The Life Work of Smillie

There is a remarkable figure in the Smithsonian’s history that doesn’t get much of the spotlight; Thomas W. Smillie. He served as the Smithsonian’s first official photographer from 1870 until his death in 1917, and additionally became the Smithsonian’s first photography curator in 1896. Smillie amassed a collection of photographic equipment starting with the purchase of the daguerreotype camera and photographic apparatus used by Samuel Morse for $23. He documented the Smithsonian’s collections and activities ranging from art to history to science. He was a skilled experimenter, and a successful one at that. In the spring of 1900, Smillie accompanied a team of scientists to document a solar eclipse in Wadesboro, North Carolina. The goal was to document the solar corona, so he mounted cameras to several telescopes and successfully took eight stunning glass plate negatives.  

 Corona of the Sun during a Solar Eclipse 1900, by Thomas Smillie, SIA_007005_B186_F01_SPI_438.

In a series of cyanotypes, he documented the Smithsonian’s collections, many still in the collection today (see slideshow below). Currently, Smillie's work is in the Cold Vault at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Today, we are still documenting the incredible collection that Smillie created. 

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Samuel F. B. Morse's Daguerreotype Equipment, 1888, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [10625].

Photograph of Page from Book showing botanical specimens, c. 1890, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [20056].

Photograph of Firearms Exhibit by Thomas William Smillie, c. 1890, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [3746].

View of Taxidermic Animals Installation c. 1906, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [25242].

Marshall Islands Navigation Chart, 1899, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [13039].

Ornately framed Russian or Slavic Illustration, c. 1890, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [21998].

Photograph of Asian Figurines by Thomas William Smillie, c. 1890, by Thomas Smillie, SIA RU000095 [2606].

Mary Henry's Studio in East Range, Smithsonian Institution Building, 1878, by Thomas Smillie, MAH-1237.

Fisheries Exhibit in the U.S. National Museum, 1886, by Thomas Smillie, 2002-11551.

Women in the Telegraph Office, U.S. National Museum, 1886, by Thomas Smillie, MAH-3677.

Children's Room in Smithsonian Institution Building, 1901, by Thomas Smillie, 85-7818.

Coin, Stamp and Music Exhibits in A&I, c. 1910, by Thomas Smillie, MAH-28077.

Corona of the Sun during a Solar Eclipse 1900, by Thomas Smillie, SIA_007005_B186_F01_SPI_438.

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