|The Beginning of an Institution:
To begin at the beginning, in 1826, an English scientist named James Smithson (1765-1829) wrote
his will, leaving his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. However he added a peculiar
last paragraph in which he stated that should his nephew die without heirs, his estate should go to
the people of the United States to found in Washington under the name of the Smithsonian
Institution an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.
Smithson died three years later in 1829 and his estate went, as stipulated, to his
nephew. But in an odd twist of fate, that nephew died without heirs in 1835. In due course, the
United States embassy in London was notified of Smithson's unusual gift.
Jackson notified Congress, and a long period of debate began over what to do with these funds.
Smithson left no clues as to what he actually intended an institution for the increase and diffusion
of knowledge to be. Smithson had attended Pembroke College, Oxford, and studied chemistry and mineralogy. He wrote over twenty scientific papers, many on chemical analysis and descriptions of minerals. He was also active in such organizations as the Royal Society of London
and the Royal Institution. These organizations were founded with mandates for the increase and diffusion of useful knowledge and so may have served as models. But even among his extensive writings, no real clues can be found as to what Smithson actually intended by an institution for the
increase and diffusion of knowledge.
James Smithson as a student
Early news reports about Smithson's bequest assumed
that the money would be used to found a national university. Some citizens advocated a great national library, an astronomical observatory, research
laboratories, popular lectures, publication of useful books, or adult education. After the bequest
was actually received, it took another eight years of wrangling before the Smithsonian was
actually established. When the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law on August 10th, 1846, it was a quintessential American political compromise among all these different ideas. As is often the case with a political process, the legislation creating the Smithsonian avoided the hard choices and tried to be everything to everybody. Its vague language allowed for both laboratory research and museum research in the arts, humanities and sciences, as well as a library and public lectures, creating the remarkably diverse and fascinating Institution that bears Smithson's name today.
Act establishing the