Washington, D.C.

This Week in History: The Smithsonian was Founded

 

The Smithsonian Institution Building, dating from the 1850’s.

The Smithsonian Institution Building, dating from the 1850’s.

Credit: U.S. National Library of Medicine

Much like the country itself, this all-American institution owes it beginnings to England. It all began with a bequest from British scientist James Smithson (who, oddly enough, never visited the United States). In his will from 1829, Smithson stipulated that should his nephew pass away without heirs, his fortune would be left “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.”

The U.S. National Museum, 1911

The U.S. National Museum, 1911

Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Upon the childless nephew’s death in 1836, the U.S. accepted the inheritance by act of Congress. Two years later, a diplomat collected the fortune: 105 sacks of gold sovereigns worth about $500,000, or 1/66 of the country’s budget at the time. It took Congress eight long years to hash out the definition of “the increase and diffusion of knowledge” (language straight out of a lawyer’s worst nightmare), during which time the bonds where the funds had been invested defaulted, only to be restored—with interest—by act of Congress.

Setting the final stone overlooking the National Mall, 1909

Setting the final stone overlooking the National Mall, 1909

Credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives

Finally, on August 10, 1846—17 years after Smithson’s death and 167 years ago this week—the Smithsonian Institute was born. Now, it comprises 19 museums, nine research centers, and a zoo in the DC area alone, plus several other educational facilities around the country.

You can see a new side to the Smithsonian on this SideTour that explores Middle Eastern, Indian and Asian Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.

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