The Cawthron Institute, of Nelson, New Zealand, owes its origin to the munificence of Thomas Cawthron, successful business man of Nelson, who left the residue of his estate valued at £240,000 for the establishment of an “Industrial, Technical School Institute and Museum”, to be named Cawthron Institute.
According to F. G. Gibbs, who acted as honorary secretary to Thomas Cawthron in the latter's benefactions to Nelson, the suggestion of a technical institute came from the late J. H. Cock. His advice was sought by Thomas Cawthron concerning the best method of encouraging and developing industry in New Zealand. Cock, who was acquainted with the magnificent work of technological institutes in the United States and Great Britain, suggested that the establishment of a similar institute would be of great value in the development of industry in Nelson and New Zealand. Apparently Thomas Cawthron was attracted by the suggestion, and his thoughts in this direction were crystallised during an overseas visit to the U.S. and Great Britain in 1902. As a result he drew up in London a holograph will bequeathing the major part of his fortune to the establishment of the Cawthron Institute. Although on his return to Nelson he became interested in other projects, particularly the establishment of a solar observatory, no finality had been reached concerning the solar observatory at the time of his decease. Consequently his holograph will, the details of which had not been communicated to his friends, became effective and the solar observatory project had to be abandoned.
The original trustees appointed under Cawthron's will were in a quandary concerning the exact wishes of Thomas Cawthron and sought the advice of an advisory committee of scientists under the chairmanship of Sir James G. Wilson. After due consideration and consultation with the Cawthron trustees, the advisory committee recommended that the principal objective of the projected Cawthron Institute should be the conduct of scientific research into the problems of the primary industries of New Zealand with particular reference to those of the Nelson district. It was recognised by the advisory committee that a technical museum of an industrial character must form a part of the Institute. The Cawthron trustees adopted the recommendations of their advisory committee, and in due course the main proposal of the committee for the conduct of scientific research for the benefit of the primary industries of New Zealand was approved by the Supreme Court.