Smithsonian Institution General History
On 10 August 1846, the United States Congress passed the legislation (9 Stat. 102) founding the Smithsonian Institution as an establishment dedicated to the "increase and diffusion of knowledge," and President James K. Polk signed it into law the same day. This legislation was the culmination of over a decade of debate within the Congress and among the general public over an unusual bequest. When the English chemist and mineralogist, James Smithson, died in 1829, he left a will stating that if his nephew and sole heir died without heirs, his estate should go to the United States to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.
After his nephew died in 1835, the United States was notified of this bequest. President Andrew Jackson asked the U.S. Congress for authorization to pursue the bequest, sparking a controversy between federalists and advocates of states' rights. Senators John C. Calhoun and William Campbell Preston argued that there was no Constitutional authority to create a national institution. However, led by John Quincy Adams, the federalists prevailed, and in 1836 Richard Rush traveled to England to file a claim for the Smithson estate in the British Court of Chancery, then 800 cases in arrears. In just two years, Rush won a judgment for the United States, disposed of Smithson's properties, and converted the proceeds to gold sovereigns. When the estate was delivered to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia in September 1838, it totaled $508,318.46.
Another decade of debate passed, however, before the Smithsonian was actually established. Congressmen, educators, researchers, social reformers, and the general public all voiced opinions as to what they believed Smithson had meant by “the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Initially most Americans assumed that Smithson intended to found a university; so the debates centered on what type of school. Gradually other ideas were introduced--an observatory, a scientific research institute, a national library, a publishing house, or a museum. The Smithsonian’s enabling act was a compromise among these ideas, leaving out only the university.
Act of Organization
The Smithsonian Institution was created as a federal establishment, not part of the three branches of government, managed by a self-perpetuating Board of Regents. The Smithsonian Regents had to decide how to carry out Smithson's vague mandate and the broad legislation. Their first act was to build a home for the Institution, a Norman "Castle" designed by architect James Renwick, Jr., located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Joseph Henry, Secretary (1846-1878)
The Regents selected as the first Secretary or chief operating officer, Joseph Henry (1797-1878), a distinguished physicist from the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) who was an expert on electromagnetic induction. Henry prepared a “Programme of Organization” to define the programs of the new institution. During his years as Secretary (1846-1878), Henry focused on increasing knowledge through scientific research and diffusing knowledge through publication of Smithsonian Contribution to Knowledge and through international exchange of publications. He established a national network of weather observers that led to the founding of the National Weather Service.
The first objects donated to the Institution were scientific apparatus, the gift of Robert Hare of the University of Pennsylvania in 1848. The following year, the Institution purchased its first collection, art books and works collected by Regent George Perkins Marsh. During the Civil War years, programs were curtailed but the Institution was not affected substantially by the nearby fighting. A fire in the Castle in 1865, caused by a careless workman, destroyed the central portion of the building and many of the early collections.
Henry was reluctant to use the Smithson fund for a national library or museum. Thus in 1865, he transferred the art collection to the Library of Congress and Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1866 transferred the Smithsonian library to the Library of Congress and had the provision for copyright deposit at the Smithsonian repealed from the legislation. Henry accepted natural history collections, as necessary for research, but worried about the costs of maintaining a museum collection and exhibits. Starting in 1858, the Congress provided an annual appropriation to the Smithsonian for the care of the national collections.
Spencer Fullerton Baird, Secretary (1878-1887)
The second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), focused his tenure from 1878-1887 on creating a great national museum. As Henry's assistant since 1850, he had established a natural history collecting network across the country. Baird's goal was a comprehensive collection of all the natural resources of the continent in the United States National Museum. Based on his knowledge of the natural resources of Russian-America, in 1867 Baird presented persuasive testimony to the Congress in favor of the purchase of Alaska.
The government's collection of art works, historical memorabilia, and scientific specimens, housed at the National Institute gallery in the Patent Office Building, was transferred to the Smithsonian as well. Baird prepared all of the government exhibits for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. The Smithsonian exhibits gave the Institution national visibility. At the close of the exposition, Baird convinced most exhibitors to donate their displays to the Smithsonian and persuaded the Congress to build a new National Museum Building. Now known as the Arts and Industries Building, its first event was President James A. Garfield's inaugural ball on 4 March 1881. When the building opened to the public in October of that year, it housed exhibits on natural history and history.
During Baird's tenure, the Bureau of American Ethnology was added to the Smithsonian's programs in 1879. Baird served simultaneously as U.S. Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries (1871-1887), overseeing research on the fishing industry that later led to the creation of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Samuel P. Langley, Secretary (1887-1906)
During the tenure of the third Secretary from 1889 to 1906, Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906), he created the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in 1890 to facilitate his research on solar phenomena, oversaw the opening of the National Zoological Park in 1891, created a "Children's Room" in 1901 designed to awaken the curiosity of the young, and secured funding for a new National Museum Building. Langley also attempted to design the first flying machine, but his "aerodrome" lacked the aerodynamic features of the Wright Brothers airplane, that flew successfully at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
Charles D. Walcott, Secretary (1907-1927)
Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927), paleontologist and director of the United States Geological Survey from 1894 to 1907, succeeded Langley as the fourth Secretary from 1907 to 1927. In 1911, a new museum building, now known as the National Museum of Natural History, opened to house natural history and art collections. The building was closed during World War I to house the Bureau of War Risk Insurance. A National Gallery of Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was formally created in 1920. In 1923 the Freer Gallery of Art also opened, housing industrialist Charles Lang Freer's collection of Oriental art and the works of James McNeill Whistler.
Charles Greeley Abbot, Secretary (1928-1944)
The fifth Secretary, Charles Greeley Abbot (1872-1973), served from 1928 to 1944, through the Great Depression and World War II. During World War II, the national collections were removed to a warehouse near Luray, Virginia, for safekeeping. The Smithsonian housed the Ethnogeographic Board, whose mission was to provide the military with ethnographic and geographic information about little known areas of the world, especially the Pacific.
Alexander Wetmore, Secretary (1944-1952)
After the war from 1945 to 1952, Alexander Wetmore (1886-1978), the sixth Secretary, oversaw a program of exhibits modernization at the National Museum. In 1946, the Canal Zone Biological Area was transferred to the Smithsonian. Now known as the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, this research station in the Panama Canal was founded in 1923 to facilitate research on the tropics. The National Museum's growing aeronautical collection, which included Charles Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, was formally designated the National Air Museum in 1946. The Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service was inaugurated in 1952 to facilitate exhibits at venues outside the Institution.
Leonard Carmichael, Secretary (1953-1964)
During the 1950s, the seventh Secretary Leonard Carmichael (1898-1973) served from 1953 to 1964 and laid the groundwork for a period of growth. Carmichael secured the appropriation for a new museum building for the history collections, which opened in 1964 and is now the National Museum of American History. New wings were added to the Natural History Building in the 1960s to house additional collections. The Patent Office Building was transferred to the Smithsonian in 1958 to house the national art collections. A major capitol improvement program was initiated at the National Zoological Park in the 1960s, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory was revitalized and transferred to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1955. After the launching of Sputnik in 1957, the observatory played a major role in the tracking of artificial satellites.
S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary (1964-1984)
S. Dillon Ripley (1913-2001), eighth Secretary from 1964-1984, oversaw a major expansion in Smithsonian programs. New museums included the Anacostia Museum (1967), the Cooper-Hewitt, the National Design Museum, in New York (1968), the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery (1968), the Renwick Gallery (1972), the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden (1974), the National Museum of African Art (1979), the Sackler Gallery (1983), and the International Center (1987). A new building for the National Air and Space Museum opened on 4 July 1976 in celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, and the Arts and Industries Building was renovated to recreate the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia of 1876. New programs included the Office of Fellowships and Grants in 1964, The Smithsonian Associates and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in 1965, Office of Museum Programs in 1966, first Festival of American Folklife in 1967, Conservation Analytical Laboratory in 1969, Smithsonian magazine, Smithsonian Institution Archives, and Archives of American Art in 1970, Smithsonian Marine Station at Link Port in 1971, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education in 1974, Office of Telecommunications in 1975, and Office of Horticulture in 1976. Expansions of existing programs included the Fred L. Whipple Observatory in Arizona, housing the Multiple Mirror Telescope in 1968, the Conservation and Research Center of the National Zoological Park, located in Front Royal, Virginia, in 1975, and Museum Support Center in 1983 to house collections storage and handling.
Robert McCormick Adams, Secretary (1984-1994)
From 1984 to 1993, Robert McCormick Adams (1926- ) served as ninth Secretary, presiding over a period of consolidation and renewed emphasis on research. Museums founded during his tenure were the National Museum of the American Indian in 1989, located in both New York and Washington, D.C., and the National Postal Museum in 1990. New research programs focused on the role of man in the environment, including the Biodiversity Program established in 1986 in conjunction with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization's Man and the Biosphere Program and the Mpala Research Station established in Kenya in 1992. The National Science Resource Center was established in 1985 in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences to develop pre-college curriculum resources in mathematics and science.
Expansions of existing programs included the Arctic Studies Center established in the National Museum of Natural History in 1988 and a new observatory in Mount Harquehala, Hawaii, in 1991. In 1994, the Commission on the Future of the Smithsonian Institution issued its report, E Pluribus Unum: This Divine Paradox, setting forth its vision for the Smithsonian of the 21st century. As the national museum seen by some 29 million visitors per year, in the 1980s and 1990s Smithsonian exhibits such as "The West as America," "Science in American Life," and "Enola Gay," became the focus for public debates over issues of cultural and historical identity.
I. Michael Heyman, Secretary (1994-1999)
When the tenth Secretary, I. Michael Heyman (1930- ), took office in 1993, he turned his attention to disseminating information electronically and celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Institution in 1996. A planned museum of African American culture was converted to the Center for the Study of African American History and Culture in 1995. Sesquicentennial programs included the largest traveling exhibit ever mounted, "America's Smithsonian," that traveled to twelve cities over a two year period, a major development campaign, and a celebration on the National Mall on 10 August 1996. By its sesquicentennial, the Institution housed over 140 million artifacts and specimens in its sixteen museums. The Smithsonian endowment had grown to some $378 million, part of a net operating budget in 1994 of $421.4 million. A staff of over 6700 and some 5200 volunteers carried out its programs in museums and research institutes in Washington, D.C., across the continent, and around the world. In 1995, inauguration of the Smithsonian Institution's Home Page on the Worldwide Web made the Institution's resources and exhibits available worldwide.
Lawrence M. Small, Secretary (2000-2007)
The eleventh Secretary, Lawrence M. Small (1941- ), was appointed in 2000 and served until 2007. Significant events in his tenure include the opening of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum and the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Field, Cynthia R., Richard E. Stamm, and Heather P. Ewing. The Castle: An Illustrated History of the Smithsonian Building. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.
Hellman, Geoffrey T. The Smithsonian:
Octopus on the Mall. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1967.
Hinsley, Curtis M., Jr. The Smithsonian
Institution and the American Indian: Making a Moral Anthropology
in Victorian America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
Jones, Bessie Zaban. Lighthouse of the
Skies: The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory: Background
and History, 1846-1955. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1965.
Mergen, Alexa. From Bison to Biopark:
100 Years of the National Zoo. Washington, D.C.: Friends of the National Zoo, 1989.
Meyer, Agnes E. Charles Lang Freer and
His Gallery. Washington, D.C.: Freer Gallery of Art, 1970.
Oehser, Paul H. The Smithsonian Institution. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1983.
Oehser, Paul H. Sons of Science: The Story
of the Smithsonian Institution and Its Leaders. New York: Henry Schuman, 1949.
Park, Edwards. "Secretary S. Dillon Ripley Retires After Twenty Years of Innovation." Smithsonian (September 1984): 77-85.
Rathbun, Richard. The National Gallery
of Art, Department of Fine Arts of the National Museum. Bulletin
of the United States National Museum, no. 70. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1906.
Reingold, Nathan, ed. The Papers of Joseph
Henry. Volumes 1-5. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972, 1975, 1979, 1981, 1985.
Rivinus, Edward F., and Elizabeth M. Youssef. Spencer
Baird of the Smithsonian. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Rothenberg, Marc, ed. The Papers of Joseph
Henry. Volumes 6-10. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution and Science History Publications, 1992, 1996, 1998, 2002, 2004.
Yochelson, Ellis L. National Museum of
Natural History: 75 Years in the Natural History Building. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985.
For information on the History of the Smithsonian, consult the following online resources or contact the Institutional History Division at SIHistory@si.edu.
History of the Smithsonian Catalog
The History of the Smithsonian catalog in SIRIS, www.siris.si.edu, searches across five databases documenting the history of the Smithsonian: Smithsonian History Bibliography, Smithsonian History Chronology, Smithsonian Legal Documents, Historic Images of the Smithsonian, and Smithsonian Board of Regents.
||History of Smithsonian Bibliography contains 1400 annotated bibliographic citations describing published and unpublished materials (books, journal and newspaper articles, dissertations, reports, lectures, and correspondence) about the history of the Smithsonian Institution.
||History of Smithsonian Chronology contains 2400 records documenting significant events in the history of the Smithsonian Institution, from the life of James Smithson in the 1700s to the present. Events documented include new programs, buildings, exhibits, expeditions, expositions, important staff appointments, special events, and special acquisitions, etc.
||Historic Images of the Smithsonian consists of 3000 citations to historic images of the Smithsonian, primarily from the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Types of images include people, buildings, artifacts and specimens, exhibits, expeditions, expositions, and special events, ranging from the Smithson family in the 1700s to the present. Each entry consists of text information about each image. Some images have been digitized, and jpegs of those are available.
||Smithsonian Legal Documents contains 1300 citations to legal documents that are significant in history of the Smithsonian Institution, including statutes at large, court cases, wills and bequests, executive orders, legal opinions, and special reports. Some documents have been digitized, with links to text files.
||Smithsonian Board of Regents contains biographical information on the over 300 members of the Institution’s Board of Regents, from our founding in 1846 to the present. Entries consist of names, titles, birth and death dates, occupations, tenures as a Regent, public law appointing them, special roles as a Regent, type of Regent, the state they are from, biographical citations and sources of images.
Search the Catalog!
Results can be limited to a single database or sorted by database. To search a single database, select the combined keyword search screen and limit your search to that database. To use the browse function for a single database, use the limit function on your results screen. Pre-set searches on special topics on the history of the Smithsonian are currently being developed and will be available under the Special Topics at http://sirismm.si.edu/siris/sictop.htm.
Pictures of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian Time Line
A Look Back at the Smithsonian
Smithsonian Scrapbook: Letters, Diaries & Photographs
the Smithsonian Archives
Artists at Work: Creativity at the Smithsonian
Expeditions: 150 Years of Smithsonian Research in Latin America
Greetings from the Smithsonian: A Postcard History of the Smithsonian Institution
Smithsonian at the Turn of the 20th Century
Interruptions and Embarassments: The Smithsonian During the Civil War
This Day in Smithsonian History