In his tobacco pipe, James Smithson used to smoke clay dotted with tiny bits of rock.
The mineral expert, who left a small fortune in his will to establish an institution for the "diffusion of knowledge," wasn’t just a British eccentric; he was actually a pioneer in microchemistry. To study minute samples of a mineral he rolled bits into clay and fired the mix in his pipe. The dust-studded clay could then be studied with flame analysis.
Yesterday at the Smithsonian Castle, a new book about the founder’s life spurred a lot of talk about the man who so enriched the United States but had never visited. More than 100 people gathered to tour the exhibits on Smithson (including a sample of his most notable discovery, the mineral Smithsonite) and to see his small tomb near the entrance of the castle.
But piecing together the story hasn’t been an easy task. Many of Smithson’s belongings that were shipped to the Smithsonian after his death, including the journals he kept for most of his life, were destroyed in a catastrophic fire at the Castle in 1865.