The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
As the 1663 saying goes, "He ne’er consider'd it, as loth, To look a Gift-horse in the mouth," that is, never question the value of a gift. When James Smithson’s bequest to the people of the United States was announced in 1835, many prominent Americans ignored that advice and questioned the wisdom of accepting his gift, horse or not. Why?
James Smithson (1765-1829) was a well-to-do English scientist who had never visited the United States. In his 1826 will, he left his estate to his nephew. But he ended his will with an odd clause that said if that nephew died without heirs, legitimate or illegitimate, the estate would go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men.” When Smithson’s nephew died without heirs in 1835, the peculiar clause went into effect. On July 28, 1835, Smithson’s solicitors notified the United States government of the bequest. An 1835 article in the National Intelligencer told the public that a “gentleman of Paris” had left a bequest to the United States, for the purpose of endowing a National University.
Secretary of State John Forsyth notified President Andrew Jackson who promptly sent the matter to Congress because he believed the Constitution did not give him the authority to pursue the bequest. The reaction in the Congress was quite mixed. John C. Calhoun, Senator from South Carolina, thundered on the Senate floor in February 1836, “We accept a fund from a foreigner, and would … enlarge our grant of power derived from the States of this Union …. Can you show me a word that goes to invest us with such a power?" He objected to a democracy accepting charity from a foreigner – made worse when they realized Smithson was an Englishman. Twenty years before, the British had burned the Capitol, and anti-British sentiment was still quite high. Calhoun also believed it violated the constitutional principle of states’ rights, that is, that the Constitution provided that rights and powers were held by the individual states rather than the national government. Creating a national institution was a dangerous precedent.
Senator William Campbell Preston, also of South Carolina, shared Calhoun’s view and also objected to naming a national institution after an individual. He argued that if the Smithsonian Institution was created, "[E]very whippersnapper vagabond … might think it proper to have his name distinguished in the same way." (Campbell later changed his mind and became a supporter of the Smithsonian.) The debate in Congress continued, to “appear as a suitor in an English Court of Chancery to assert its title to the legacy in question; and that to become the object of private charity was not compatible with national honor nor the fitness of things. Such a bequest as this was a bounty, and the acceptance of it would be a degradation; and, if we had any regard to our own dignity, we should not descend to the humiliation of receiving it."
The Committee on the Judiciary, however, ruled that the Constitution did not prohibit accepting the gift, if it acted as parens patriae for the District of Columbia. And former President John Quincy Adams, now in the House of Representatives, took on the cause of Smithson’s bequest. In January 1836, he argued, “If then, the Smithsonian Institution, under the smile of an approving Providence, and by the faithful and permanent application of the means furnished by its founder, … should contribute essentially to the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men, to what higher or nobler object could this generous and splendid donation have been devoted?” Adams’ views ultimately prevailed so on July 1, 1836, Congress passed an act authorizing the President to appoint an agent to prosecute the claim of the United States to the legacy bequeathed by James Smithson (V Stat. 64), and the rest is history.
Many of us read, write and send emails every day, but when did it all start at the Smithsonian?
In 1980 Smithsonian staff had typewriters and telephones on their desk, with one or two FAX machines per office. The Smithsonian operated a single general purpose computer, the Honeywell mainframe, for all Smithsonian data processing applications and which did not include an email application. Desktop computers were nowhere to be found.
When the Museum Support Center (MSC) was under construction in 1982, the Smithsonian was also researching an interactive computer system for the new facility to document and manage the movement of tens of millions of specimens and objects to the new Suitland, Maryland, storage facility. One of the secondary requirements was a "mail message system." Six of the seven responding vendors offered an electronic mail system. A VAX-11/750 from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was selected, and was operational in April 1983.
Email was used by the MSC software development team before the end of 1983, and its use was greatly expanded the following year, 1984. The period of 1985-1988 saw rapid technological advances in networking, minicomputers, personal computers, and Local Area Network (LAN) systems. Many different Smithsonian offices and bureaus (including National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Office of Protection Services) acquired computer systems during this period which included email software. However at this time, most computer networks were proprietary networks. Initially a person could only exchange email with other people on the same email system. The development of standards, the adoption of standards, and inter-operability between different systems would arrive later.
The BITNET (Because It’s There Network) network supported both email and batch file transfer. This network linking more than 3,000 computers, principally in academic institutions, demonstrated to the Smithsonian community the speed and power of international email communications. The Smithsonian applied for membership in BITNET on August 15, 1986, and the IBM-4381 mainframe was connected later that year with a node name of SIVM.
Later, within the SI, the BITNET network was extended to two additional nodes: SIMSC and SIMNH. SIVM and SIMSC were still active BITNET nodes in March 1994, but probably disconnected soon after that. Listserv software was developed for BITNET, and mailing lists such as, MUSEUM-L (with 5,184 subscribers today) became very popular. However, with the rapid growth of the Internet, BITNET’s limitations became apparent, and its popularity and the use of BITNET diminished quickly.
In July 1992 the Smithsonian network was connected to the Internet and many internal email systems achieved greater interoperability as well as external connectivity, through the adoption of the SMTP Internet email standard. Smithsonian staff could communicate with colleagues globally, without waiting for a snail-mail reply.
I published the first Smithsonian Email Directory (March 1994) which listed ten different computer email systems (Internet hosts) and 4,846 email addresses. An unknown number of staff had email addresses on different computer systems, such as my own in both the SIMSC and SIMNH systems. This Directory made the following observation:
Electronic mail has evolved from many local e-mail applications to a state where most e-mail applications can now exchange messages freely with each other. Sometimes additional software, hardware, and/or network connections maybe required. However, there are still a few isolated islands in the archipelago, cut off from the rest of the Smithsonian and the rest of the world!
The largest email system at the Smithsonian, PROFS, was operated by OIRM (Office of Information Resource Management), and ran on an IBM-9121 mainframe, with 2,398 email addresses. PROFS supported both email as well as calendaring; the PROFS user manual was prepared in August 1990. This suggests that perhaps only 50-60% of the staff had email in 1994. GroupWise became the dominant email system in the late 1990’s, while competing with some offices using Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange email systems.
Initially most people treated email as very informal communication, not worthy of being saved or archived. However, as email usage spread and it became the common method of conducting business, this attitude changed. The possibility that email correspondence could be historically valuable or an official record was recognized in an informative 1997 pamphlet distributed to Smithsonian staff. More recent guidance is available to the Smithsonian community and the general public on the Archives website.
Eventually a decision was made to have one centrally supported email system for the Smithsonian. A single unified Smithsonian-wide email system was achieved when the last office was converted to Microsoft Exchange in 2005, more than twenty years after the first email was sent.
- Electronic Records - Responsible Recordkeeping; Email Records, 2007, Smtihsonian Institution Archives
- You've Still Got Mail, The Bigger Picture blog, Smtihsonian Institution Archives