The long, distinguished history of The Franklin Institute Awards Program dates back to 1824 when the Institute was founded by a group of leading Philadelphians to train artisans and mechanics in the fundamentals of science. Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States, was a burgeoning manufacturing center. In 1824, the Institute arranged the first of a series of annual exhibitions of manufactured goods. With these exhibitions came the presentation of awards—first certificates, and later endowed medals—for achievements in science and invention. The first written record of the Awards is in Volume 1, Number 1 of the Journal of The Franklin Institute published in January 1826.
Through its Awards Program, The Franklin Institute seeks to provide public recognition and encouragement of excellence in science and technology. The list of Franklin Institute laureates reads like a "Who's Who" in the history of 19th, 20th, and 21st-century science, including Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Rudolf Diesel, Pierre and Marie Curie, Orville Wright, Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Frank Lloyd Wright, Edmund Bacon, Marshall Warren Nirenberg, Jacques Cousteau, Mildred Cohn, Stephen Hawking, Martin Rees, Paul Baran, Gordon Moore, Jane Goodall, Herb Kelleher, Elizabeth Blackburn, Bill Gates, Dean Kamen, Cornelia Bargmann, Jim Allison, and Frances Arnold. To date, 125 Franklin Institute laureates also have been honored with Nobel Prizes. The majority received their Franklin Institute Awards prior to their Nobel Prizes—by as many as 36 years! (George E. Smith received The Franklin Institute’s Ballantine medal in 1973 and his Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009. His Nobel Prize was shared with Charles Kuen Kao and Willard S. Boyle, both of whom won the Ballantine medal in 1977, 32 years before being honored by the Nobel Committee.)
For nearly 175 years, the Institute’s awards program presented 25 different awards, most endowed by generous benefactors. In 1998, the program was reorganized under the umbrella of the Benjamin Franklin Medals. Fields recognized today include chemistry, civil and mechanical engineering, computer and cognitive science, Earth and environmental science, electrical engineering, life science, and physics. Recipients of the Benjamin Franklin Medals receive a $10,000 honorarium and a 14-karat gold medal.
In 1990, the Bower Award for Business Leadership and the Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science were added to The Franklin Institute Awards canon. These two awards were made possible by a $7.5 million bequest in 1988 from Philadelphia chemical manufacturer Henry Bower, who was the grandson of a Franklin Institute laureate. Recipients of the Bower Awards receive a 14-karat gold medal. The Bower Science Award is presented in a different theme each year and carries a cash prize of $250,000. The Bower Award for Business Leadership recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding leadership in an American business or industry while adhering to the highest ethical standards, and who serve as an inspiration to present and future leaders of business and industry. To honor its namesake’s legacy, the Institute honors modern-day exemplars of Benjamin Franklin. In addition to their major impact in business, recipients have outstanding records of public service.
The Franklin Institute’s newest award is the Benjamin Franklin NextGen Award, established in 2021. It is the first award in The Franklin Institute’s history specifically intended to honor an early-career researcher in science and engineering for an exceptional discovery, development, invention, or innovation. Recipients receive a $10,000 honorarium and a crystal award. The inaugural recipient was Kizzmekia Corbett, who was honored for her work in COVID-19 vaccine development.
Recognizing outstanding achievements in science, technology, and industry around the world is an important way the Institute preserves Benjamin Franklin's legacy.