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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/January 1896/The Smithsonian Institution I

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 48‎ | January 1896





JANUARY, 1896.




WHEN the packet Mediator, commanded by Captain Christopher H. Champlin, sailed into New York harbor on the 28th day of August, 1838, after a stormy voyage of forty-three days from London, it brought in its hold a legacy from an Englishman to the United States of America, which was intended and destined to benefit all mankind. This precious freight consisted of eleven boxes, containing one hundred and five bags, each bag containing one thousand gold sovereigns. The boxes were carefully landed and stored for safe keeping in the Bank of America; a few days later the gold was sent to the United States Mint at Philadelphia, where it was immediately recoined into American money, yielding $508,318.46. This magnificent sum was the bequest of James Smithson, Esq., F. R. S., to the United States of America.

We propose in these articles to consider the purpose of this bequest, the manner in which the United States administers it, and the benefits to mankind accruing therefrom.

James Smithson was born in France, in the year 1765, of distinguished English parentage; as he himself wrote: "The best blood of England flows in my veins; on my father's side I am a Northumberlander, on my mother's I am related to kings."

Of Smithson's early life little is known. At Pembroke College, Oxford, the young man was an earnest student and showed a liking for scientific pursuits; he was especially proficient in chemistry, and spent his vacations in collecting ores and minerals for analysis. He was graduated on the 26th of May, 1786; and the impulse for scientific research gained at the university influenced all his succeeding years. The highest ambition of an English man of science is to append to his name the honorable initials F, R. S., and to enjoy the privileges accorded to Fellows of the Royal Society. Recommended by Richard Kirwan, the Irish chemist.

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James Smithson as an Oxford Student, 1786.

Charles Blagden, the Secretary of the Society, Henry Cavendish, the wealthy and eccentric physicist, and others, Smithson was elected a Fellow exactly eleven months after leaving the university.

During his residence in London he cultivated the society of authors, artists, and men of science. "His mind was filled with a craving for intellectual development, and for the advancement of human knowledge. To enlarge the domain of thought, to discover new truths, and to make practical application of these for the promotion of civilization, were the great ends he had constantly in view." Smithson possessed large means; he never married, and for family reasons preferred to live on the Continent, spending most of his time in France, Italy, and Germany; in his constant journeys he made observations on the climate, physical features, geology, and industries of the regions visited. He formed collections of minerals, and, for convenience of analyzing them, traveled with a portable chemical laboratory.

Living on the Continent, he acquired a cosmopolitan character, and formed acquaintance with the leading savants of the time; among his friends and corrrespondents were Gay-Lussac, the chemist; Haüy, the mineralogist; Arago, the astronomer; Biot, the physicist, of France; Berzelius, the chemist, of Sweden; and Davy, Black, Wollaston, Cavendish, Thomson, Smithson Tennant, chemical philosophers, of England. If it is "by a man's position among his contemporaries and competitors that his work may most justly be appraised," Smithson's scientific attainments must be rated very highly.

Between the years 1701 and 1825 Smithson published twenty-seven scientific papers, of which eight appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and nineteen in Thomson's Annals of Philosophy. These memoirs embrace a wide range of research: the first deals with the curious deposit in bamboo called tabasheer, which he proved to be "siliceous earth"; the second was a "Chemical Analysis of Some Calamines," in which he established a new mineral species, afterward named smithsonite by Beudant (1832). The larger number of his papers deal with chemistry applied to mineral analysis, but he also discussed the nature of vegetables and insects, the origin of the earth, the crystalline form of ice, and an improved method of making coffee. An examination of these contributions to knowledge shows that he was no mere dilettante in science, and that he carried on his researches in a philosophic spirit for the sake of truth; all his writings exhibit keen perception, concise language, and accurate expression.

Of Smithson's personal traits and social character very little is known; his dislike of publicity, his natural reserve, as well as his residence in foreign countries, separated him from friends who might have given us particulars. It is said that he frequently narrated an anecdote of himself which illustrated his remarkable skill in analyzing minute quantities of substances, an ability which rivaled that of Dr. Wollaston. Happening to observe a tear gliding down a lady's cheek, he endeavored to catch it on a crystal vessel; one half the tear-drop escaped, but he subjected the other half to reagents, and detected what was then called microcosmic salt, muriate of soda, and some other saline constituents held in solution.

James Smithson died at the age of sixty-four years, on the 27th of June, 1829, at Genoa, Italy and was buried in the Protestant cemetery near that city. His death occurred in the same year with that of Davy, Wollaston, and Young, a fact mentioned by the President of the Royal Society in announcing the loss of members. About three years before his death, Smithson made a holographic will containing provisions of immense importance to

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James Smithson. (From a painting by Johnes, 1816.)

American science. After providing for an annuity to one faithful old servant, and a benefaction to another, his will directed that the whole of the income arising from his property of every kind should be paid by his executors to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford; and should his nephew have children the whole of his property was bequeathed to them or their heirs after the death of their father. In case, however, the nephew should die without issue, Smithson provided as follows:

"I bequeath the whole of my property to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

The motives which prompted James Smithson to bequeath his fortune to the young republic across the seas are not certainly-known. In the year 1818 (or 1819) he had some misunderstanding with the Royal Society, owing to their refusal to print one of his papers, and from that date he published exclusively in Thomson's Annals of Philosophy; it is said that prior to this difficulty he had intended to make the Royal Society his legatee. Having, however, abandoned that plan, he seems to have perceived with a prophetic eye the "germs of rising grandeur" in the free American nation, and to have felt a desire to promote the increase and diffusion of knowledge in the New World.

Whether he was more friendly to republicanism than to monarchy, as some have claimed, is not certain; at all events, by selecting the United States of America as the depository of his trust "he paid the highest compliment to its intelligence and integrity, and testified his confidence in republican institutions and his faith in their perpetuity."

In attempting to fathom the thoughts which directed Smithson 's attention to the United States we are met by the surprising fact that he had not a single correspondent or scientific friend in America, nor did he write a line in any of his papers indicating appreciation of the republic.

Mr. Hungerford survived his uncle only six years, during which he received the benefits of the will; he led an aimless, roving life on the Continent, and died at Pisa, Italy, June 5, 1835, under the name of Eunice de la Batut, this being the surname of his stepfather, a Frenchman whom Hungerford's mother had married. By this death the United States became entitled to the estate. The first intimation received by the Government to this effect arrived in a communication dated July 28, 1835, from the chargé d'affaires of the United States at London to the Secretary of State, transmitting a letter from the firm of attorneys who represented the bankers holding the estate in trust. The estate was estimated at £100,000. In December, President Andrew Jackson sent to Congress a message setting forth the facts in the case and asking for authority to accept the trust; in July, Congress passed an act authorizing the President to appoint an agent to prosecute in the Court of Chancery the right of the United States to the legacy. This simple measure was not, however, secured without great difficulty, being opposed by several active Congressmen. Mr. W. C. Preston, of South Carolina, thought the donation had been made partly with a view to immortalize the donor, and it was "too cheap a way of conferring immortality"; and Mr. John C. Calhoun, of the same State, was of the opinion that it was beneath the dignity of the United States to receive presents of this kind from any one. The bill was, however, supported by the Committee of the Judiciary, to which the matter had been referred, and advocated by Mr, James Buchanan, of Pennsylvania, Mr. Robert J. Walker, of Mississippi, and Mr. John Davis, of Massachusetts.

Under this act President Jackson appointed the Hon. Richard Rush, of Pennsylvania, agent to prosecute the claims of the United States. The selection of Mr, Rush was a very happy one: he had been Comptroller of the Treasury, Attorney-General, minister PSM V48 D326 Joseph Henry.jpgJoseph Henry. to England, and minister to France. He displayed integrity and ability, and a persistence which accomplished the end in view with unexampled dispatch. Beyond the usual delays incident to court procedure, Mr. Rush met with no difficulties save one. Madame Théodore de la Batut, the mother of Mr. Hungerford, presented a claim for a life interest in the estate of Smithson; and to expedite matters Mr. Rush agreed to a compromise, granting an annuity, which she enjoyed until her death in 1861.[1] As soon as the securities were transferred to Mr. Rush, he converted them into gold and shipped it to New York on the Mediator; accompanying the treasure were three boxes containing the personal effects of the testator, including his collection of minerals, library, etc. The money arising from the Smithson bequest was at first invested in State stocks, and on December 10, 1838, President Martin Van Buren announced to Congress the receipt and disposition of the legacy of James Smithson, In 1841, Arkansas having failed to pay interest, through the efforts of Hon. J. Q. Adams the funds were transferred to the Treasury of the United States, to bear interest at six per cent per annum.

Three years had been consumed in securing the legacy, and seven and a half years more were destined to pass before Congress
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Smithsonian Institution Washington, D.C.


carried out the wishes of the testator by creating the Smithsonian Institution. To analyze the legislation during this period, to describe the many extraordinary schemes proposed, to merely name the Congressmen who were active in the prolonged discussion, would occupy more space than can be given to this entire article. Presidents Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, and Polk came and went, each urging Congress to action, but the legislators suffered from the "embarrassment of riches" in a new sense. Among the plans prominently brought forward and considered at length were the following: Senator John Quincy Adams advocated an astronomical observatory; Senator Asher Pobbins, of Rhode Island, favored the establishment of a National University; Senator Benjamin Tappan, of Ohio, proposed a botanical garden and an agricultural farm; Senator Rufus Choate, of Massachusetts, urged a grand library; Robert Dale Owen, of Indiana, preferred a normal school with lectureships on scientific subjects; Mr. Isaac H. Morse, of Louisiana, wanted the prizes awarded for the best written essay on ten subjects; and some legislators, wise in their own conceit, opposed every plan suggested. Mr. George W. Jones, of Tennessee, proposed that the whole fund be returned to any heirs at law or next of kin of James Smithson; and a similar disposition of the fund was advocated by Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, and Mr. A. D. Sims, of South Carolina. It is interesting, in the light of later national events, to note the names of some of those who took part in these discussions: we find side by side the names of Jefferson Davis and Hannibal Hamlin, Andrew Johnson and Alexander H. Stephens, Howell Cobb and Stephen A. Douglas.

Meanwhile memorials from persons and institutions outside of Congress poured in, urging expedition, advocating particular bills and suggesting new plans. At least two societies of citizens sought to gain control of the magnificent fund which Congress was so slow in appropriating; the Agricultural Society of the United States, formed in the District of Columbia, memorialized Congress to apply the Smithsonian fund to its objects; and the National Institution for the Promotion of Science, organized in 1840 by representative men in Washington, sought union with or control of the embryonic establishment bearing Smithson's name. Dr. G. Brown Goode, in his Genesis of the United States National Museum (Report of the United States National Museum, 1891), points out that the President of this National Institution, Joel R. Poinsett, of South Carolina (Secretary of the Navy in 1840), deserves credit for introducing the feature of a national museum into the scheme for the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, the organization of the Smithsonian Institution finally adopted bears marked resemblance to that of the National Institution both as regards the cast of officers and the objects of the establishment. But all attempts to merge the interests of the two bodies failed, partly owing to objections to placing the management of the new institution in the hands of a private corporation; meanwhile the National Institution changed its name to National Institute, but after a flourishing existence of five years it lost its power.

Although much deprecated at the time, the slowness with which Congress acted in disposing of Smithson's legacy had its advantages: weak schemes were exposed, public opinion was educated, and the judgment of Congress itself was elevated by the prolonged discussions. The broad provisions of the will, open to the charge of vagueness, gave scope to the variety of views we have named and furnished ground for the delay. It is interesting to note that the act creating the Smithsonian Institution, adopted August 10, 1846, embodies nearly all the best features of the numerous schemes proposed during the ten years which had elapsed.

The act of incorporation was the work of many minds and to some extent a compromise; no one person should receive credit for its provisions, but mention should be made of Senator Benjamin Tappan, Robert Dale Owen, and William J. Hough, who drew up the bill eventually agreed upon. Stripped of legal verbiage and condensed, the bill is as follows:

Title.—A bill to establish the "Smithsonian Institution" for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.

Preamble: Rehearses the facts as to Smithson's bequest and the acceptance by the United States, and directs that the President and Vice-President of the United States, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Navy, the Postmaster-General, the Attorney-General, the Chief Justice, and the Commissioner of the Patent Office of the United States, and the Mayor of the city of Washington, during the time for which they shall hold their respective offices, and such other persons as they may elect honorary members, be constituted an "establishment" by the name of the Smithsonian Institution.

Section 2 provides for investment of the Smithson fund and payment of the interest thereon; also appropriates a sum for erection of a suitable building.

Section 3 provides that the business of said institution shall be conducted at the city of Washington by a Board of Regents to be composed of the Vice-President of the United States, the Chief Justice, and the Mayor of the city of Washington, together with three members of the Senate and three members of the House of Representatives, and six other persons, two of whom shall be members of the National Institute. The act then provides for the manner of appointment, the time of service, the filling of vacancies, the election of a Chancellor and Secretary by the Board of
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Smithsonian Institution—Interior.

Regents and of an executive committee, as well as for the payment of money needed for conducting the institution; also, an annual report to be submitted to Congress.

Section 4 provides for the selection of a suitable site for a building.

Section 5 provides for the erection of a building of plain and durable materials, of sufficient size for rooms to contain objects of natural history, including a geological and mineralogical cabinet, a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and the necessary lecture rooms; also provides for the expense of this building.

Section 6 enacts that in proportion as suitable arrangements can be made for their reception all objects of art and of foreign and curious research, and all objects of natural history, plants, geological and mineralogical specimens, belonging or hereafter to belong to the United States which may be in the city of Washington shall be arranged as best to facilitate their examination and study in the building to be erected; also new specimens to be so arranged; also minerals, books, and other property of James Smithson to be preserved in the institution.

Section 7 enacts that the Secretary of the Board of Regents shall take charge of the building and contents, shall discharge the duties of librarian and of keeper of the museum, and may employ assistants, and provides for their compensation.

Section 8 provides for meetings at which the President or Vice-President of the United States shall preside, and appropriates a sum not exceeding twenty-five thousand dollars annually for the formation of a library.

Section 9 enacts that moneys accrued as interest upon the fund, not herein appropriated, may be disposed of by the Board of Regents as they direct.

Section 10 enacts that one copy of all copyrighted books, engravings, maps, etc., shall be sent to the Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, and one to the Librarian of Congress.

Section 11 gives to Congress the right to amend any of the provisions of this act.

This act was signed by President James K. Polk, August 10, 1846. It embodies the features of a national museum, a library, with provisions for copyrighted books, an art gallery, and lecture rooms, presumably for scientific courses though no special provision for them is made. It places the executive work in the hands of a Secretary, and the general oversight with care of finances in the power of a Board of Regents, which board includes the highest officials in the Government of the United States.

The opponents of this bill, though defeated, still endeavored to change its character. Eighteen months after its passage, Andrew Johnson, of Tennessee, introduced a bill to change the Smithsonian Institution to Washington University, for the Benefit of Indigent Children of the District of Columbia," and spoke in PSM V48 D332 Spencer Fullerton Baird.jpgSpencer F. Baird. favor of remodeling the entire plan so as to convert the institution into a university to include the manual-labor feature, mechanic arts, and agriculture. Mr. Embree wanted at the same time to graft upon the institution a department for collecting and arranging information on agriculture, common-school education, political economy, and the useful arts and sciences, which information shall be published and circulated gratuitously among the people.

These attempts to tinker J with the act of incorporation received their quietus on August 8, 184:8, when the House of Representatives adopted a resolution to the effect that it is inexpedient to change and modify the act in the manner proposed. In 1878, and again in 1894, the act of incorporation was revised and somewhat simplified; the two Regents were no longer to be chosen from members of the National Institute, which meanwhile had died, and other slight changes were made.

Congress having appointed Regents, they organized by electing a Chancellor and temporary secretary. The act of incorporation placed great responsibilities in the secretary's office, and the Regents felt that the advancement of the proper interests of the trust made it essential that the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution should be a man possessing weight of character and a high grade of talent; that he also possess eminent scientific and general acquirements; that he be capable of advancing science and promoting letters by original search and effort, and well qualified to act as a respected channel of communication between the institution and scientific and literary individuals in this and foreign countries. To this important position the Regents invited Prof. Joseph Henry, of the College of New Jersey, widely known in both hemispheres by his splendid discoveries in electro-magnetism and universally respected as a man by all who knew him. His acceptance of the secretaryship was a most fortunate event for the institution, insuring its high scientific standard, its wise and economical administration, and its superior reputation at home and abroad. Henry's Programme of Organization, presented to the Board of Regents December 8, 1847, is a model of skillful analytical statement, proposing plans for the increase of knowledge and its diffusion among men; in it he laid down broad lines of action and established the foundations on which the existing edifice stands. Henry devoted the rest of his life, thirty-three years, to the development of this programme, and the institution owes to him an everlasting debt of gratitude for his enlightened, pure, and able administration of the trust.

After the plans of Mr. James Renwick, Jr., for a Norman building, had been accepted, its erection in the Mall was conducted slowly, being completed in 1855, at an expense of about three hundred and fourteen thousand dollars. Meanwhile prudent economy in expenditures enabled Henry to add one hundred and fifty thousand dollars of accrued interest to the original fund. PSM V48 D333 Samuel Pierpont Langley.jpgS. P. Langley. A library was begun by exchange and purchase, and materials for a museum collected and housed. Besides these interests, the institution adopted the plan of promoting original research by assisting men of science in their labors; at the same time series of investigation were instituted, explorations conducted, and the results of all these endeavors were published and distributed to all the learned societies and important libraries throughout the world.

Whenever a man was found capable of adding to the sum of human knowledge, the institution assisted him by supplying books not otherwise attainable, instruments of research, specimens of materials, and objects under investigation, and in some instances special grants of money were made for personal expenses. The specimens in all branches of natural history were not confined to the glass cases of the museum, but freely loaned to men engaged in special lines of research; and if the specimens required were not on hand, the institution undertook to obtain and to supply them, the only return asked for being that full credit be given to the name of Smithson. This liberal policy has never been discontinued.

The institution established systematic meteorological observations, it instituted the first telegraphic weather service, published meteorological tables and charts, and became, in fact, the parent of the present Weather Bureau,

The institution early adopted a policy of doing nothing which could be accomplished as well by other means, and of relinquishing undertakings causing a draft upon its finances so soon as other bodies, or the Government, should agree to take them in charge. In pursuance of this wise plan the Secretary and the Regents induced Congress from time to time to make separate appropriations from the public Treasury in support of the National Museum, and of certain branches of work directly ordered by the Government itself. The library soon outgrew its limited quarters, and in 1866 was deposited in the Library of Congress, at a great saving of expense. The meteorological service was likewise transferred in 1874 to the Signal Corps of the United States Army.

For many years the institution conducted explorations in regard to the ethnology of the Indians of North America, and this has developed into an important Bureau of Ethnology, supported by Government appropriations, yet controlled by the Smithsonian.

The botanical collection was transferred to the Department of Agriculture, and the osteological specimens were placed in the Army Medical Museum.

The Smithsonian has been exceedingly fortunate in its executive officers. After the death of Henry, in 1878, Prof. Spencer F. Baird, the eminent naturalist, was called to the secretaryship. He had been United States Commissioner of Fishes for seven years and Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian for twenty-eight years, and thus brought to the post wide experience as well as administrative ability. Under his care the National Museum was especially augmented, and the publications were issued uniformly on the lines laid down by his predecessor. Of his distinguished services to science we can not here take note; we merely quote two paragraphs from the resolutions adopted by the Board of Regents, November 18, 1887, on the occasion of his death:

"Resolved, That the cultivators of science both in this country and abroad have to deplore the loss of a veteran and distinguished naturalist, who was from early years a sedulous and successful investigator, whose native gifts and whose experience in systematic biologic work served in no small degree to adapt him to the administrative duties which filled the later years of his life, but whose knowledge and whose interest in science widened and deepened as the opportunities for investigation lessened, and who accordingly used his best endeavors to promote the researches of his fellow-naturalists in every part of the world.

"Resolved, That his kindly disposition, equable temper, singleness of aim, and unsullied purity of motive, along with his facile mastery of affairs, greatly endeared him to his subordinates, secured to him the confidence and trust of those whose influence he sought for the advancement of the interests he had at heart, and won the high regard and warm affection of those who, like the members of this board, were officially and intimately associated with him."

Prof. Baird was succeeded in the office of Secretary by the present incumbent, Prof. Samuel P. Langley, LL. D., known to the scientific world by his masterly researches in solar physics. Under his administration the Smithsonian continues its prosperity with undiminished vigor.

In a second article we shall consider the present status and many activities of this noble institution.


  1. The principal retained in England to meet this annuity was paid over to the Smithsonian Institution in 1814. This residuary legacy amounted to $26,210 (gold).