Pepper in a booth set up by Dircks at the Polytechnic.Pepper first showed the effect during a scene of Charles Dickens’s novella The Haunted Man (1848) at the Regent Street theatre to great success. However, Pepper’s implementation of the effect tied his name to it permanently. Though he tried many times to give credit to Dircks, the title “Pepper’s ghost” has endured.
Expansion gradually gave way to financial difficulty, reflecting a long-standing tension between education and the need to run a successful business. A fatal accident on the premises in 1859 caused the first institution to be wound up and a new one formed. Various regeneration schemes were considered, but in 1879 a fire damaged the roof, precipitating the final crisis.
Westminster offers Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees as well as certificates and diplomas at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. More than two thirds of Westminster’s programmes are recognised by the appropriate professional bodies such as the BCS, BPS, CIOB, CABE, ICE, RICS, HPC etc. in recognition of the high standards of relevance to the professions.
The university has numerous centres of research excellence and was ranked sixth in the UK and 40th globally for Media and Communications by QS World University Rankings 2018. The university was also ranked 15th for Art and Design in the UK, and 18th in the UK for Architecture. The Times Higher Education Young University Rankings 2019, which lists the world’s best under 50 year old universities out of 351 universities, ranked Westminster 151–200 in the world.
The university achieved world leading and internationally excellent status for most of their work, ranking second for Communications, Cultural and Media Studies research, 6th for Art and Design research, in addition to the university performing strongly in Architecture and the Built Environment, and Geography and Environmental studies. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, almost 80% of Westminster’s submitted research across 20 subject areas was judged to be of international quality. In 2013, Westminster was ranked joint second in the UK by the Architects’ Journal in their “AJ Top 100” special issue.
309 Regent Street London W1B 2HW
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