1826, Smithsonian Institution Archives
An obscure gift led to the world’s greatest museum-research complex
In his 64 years of life, James Smithson, the French-born illegitimate son of a British duke, never set foot in America. But the Oxford-trained chemist, who died childless in 1829, stipulated that his fortune—11 boxes of gold sovereign coins, about $10.8 million today—be sent to the United States for “an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge.” Congress debated creating a university or lab, but decided to found the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. Today it comprises 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoo and nine research centers and holds some 137 million artifacts.