Today in history, president James K. Polk signed the Smithsonian Institution Act into law.
James Smithson, an English scientist, died in 1829 in Italy. His will included a footnote that stipulated that if his sole nephew died without heirs, Smithson’s estate would be given to “the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” An odd injunction, considering the fact that Smithson had never visited America.
Smithson was inducted into the Royal Society of London at age 22. He published scientific papers on topics ranging from chemistry to geology, including a paper that proved zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals. The zinc carbonate smithsonite was named after him.
Six years after Smithson died, his nephew Henry James Hungerford also died, childless. The United States Congress accepted Smithson’s inheritance on July 1, 1836. President Jackson sent a diplomat named Richard Rush to negotiate the transaction in England. Two years later, he came home with eleven boxes filled with over a hundred thousand gold sovereigns, as well as Smithson’s private collection of minerals and personal effects.
The gold was melted down and was valued at $500,000 in 1836 dollars. Congress decided to use the money to create a museum, a library and a research and publication program. Polk officially established the Smithsonian Institution on August 10, 1846.
The Smithsonian has since grown to a complex of nineteen museums and galleries. They recently announced the construction of a National Museum of African American History and Culture. The Smithsonian also has nine research facilities globally, and a zoo.
The original Smithsonian building is colloquially known as “the Castle.” The National Museum of Natural History, the National Zoological Park and the National Portrait Gallery are all popular tourist destinations. As is the National Museum of American History, which holds the original Star-Spangled Banner.
The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum is the most-visited museum in the world. It houses the original Wright brothers’ airplane, as well as Freedom 7, the space capsule that held the first American astronaut to enter space.
Smithson himself is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building. A fitting resting place for the previously obscure English scientist whose largesse changed the face of American academia forever. Despite the fact that he had never even been to the United States.
The Smithsonian is now synonymous with prestige museums and also has a large media footprint.