A Suggestion Concerning James Smithson's Concept of "Increase and Diffusion"

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  • The author first briefly relates background information concerning James Smithson's bequest to the United States to establish the Smithsonian Institution "for the increase and diffusion of Knowledge among men." To try to decipher Smithson's intent when making the bequest, he then explores definitions of the words "increase and diffusion" that would have been applicable during the first part of 19th century Britain. First Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry interpreted Smithson's phrase to mean the increase of knowledge by original research and its diffusion by publication, but varying opinions abounded. The author states that his purpose is to identify the popularly based and peculiarly English social assumptions suggested by Smithson's use of the words.
  • He notes that at the time a mutual relationship philosophy existed between science and self-culture that was expressed as the increase and diffusion of knowledge: individuals could educate themselves through observation and discovery. According to the author, this viewpoint, together with the expectation that the diffusion of truths was expected to multiply the chances of discovery to supply new knowledge, appealed to those urging inexpensive but substantive education of the working class. The author argues that Smithson had been exposed to that philosophy and made his bequest to support the education of the American public through the same self-culture processes as various organizations had supported in Great Britain.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Smithson, James 1765-1829


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Author is a university doctoral candidate and is with the Division of Political History, National Museum of American History; article has 24 Footnotes and one Figure.

Contained within

Technology and Culture Vol. 24, No. 2 (Journal)

Contact information

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


April 1983


  • Smithson Bequest
  • SI, Early History
  • Self-culture
  • Philosophy
  • Inheritance and succession

Physical description

pgs. 246-255

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