The Price of Ambition

From the beginning, the cost of increasing and diffusing knowledge exceeded even Smithson’s generosity

Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian Institution's first secretary (1846-1878), had a problem. Before coming to Washington, D.C., he had taught physics at Princeton University and achieved international renown for discovering scientific principles that led eventually to the development of the telegraph, electric motor and transformer. But managing the operation of the Smithsonian would require much more than scientific insight; to succeed, Henry would need to be a consummate diplomat and negotiator.

The problem was money. In 1829, James Smithson, a wealthy British scientist, died. He had made the United States, a country on a continent he'd never visited, the beneficiary of his considerable fortune and asked that his bequest be used to found an "Establishment for the increase & diffusion of Knowledge." When Congress created the Smithsonian, it also designated the Institution as the repository of the government's collections.

Henry quickly realized that the Smithsonian couldn't accomplish the ambitious agenda imagined for it by relying solely on the Smithson bequest. The construction of the Castle, the Institution's new first building, had been a costly undertaking. Henry worried that just maintaining the Castle would sap support for scientific inquiry and the publications he wanted to distribute to fellow institutions around the globe.

At the same time, a home was needed for the collections of the United States Exploring Expedition, a U.S. Navy voyage that circumnavigated the globe between 1838 and 1842, amassing several thousand animal specimens, 50,000 plants, thousands of shells, rocks and other geological specimens, as well as jars of seawater. In all, the collections weighed almost 40 tons; already, some of the rarest and most valuable natural history specimens, including exotic tropical birds and insects as well as anthropological treasures from the South Seas, were in need of expert attention.

In addition, the Smithsonian had accepted the many Native American artifacts and newly discovered plants, animals and mineral specimens acquired by military and civilian exploring and surveying expeditions that crisscrossed the American West. Cataloging and caring for so much of such value was neither a simple nor an inexpensive proposition.

One letter from Henry describes the purchase of 12,000 glass jars just to prepare for the storage of the specimens suspended in alcohol. As he wrote in one report: "Few persons have an idea of the labor, constant care, and expense which attends the proper preservation of a series of objects of natural history." Henry argued persuasively that the Smithsonian needed money to transfer and arrange the nation's collections and then additional funds each year to look after the objects.

Congress agreed and, in 1857, appropriated the funds, creating a hybrid partnership—part public, part private—in which taxpayers and donors alike can continue to take pride. Our collection of biological specimens represents the world's most complete aggregation of DNA samples. Our holdings of American cultural and historical artifacts are the most significant on the planet. Our 15 museums, which display these collections for the public and preserve them for researchers, are visited by almost 30 million people each year, roughly 10 percent of the population of the United States.

Very fortunately, Joseph Henry turned out to be as talented a diplomat as he was a scientist, and he was able to chart a steady course for the Smithsonian. As a result of his foresight and Congress's understanding and continued support, the Smithsonian's unique partnership has served the nation well for almost a century and a half.

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