When Did the Vice Presidency Stop Going to the 2nd Place Winner and More Questions From Our Readers

Also up for discussion—why are oceans seawater and not freshwater?

A. Richard Allen

When did the position of vice president of the United States stop going to the runner-up in the presidential election and become a separately elected office?

Amelia Golini, Brooklyn, New York

That was in 1804, when the 12th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, says David Ward, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery.

The amendment was proposed after the 1796 election resulted in a president (John Adams) and vice president (Thomas Jefferson) from opposing parties, and the 1800 election led to a tie between Jefferson and Aaron Burr. They were members of the same party (Democratic-Republican), but it took the House of Representatives 36 contentious ballots to break the tie, electing Jefferson president and Burr vice president. In 1804, Jefferson was re-elected and George Clinton became the first vice president under the 12th Amendment.

Why do the ends of some airliner wings curve upward?

Gary N. Miller, Davenport, Florida

Those are called “winglets,” and they’re designed to reduce drag as the wing moves through the air, says Bob van der Linden, curator at the National Air and Space Museum. Less drag boosts fuel efficiency.

Where did Plains Indians get lodgepoles for their tepees?

Lynn Arbuckle, Chandler, Arizona

From stands of Pinus contorta, a Western evergreen that grows so straight and tall it became known as the lodgepole pine. Native Americans chopped the trees down using a sharpened rock or an ax, says Emil Her Many Horses, a specialist at the National Museum of the American Indian. Next they stripped the branches and bark and tied the trees to either side of a horse to transport them. A tepee could easily require as many as 20 lodgepoles.

Why do U.S. coins have three mottoes?

Jere Stuart French, Gulf Breeze, Florida

“Liberty” first appeared on U.S. coins minted in 1792, says Ellen Feingold, curator of numismatics at the National Museum of American History. It was mandated by the Coinage Act. “E pluribus unum,” Latin for “Out of many, one,” followed in 1795 and referred to the unification of the former colonies. “In God we trust,” a phrase intended to suggest what U.S. Mint director James Pollock described as “a national reliance upon divine support,” was added in 1864, during the uncertainties of the Civil War.

Why are oceans saltwater and not freshwater?

Sherilyn Knight, Pike Road, Alabama

Erosion on land is responsible for the saltiness of ocean water, says Nancy Knowlton, Sant Chair for Marine Science and invertebrate zoology staff at the National Museum of Natural History. Slightly acidic rain erodes rocks and soil, and the resulting salts, such as sodium and chloride, and minerals are carried in the runoff to streams, rivers and eventually to oceans. In addition, water that seeps through hydrothermal vents in Earth’s crust erodes rock as it is pushed back out of the vents, carrying absorbed salts into the ocean.

It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

Get the latest on what's happening At the Smithsonian in your inbox.