John Boynton an obscure and retiring manufacturer of Templeton, Massachusetts, had started life as a farmer, later becoming a peddler of tinware. During all those years he had cherished a desire for a practical education. It was always beyond his reach, but in 1865, at the age of 73, he had the satisfaction of providing the means for other young men to secure what he had been denied. He contributed $100,000, practically all his wealth, for the purpose of founding a technical school. All details of the plan he left to others.
The men who developed the program for what was to become the Worcester Polytechnic Institute were David Whitcomb, Mr. Boynton’s cousin and confidant, the Reverend Seth Sweetser, a Worcester minister, Emory Washburn, former governor of Massachusetts, and George F. Hoar, later a distinguished United States senator. The comprehensive plan which they worked out, much of it written by Dr. Sweetser, provided for a combination of technical education and practical instruction in a commercial plant. It was an entirely novel idea at the time.
Two other Worcester citizens had an important share in the foundation of the Institute. One was Ichabod Washburn, founder of the American Steel & Wire Co., who donated funds for the machine shop and its equipment. The other was Stephen Salisbury, who gave land for the campus and contributed generously to building funds and endowment.
The charter of the Worcester County Free Institute of Industrial Science, as it was originally named, was signed May 9, 1865. Funds for a main building were raised among the citizens of Worcester. It was named Boynton Hall, in honor of the founder, who died a year and a half before the Institute began operations. The Washburn Shops were built at the same time as Boynton Hall, and both were ready for use when the Institute opened, November 11, 1868.
Dr. Charles O. Thompson, a young man of great ability and vision, guided the Institute through its first fourteen years, and was largely responsible for the success of the unique plan. Sharing the problems of the first years were several equally competent administrators and teachers, including George I. Alden, Milton Higgins, John E. Sinclair, George E. Gladwin, and Alonzo S. Kimball.
There were 32 students in the first class, and succeeding classes were not much larger. Tuition was free to residents of Worcester County during the first decade. Courses of study included Mechanical Engineering, Civil Engineering, Chemistry, Drawing and Architecture. The course was three years in length, but vacation periods were very short. It was increased to three and a half years in 1872, and to four years in 1893. The name Worcester Polytechnic Institute was adopted in 1887.