Discourse, on the Objects and Importance of The National Institution for the Promotion of Science, Established at Washington, 1840, Delivered at the First Anniversary

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  • Joel Poinsett, Senior Director of the National Institution for the Promotion of Science (which later became the National Institute), delivered this address in January of 1841 to commemorate the first anniversary of the Institution at its Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Poinsett sets forth his suggestions and rationale for using the Smithson bequest in this discourse, which was published in response to a letter requesting he do so from the seven-member committee that made arrangements for the meeting.
  • Poinsett begins by stating that the occasion provides him the opportunity to explain the origin of the Institution and to describe its objects and importance. He views the capital city of Washington, DC, as being in dire need of a resource for the study and enjoyment of science, literature and the fine arts, and declares that the Institution for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts will fill that void by being involved in every branch of knowledge. Poinsett names eight scientific classes deemed by Institution members as essential for study and elaborates in great detail on their effect on mankind.
  • Three branches of science are included in the first class: astronomy, of great importance to the Institution, as it may be the only perfect science; geography, primary for navigation and commerce; and natural philosophy. The second named class is natural history, which includes zoology and botany. Geology and mineralogy are named as the third class of sciences, and the fourth class, chemistry, is viewed as vital to modern science and may be considered the foundation of technology.
  • The fifth class is broadly defined as "the application of science to the useful arts," rather than a named science, and is exemplified by inventions such as the daguerreotype. The sixth class, agriculture, must be considered the most important, as it is essential to human existence. Poinsett names American history and antiquities as the seventh class, and credits Institution members Peter Force and George Bancroft as two individuals who have made great contributions in the documentation of the history of the country through their historical writings. Literature and fine arts are the last class; Poinsett emphasizes their importance in a free society.
  • At various points throughout his address, Poinsett refers to the sciences, and the arts and sciences as well, as being intertwined. He states that progress made in the previous half century was due to the application of science to practical purposes, and asserts that the useful arts were valuable in accomplishing those scientific advancements. Poinsett also offers his philosophy concerning the discovery process and speaks of how sciences and the arts are advanced.
  • In his conclusion, Poinsett hopes that he has explained the objects and importance of the National Institution sufficiently well to encourage federal use of "an Englishman's bequest" to create a national government-operated scientific establishment that would include an observatory and a National Museum building to house collections, such as specimens brought back from exploring expeditions. Lecture rooms, books and equipment, and salaries for professors and curators would be provided, botanic and zoological gardens would be constructed, along with laboratory facilities to study every branch of physical science. Poinsett comments that individuals have already given collections to the National Institution for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts which would form the foundation of a National Museum, and he foresees donations greatly increasing after the government establishes its Institution.


  • Poinsett, Joel Roberts 1779-1851
  • Force, Peter 1790-1868
  • Bancroft, George 1800-1891
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829
  • United States Exploring Expedition (USEE)
  • National Institution for the Promotion of Science
  • National Institute
  • Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806)


Smithsonian History Bibliography

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu




  • Geography
  • Scientific expeditions
  • Art
  • National Institution for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences
  • Mineralogy
  • Natural History
  • Zoology
  • Botanical gardens
  • Science
  • SI, Early History
  • History
  • Zoos
  • American science
  • Technology
  • Agriculture
  • New Organizations
  • Literature
  • Geology
  • Antiquities
  • Architecture
  • Ethnology
  • Museums
  • Societies
  • Plants
  • Philology
  • Physics
  • Professional associations
  • Smithson Bequest
  • Chemistry
  • Observatories
  • Equipment
  • Daguerreotypes
  • Music
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Astronomy
  • Research--Equipment and supplies
  • Art and science
  • Natural history
  • Science--Societies, etc
  • History--United States
  • Botany


United States

Physical description

Number of pages : 52; Page numbers : [1]-52

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