On This Day

Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian, smithsonian castle
Smithsonian Institution/AP
“The Castle,” the Smithsonian Institution’s original building

On This Day: Smithsonian Institution Established

August 10, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 10, 1846, Congress signed a charter to establish the Smithsonian Institution using a $500,000 donation from English scientist James Smithson.

Smithson Bequeaths Money to U.S. for Smithsonian Institution

James Smithson, the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson Percy, the first duke of Northumberland, was one of the most renowned English scientists of the 19th century. Admitted to the Royal Society at the age of 22, he published 27 scientific papers in his lifetime and even had a mineral—smithsonite—named after him.

Smithson died in Italy in 1829, and left his estate to nephew Henry James Hungerford. His will stated that, were Henry to die without heirs, his fortune should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Smithson’s decision to leave his estate to the United States, a country he may never have even visited, likely stemmed from resentment over British law, which prevented illegitimate children from taking their fathers’ names. He once wrote, “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.”

Hungerford died in 1835, leaving Smithson’s $500,000 estate to the United States. It would be a decade before Congress decided how to spend the money. “One gentleman wanted a library; another, an observatory; a third, common schools; a fourth, farming schools; a fifth, some other particular object,” according to the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.

On Aug. 10, 1846, Congress chartered the Smithsonian Institution, a project that encompassed nearly all of these ideas.

The charter was broad, calling for a “building of plain and durable materials and structure, without unnecessary ornament … for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale of objects.” New York architect James Renwick Jr. constructed Norman Castle in Washington, D.C., as the institution’s home.

Expansion and Greatness of the Smithsonian Institution

The first objects to enter the institution were scientific materials and books of art. A fire in 1865 destroyed part of the Norman Castle and ruined some of its earlier collections. James Smithson’s remains were brought to the building in 1904 and have been on display ever since. During World War II, Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot moved the collections to a warehouse in Virginia for safekeeping.

Since its founding, the Smithsonian Institution has expanded to include 19 museums, nine research centers, and a national zoo. It has launched six magazine publications, which cover subjects such as air and space travel and contemporary art, and is recognized as the world’s largest museum and research complex. The Smithsonian is largely found on the Mall in Washington, D.C., but includes an observatory in Hawaii and an Arctic studies building.

Reference: The Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution Web site offers information on its museums, exhibits and events, and an encyclopedia tool for research.

Visit the Smithsonian Institution Archives to watch virtual tours of the establishment’s history. Exhibits range from historic pictures of the Institution over the past 150 years to the Smithsonian Scrapbook, which is a slideshow of archived letters, diaries, and photographs.

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