Who Was James Smithson?

Feedloader (Clickability)

After ten years of spirited debate and extensive compromise, it was on August 10, 164 years ago today, that President James K. Polk signed a bill presented by the United States Congress establishing the Smithsonian Institution. Bequeathed to the United States by British scientist James Smithson, the Institution was an amalgamation of research, museums and publications, aimed at promoting "the increase and diffusion of knowledge."

Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, had traveled much during his life, but had never once set foot on American soil. Why, then, would he decide to give the entirety of his sizable estate—which totaled half a million dollars, or 1/66 of the United States' entire federal budget at the time—to a country that was foreign to him?

This is just one in a multitude of mysteries about the Smithsonian's namesake; but thanks to architectural historian Heather Ewing, we can learn more about Smithson's world, and the circumstances of his life that would lead him to present the United States with an unprecedented gift. Ewing, who first worked at the Smithsonian as an intern researching the history of the National Zoo, is the author of The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution and the Birth of the Smithsonian (Bloomsbury, 2007) and A Guide to Smithsonian Architecture (Smithsonian Books, 2009).

What was it about the United States, or about Smithson’s life or background that made him want to give everything he had to the foundation of this institution?

Smithson came of age in a time of tremendous excitement around science, and also a belief in usefulness, this idea that you could make the world a better place, and that man was perfectible. He believed very strongly that scientists were benefactors of all mankind. It is interesting to look at what the United States was at that time, and especially to this person who had never actually seen it. Many of the statesmen who were representing the United States in the beginning, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were scientists as well, and they were also founders of philosophical societies.

There are also a lot of things going on with Smithson personally, such as his illegitimacy, and his feeling disenfranchised or not fully accepted by this society that was very based on status and hierarchy and who your family was. He sees, across the ocean, this country that is trying to establish a new kind of government based on law and science, where what you contribute is how you’re valued. It’s supposedly a meritocracy, which is very much what science was at that time as well.

How did Smithson conceive of “knowledge” originally, and how does it compare to the Smithsonian's definition of knowledge today?

Smithson felt that all knowledge was useful, and he felt that everybody could make a contribution. It’s curious—there were institutions that used similar language in their founding mandates, like the Royal Institution of Great Britain, of which Smithson was a founding member. They were also about the promotion of knowledge, but they were much about doing laboratory work and publishing papers, and Smithson might have had that as a model for what his Smithsonian should be. He was very interested in posterity as well, so I think he’d be delighted that the Smithsonian Institution is as huge and well-known as it is today.

What are some of the primary mysteries behind Smithson and his life?

He traveled a lot, and always seems to have stayed kind of portable. He always rented, never actually owned, and his library, which is one of the only things we actually have about him is interesting because it’s a working library. At that time when you bought your books, they weren’t bound, they just had a paper wrapper so that you could take them to the book binder and have them done with the leather and the design that you wanted. Smithson never did that. So he had this library that’s not something you wanted to show off. It’s also quite small compared to what it could’ve been, given his wealth, and certain books that you might expect to be in there are not.

Smithson had 8,000 to 10,000 minerals. That was here at the Smithsonian and we lost it in the fire of 1865. But if he collected other objects or paintings or things like that, there’s no evidence of it. So it seems curious for a man of his station and the way he wanted to carry himself that he didn’t do some of the things that we would expect him to do.

What would Smithson think of the Smithsonian Institution today?

Before I started writing the book, I thought, well, the Smithsonian is so American-focused now, and it’s not at all what he would have imagined or wanted. Now, I don’t feel that way so much. Now I think the breadth of the work that’s being done here…I mean when you think about the Chandra X-ray telescope out in space, and people working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute down in Panama, and the kind of work that’s going on behind the scenes here, and then the unbelievable collections... there’s a vastness to it that is very Smithson-like.  He had so many different interests, and if you look at his papers you can see that everything captivates him. So he’s analyzing a lady’s tear, and then he’s looking at Egyptian paint colors, and then he’s studying mulberry juice. Everything that he comes across is fascinating to him, and I think the Smithsonian, unlike anywhere else in the world, reflects those kind of diverse interests. In a lot of ways, I think he would be completely amazed and happy.

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