This paper examines the contribution made by the mechanics’ institute movement in Britain just prior to, and following, the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. It argues that far from making little contribution to education, as often portrayed by historians, the movement was ideally positioned to respond to the findings of the Exhibition, which were that foreign goods on display were often more advanced than those produced in Britain. The paper highlights, through a regional study, how well suited mechanics’ institutes were in organising their own exhibitions, providing the idea of this first international exhibition. Subsequently, many offered nationally recognised technical subject examinations through relevant education as well as informing government commissions, prior to the passing of the Technical Instruction Acts in 1889 and the Local Taxation Act of 1890. These acts effectively put mechanics’ institutes into state ownership as the first step in developing further education for all in Britain.