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James Smithson
(1765 - 27 Jun 1829)

English mineralogist, chemist and patron who bequeathed substantial funds to establish the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C., “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” His reasons for his bequest remain unknown.


THE SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION.

ITS LEGITIMATE MISSION.

from Putnam’s Monthly (1854)

[In this informative article, the uncredited author (editor?) gives a history of the establishing of the Smithsonian Institution from a gift of James Smithson. It is especially interesting because it was written just a few years after its founding in 1846. The funds had been originally misspent by Congress, but restored. There followed squabbles by politicians over what to do with the money. Examples given of subsequent accomplishments include an interesting lengthy footnote about research on the path of newly discovered Neptune. The article suggests relocating from the unduly expensive building. It ends with a plea to fund other goals entirely separately (national library, art gallery, museum) to devote Smithson’s gift entirely to his intended purpose for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” — Webmaster.]

Photo of the Smithsonian Institution building exterior
Smithsonian Institution “Castle” c.1860-80 (source)
 
“Nothing can be unworthy of being investigated by man, which was thought worthy of being created by God.”

[p.121] THE endowment of the Smithsonian Institution, at Washington, by means of the munificent bequest of an English votary of knowledge, desirous of its increase among men, and, at the same time, ambitious to connect his own name with its diffusion for all time to come, is, we trust, destined to mark an all-important era in the history of science in America. Not that the amount bequeathed is in reality so large, in view of the magnitude of the work to be done. Its annual income is not half as much as the amount each year appropriated by Congress for the publication of the reports of the Patent Office. However colossal as the private fortune of one individual, even half a million yields but a limited income for the great work set before it, by the founder; the increase of knowledge, and the diffusion of that increase among all mankind. The importance of this bequest lies not in the amount of funds appropriated. It is to be found only in that vital principle of active progress inculcated by that one brief but comprehensive sentence of the Will of Mr. Smithson—“to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” The increase and diffusion of knowledge among men! Nothing can apparently be simpler or plainer than these words. Yet the diversity of their interpretation in their practical fulfilment, by different minds, can hardly be exaggerated. Even at the present moment there is a great difference of opinion among well-informed persons, as to the actual intentions of the founder, and the true signification of his will; while, among most of our countrymen, so vague and ill-defined an idea of this foundation, its object and aim, seems to prevail, as to call for an exposition of what, as it appears to us, all must admit to be its intended mission, when the life, the character, and the opinions of Smithson himself are well considered, as indices of his undoubted wishes and intentions in framing the bequest.

For we must bear constantly in mind that the Smithsonian is not a public but a private institution. It was founded by the exclusive bounty of one individual, and the United States have no right but as trustees. The trust could have been declined, had the object sought to be accomplished appeared unworthy consideration or undesirable. But, having once accepted the trust, our government is bound in honor to fulfil it, in good faith, and in strict accordance with the apparent wishes of Smithson, as well as they can be ascertained by the best light obtainable. The very brevity and simple conciseness of his Will, made this at first no easy task. A conflict of opinions for some time embarrassed and delayed its execution. This was not surprising. Nothing is more common than the error which confounds the diffusion of knowledge with its advancement, though nothing in reality can be more distinct. It was this substitution of the idea of the mere diffusion of the knowledge already in our possession, among a wider circle, for that evidently contemplated by Smithson, and expressed in his Will, the discovery of new truths, and new laws in science, which led astray many of those who at first sought, doubtless in good faith, to [p.122] execute his bequest. It is so important that this distinction between the actual increase of the knowledge in the possession of the world, and the mere dissemination of that already in existence, should be kept clearly before us, to enable us to appreciate the exact significance of Smithson’s words, and the objects he had in view, as thus indicated, that before we proceed, we ask our readers’ attention for a moment to this point.

What is it that causes any particular year to stand out more prominently than others, and to mark an era in the annals of science? What causes the names of certain men of science to appear to us in the dim vistas of the past, so well defined, and so distinct to the minds of all of us? Is it not because that particular year is associated with, or those great names have been hallowed to the world by new and important discoveries in regard to the laws of the universe? Such, for instance, as the discovery of the circulation of the blood, that of the law of gravitation, the motion of the heavenly bodies, or such names as Harvey, or Newton, or Galileo. They may have been derided in their day, for they were in advance of their times. Their discoveries may have been hooted at and ridiculed. Yet posterity awards to both the highest places among the great names as well as the great epochs of science. This is the true test of their intrinsic worth. With no disposition to underestimate the value of the general diffusion of all knowledge, we must still, in order to appreciate the significance of Smithson’s expressed will, bear in mind that it is quite distinct from its advancement or increase, and that the one may be as distinct from the other as shallowness from depth. That search for knowledge which, aiming at the highest objects, strives for the discovery of new laws, or seeks to investigate difficult and intricate questions, in the eyes of the world, is often deemed as valueless as its subject may be abstruse and uninteresting. The world gives the preference at first to those who can render science pleasing and popular. Mankind are but too apt to over-estimate at first the study of those branches of science which can at once be brought to bear upon the physical wants of society, and to under-estimate such as are purely intellectual, or the connection of which with the immediate necessities of mankind are remote and obscure. That this is as natural as it is short-sighted; that it is perhaps unavoidable, only renders it the more important that they who seek to conform, in good faith, to the expressed wishes of Smithson, should not attribute to him the same confusion, or an inability to make proper distinctions between the abstract and the practical, between advancement and mere extension of knowledge, when his whole life attests that no one more thoroughly appreciated these distinctions than he. Not to anticipate, however, and before we attempt any deductions in relation to his evident meaning, from what we know of his pursuits and scientific aspirations, let us briefly refer to what is known of the leading and prominent points of his life and character.

James Smithson was the illegitimate son of Hugh, Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth, niece of Charles Duke of Somerset. Many of the peculiarities of his character may be traced to the conflicting feelings of pride, in the noble blood that flowed in his veins, and an extreme sensitiveness with regard to his birth. He was educated at the University of Oxford, where he distinguished himself by his attention to the study of the physical sciences. He was reputed to be the best chemist in that university, and was especially successful in analytical chemistry, having been among the first to adopt and to practise upon a successful system of minute analysis.

In evidence of his proficiency and expertness in this branch of chemistry. Professor Henry, in a recent lecture before the Metropolitan Mechanics’ Institute of Washington, relates that, on one occasion, he caught a tear as it was trickling down the face of a lady, and, though he lost one half of it, succeeded in analyzing the remainder, and in detecting in it the presence of several salts. He devoted himself with constant zeal and assiduity to the investigation of the physical sciences, chiefly chemistry, mineralogy and geology; and in connection with these studies, prepared and read before different learned societies of England about thirty scientific communications. To these he owes, in a large measure, his scientific reputation. He by no means, however, confined his studies or researches to these, or even to the merely physical sciences. It appears from the writings he has left behind him, that hardly any department of human knowledge escaped his attention. He was retiring in his habits, sensitive in disposition, and ambitious of establishing an enduring scientific reputation. This he at first sought to do by his own scientific researches, and, in after life, by such a disposition of his property as would most [p.123] permanently associate his name with the advancement of knowledge. With this view, it was at first his intention to bequeathe his property to the Royal Society of London. Owing to some misunderstanding between him and the council of that society, he subsequently relinquished his design, and left it to his nephew, at whose death it was to revert to the United States of America, in trust, for the foundation of an institution bearing his name. Mr Smithson was never married, and all his waking moments seem to have been devoted to scientific studies. Although not a little proud of the fact that the best blood of England flowed in his veins, he was yet a cosmopolite in his views, and held that the true man of science should know no country, that the whole world is his country, and all mankind his countrymen. He evinced the sincerity of these professions, as well as his expressed convictions of the superiority of the institutions of this country over those of European nations, by bequeathing all his possessions, in trust, to our charge, to fulfil a specified object. His views and intentions in this bequest may be in part inferred from the following declaration, which was discovered among his papers, and which also occurs several times, written with slight variation, on different scraps of paper found among his personal effects. “The best blood of England flows in my veins; on my father’s side I am a Northumberland, on my mother’s I am related to kings. But this avails me not; my name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and the Percys are extinct or forgotten.”

The whole amount of property bequeathed by Mr Smithson, and realized by Mr. Rush, the agent of this country to prosecute the claim, at first a little exceeded half a million of dollars ($515,000). It was improvidently invested by the United States government in state securities, that subsequently proved worthless. Nearly eight years were allowed to elapse before any attempt was made to fulfil the trust committed to the United States, by founding the institution designated in the will. At the expiration of this time, after repeated unsuccessful endeavors. Congress was induced to replace the amount originally received, both principal and interest, which had been thus misplaced in worthless investments. The Smithsonian Institution was organized in August 1846, under the direction of a board of Regents, and in the more immediate charge of an executive officer, denominated its Secretary, who was allowed, with the consent of the Board, to employ such assistants as might be required. In July 1846. the whole of the process of the Smithsonian bequest, amounting, principal and interest, to the sum of $757,298, was place under the care of the Regents.

The act of Congress establishing this institution, contemplated the expenditure of the whole of the amount (viz. $242,000) that had accrued in interest, upon the building erected for its use, together with such portions of interest on the original bequest as remained unexpended in any year. Desirous of husbanding their resources to the utmost, the Regents resolved to invest the building fund, and not to finish the building immediately, but to extend the time of its completion until $150,000 of interest should be saved, to be added to the principal.

This plan, originally proposed by Professor Bache, has been carried out by the Secretary; and though the building has cost $300,000, it will be finished within the present year, and the original principal increased from $515,000 to $665,000.

The improvident investment of the original funds by the United States in worthless stock, was, on some accounts, an unfortunate circumstance. It certainly delayed the establishment of the institution itself. It made it necessary for Congress to interpose, and to redeem our good faith by refunding the money thus thrown away. This act of simple justice, without which we would have stood dishonored as a nation, in the eyes of the world, seemed, in the estimation of many, to give to Congress a quasi right to interpret Smithson’s will so as best to suit their own ideas, rather than the evident intentions of the founder. Various conflicting schemes were broached, and nearly all seemed more or less inclined to make use of the money to defray the expense of their own hobbies, or to pay for sundry purposes, desirable, doubtless, in themselves, but which Congress should provide for with money drawn from the national treasury, and for which it certainly had no right to make use of Smithson’s bequest. Some thought it would be a nice opportunity to establish an agricultural bureau, and that the funds could not be better appropriated than for a purpose so pregnant with beneficial results. In what way could more knowledge be obtained, or more good done to the country? Now, far be it from us to question the need of such an institution. Our government is deserving of just reproach, that it has not long since been created. But it clearly was not a disposition of his [p.124] money contemplated by Smithson, who embraced all kinds of knowledge, and not the mere practical art of agriculture, and who meant to diffuse knowledge to men of all nations, and not for our countrymen merely. Others wanted a gallery of fine arts, a limited form of knowledge for which Mr. Smithson is not known to have had any taste. Though not, perhaps, excluded by his will, it certainly was not exclusively contemplated. Nor was the scheme of a great national library at Washington, any more likely to have been in his mind when he sought to increase knowledge among men. A library however large, select, or valuable, keeps, preserves, but hardly diffuses, certainly does not increase knowledge. It must, of necessity, be local and limited in its benefit. Mr. Smithson’s lights were intended to shine for all mankind.1 Others strenuously called for a great national museum, on the plan of the British Museum, or something like it. A most desirable object doubtless, and one which cannot too soon be organized by Congress from the national treasury; and invaluable as an instrument, a place of registry or a field of study for those who seek to discover new truths in science, but it is nothing more. It is not, clearly, what Mr. Smithson left his money for, to the exclusion of other purposes. And when we bear in mind the constant tendencies of mere collections, without an active living organization, to become stationary, too much precaution can hardly be taken to guard against a condition that arrests both the increase and the diffusion of knowledge.

It was unavoidable that all these conflicting opinions, unfortunately aided by the necessity that existed for calling upon our national treasury, should have delayed, for several years, the fulfilment of Mr. Smithson’s will. It is, upon the whole, a matter of some congratulation, that, out of so great a conflict of minds, so much of the true spirit that dictated the bequest should have been preserved, as may be found in the programme of organization adopted by the Board of Regents, December, 1849. It certainly was most fortunate, that for the executive head of the Institution their choice should have fallen upon one so thoroughly imbued with the true animus of its founder. Professor Joseph Henry, of Princeton College, the gentleman selected by the Regents to inaugurate this infant institution, was, like Mr. Smithson, himself devoted to the study of the physical sciences. Thoroughly understanding the mission he has undertaken, sensitively appreciative of the design of Mr. Smithson in the increase and advancement of scientific knowledge, watchful and zealous in his endeavors to execute the important trust confided to his hands, and enjoying the confidence of the scientific men of the country; no one could have endeavored, with more religious fidelity, to fulfil it in the exact spirit of its founder, than he appears to have done.

The Smithsonian Institution, as finally organized, by act of Congress, was accompanied by certain requirements which, as we shall take occasion hereafter to show, are in conflict with the spirit of Mr. Smithson’s will, inasmuch as they directly diminish the means of executing it. This act contemplated the formation of a library, a museum of natural objects, a gallery of fine arts, and an expensive building. We shall speak of each of these presently

The plan of organization adopted, was, in point of fact, a kind of compromise between those who sought to exact the fulfilment of the founder’s will, and those, more latitudinarian in their construction, who wished to make the funds available for their own ideas of the best means of spreading knowledge. A counterpart of the British Museum was evidently contemplated by many. As we have said, perhaps we ought to be thankful that the former were able to retain so much of the founder’s aims, in their attempt to harmonize conflicting opinions. Nor was it to be expected that any plan adopted, even under the most favorable circumstances, could be found quite perfect in practice. It was of course at first rather a trial, a provisional suggestion of details, than a permanent adoption, though they have been thus far, for the most part, adhered to.

In the first report of the Secretary to the Board of Regents, we find certain guiding principles upon which the plan of organization was based, worthy of notice, [p.125] and which we shall briefly give. The bequest is not for us merely, but for mankind; the United States is but a trustee to execute the testator’s design; the institution is an individual’s, not a national establishment; its two-fold object is to increase the existing stock of knowledge by new truths, in the first place, and then to disseminate them;—all branches of knowledge are entitled to attention, there are no restrictions; its aim should be, as far as possible, at such results as cannot be produced by existing institutions; in view of the wide field to be cultivated and the limited means, the strictest economy to be observed; unnecessary expenditures or local objects would be a perversion of the trust. Such were the principles as then laid down. They are sound and not to be controverted. Following them out in the plan of organization, it was proposed, by rewards for memoirs containing new truths, to stimulate to original researches; to make annual appropriations for particular researches; to publish periodical reports on the progress in various branches of knowledge, and separate treatises on subjects of general interest; these memoirs to be in quarto form, for convenience in the size of accompanying plates, under the title of “Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge,” to be carefully examined by a suitable commission, before acceptation; in appropriations for special objects of research, all branches of knowledge to receive a share. At the same time, suggestions were made, as objects worthy of research, of meteorological observations upon the laws of storms, explorations in natural history, geology, magnetic surveys, chemical analyses, statistical inquiries with reference to physical subjects, ethnological researches, &c. Among the subjects to be embraced in the reports, were named physics, natural history, agriculture, the application of science to arts, ethnology, political economy, philosophy, survey of political events, bibliography, modern literature, &c, &c

In order to meet the requirements of the act of Congress establishing the institution, the Regents resolved, at first, to divide the income into two equal parts, one to be appropriated to the immediate increase and diffusion of knowledge, by means of researches and publications, the other to the formation of a library, a museum, and a collection of fine arts. The library was to be chiefly composed of the proceedings of the learned societies, and such current periodicals as might be necessary in preparing the reports. The collection was to consist of objects to verify the publications, instruments of research in experimental science, casts of the most celebrated articles of sculpture, models of antiquities, and objects of natural history. Especial attention was also to be given to the collection of catalogues of foreign, as well as domestic libraries, as a means of bibliographical knowledge.

The above is a brief synopsis of the plan of operations upon which the institution was based at its first organization, and upon which, up to the present moment, it has been carried on. Before we take into consideration how far all the matters contemplated by the act of Congress, are compatible with a faithful observance of Mr. Smithson’s wishes, it will be interesting to observe what has been done by the institution during the six years of its active existence.

The publications issued by the Smithsonian, are of two sizes, quarto and octavo. The former embrace the Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, and this size has been preferred because of its superiority and economy for the plates which may be required to accompany the original papers, to which this series is restricted. Six of these volumes, containing twenty-four separate memoirs, have been published. Of these the first is occupied by an elaborate work by Messrs. Squier and Davis, devoted to the ancient monuments of the Mississippi Valley; the fourth contains a grammar and dictionary of the Dakota language collected by members to the Dakota mission. The other volumes are occupied by original papers, by various gentlemen of high scientific attainments, several of which deserve to be noticed more particularly.

Copies of the volume on the monuments of the Mississippi Valley, were distributed among the principal literary and scientific societies of the world, and to all the colleges and larger libraries of this country, and has every where met with commendations. It has been instrumental in directing attention to American antiquities, and has not a little contributed to collections of all the facts that can be gathered, in regard to the ancient inhabitants of America, before it is made too late by the obliteration of their monuments and other traces, in the onward tide of civilization.

The grammar of the Dakotas is deemed a work of great interest, both to the ethnologist and the philanthropist. Its publication, and the distribution of directions for collecting Indian vocabularies, has led to the production of a similar work on the language of the Choctaws, to be also issued under the auspices of this Institution.

[p.126] It has been examined by competent ethnologists and its publication warmly commended.

Among the papers contained in the second and third volumes, our space will only suffer us to refer to a few. The contributions of Mr. Harvey to a history of the Marine Algae of North America deserve particular mention. Its author, Professor Harvey of the University of Dublin, is a botanist of the highest authority in this branch; who not only made a collection of the marine plants of our coast, but furnished drawings and descriptions of each species at his own expense. This work is warmly commended by our best botanists. Two numbers have been published and the third is in preparation. It is a work of great merit, interest, and scientific importance, and not without a practical value in agriculture and the chemical arts. If the Institution had been able to publish nothing else, it would have no reason to be ashamed of its instrumentality in giving to the world a work of this standard character, and which, but for their aid, would perhaps never have seen the light.

Ellet’s contributions to the Physical Geography of the United States is also a contribution of much interest, and one that has excited much attention among those to whom its subject is one of peculiar attraction. A very elaborate and thorough series of researches into the anatomy of the frog was prepared for the Institution by Professor Jeffries Wyman, of Harvard University, throwing much new light upon the organization of this class of the animal kingdom. Interesting and valuable researches in regard to the aboriginal monuments of New-York, by Mr. Squier, and of Ohio, by Mr. Whittlesey, are given in these volumes. Scientific accounts of the botanical collections made in Texas and New Mexico, by Mr. Wright, under the direction of the United States Survey, have been furnished by Professor Gray, and their publication commenced in the third volume.

The late Professor Sears C. Walker, of the National Observatory, was aided by the Institution in the completion of those remarkable astronomical triumphs, which attended the closing day of that truly great philosopher. His calculation of an ephemeris of the actual places of the new planet Neptune, perhaps, without exception, the greatest triumph Astronomy has yet achieved, we owe to the bounty of the Smithsonian, which thus assisted in giving the honor of the interesting discovery to our own country. If the Institution had done only this, it would have richly earned the grateful consideration of science.2

Among the reports on the Progress of Knowledge, in octavo form, have appeared a most valuable history of the recent improvements in the Chemical arts, which has been much sought after; a history of the planet Neptune by Professor Gould; notices of all the public libraries in the United States, by Professor Jewett; and a complete catalogue of the Coleoptera of North America.

These publications are sent by the Institution to all the first class libraries, and literary and scientific societies in the world, as well as to all the colleges and [p.127] public libraries of any magnitude in the United States. In return the Institution receives from all the learned societies abroad a full equivalent in the transactions, and other publications, of those societies. In the course of a single year (1852), the number of these reciprocal contributions amounted to nearly five thousand.

In connection with the publications of the Institution, we must not omit to make honorable mention of the arrangements adopted by it, in connection with their distribution abroad, to establish a general system of exchange of literary and scientific productions between this and foreign countries. With this view it receives packages from societies and individuals in all parts of the United States, transmits them to Europe, and, through its agents, distributes them to all parts of Europe. In return it receives articles sent to this country and forwards them to their address. These exchanges, by arrangements with our own and other governments, are made free of duty. In carrying out this magnificent plan of scientific and literary exchange, the Institution has received the liberal co-operation of the British government, and of the Royal Society of London. The latter has adopted the same system, with reference to Great Britain, and other parts of the world, aided by the Smithsonian Institution, in their distribution in this country. During the year 1852, 592 packages, containing 9,195 articles, were sent abroad, and 639 packages, with an unknown quantity of articles, besides nearly five thousand for the Institution, were received. Professor Baird estimates that at least three fourths of the Scientific exchanges of this country pass through his hands, as agent of the Smithsonian. The expense incurred by the Institution is considerable, but is regarded as trifling in proportion to the good accomplished in the diffusion of knowledge.

Researches into the phenomena of meteorology have been extensively prosecuted under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution. These have been systematized, with the design to embrace, as far as possible, the whole surface of North America under their observations. Observers, in different parts of the country, record the various changes in the sky, the direction of the wind, the changes of temperature, &c, &c. In this the Institution has been aided by Congress, by appropriations from New York and Massachusetts, and by observations from officers, both in our own, and the British army! The State of New York made liberal appropriations for meteorological observations, and the whole system was organized under the direction of the Smithsonian Institution. Something similar, though on a smaller scale, has been done by Massachusetts. Important services have also been rendered by the Institution in the introduction of improved instruments for conducting these observations. Valuable results have been obtained, in several instances, by exploring and surveying parties, furnished by the Institution with instruments. At the present moment, several hundred observers are distributed over the entire continent, more or less being in every State in the Union, all of whom have been supplied with new and superior tables and directions for observing, and many of them accurately compared with instruments. In this way has been collected an extended series of facts yielding deductions of great interest in regard to the climate of the country, and the meteorology of the globe.

Although the condition of its funds have not, thus far permitted much to be done in regard to researches in natural [p.128] history, geology, &c, the Institution has not been idle. Assistance has been rendered to the exploration of the botany of New Mexico, and to that of the fossil geology of Nebraska. It has defrayed the expenses of exploration in relation to erosions of the earth by rivers, and other geological phenomena. It has promoted astronomy, by aiding the researches that discovered the true orbit of the planet Neptune, as well as by the instruments it furnished Lieut. Gillies, in his Chilian expedition. It has furnished annual lists of occultations of the principal stars for the determination of longitudes. It has prepared tables for ascertaining heights with the barometer. It has furnished instruments for determining the elements of the magnetic force, to the various exploring expeditions. And last, though by no means least in this list of good deeds, it has perfected, under the supervision of Mr. Jewett, a plan of stereotyping catalogues of libraries which, if generally adopted, will render effective aid to the whole country.

Since its organization the active operations of the Institution have been much embarrassed, and its means of usefulness diminished, by the original mistake of appropriating so large an amount to a costly building. It was an unfortunate error, on the part of Congress, not to use a less mild expression, to be thus prodigal of these funds, when a simple building, costing only a sixth of the amount expended, would have been abundant for all its wants. The original estimate required an expenditure on the building, &c. of $250,000, but it was found necessary to incur an increased expense for fire-proofing the interior, of $50,000.

It appeared from the last annual report made in January, 1853, that the number of volumes in the library then amounted to 9,707, of which 2,598 were added in 1852; that other articles, including pamphlets, maps, &c, amounted to 11,994, of which 7,208 were also received in 1852.3 The chief of these accessions have been derived from exchanges, and demonstrate, that, to a very large extent, the Institution may depend upon this return from its active operations, for a valuable scientific library, as many of the books thus received in exchange are of the first importance to a scientific student. Although the unfinished state of the building has rendered it necessary to confine the collections for the museum to a limited space in the basement, where they could not be publicly exhibited, that department has not been neglected. Prof. Baird has actively exerted himself to its increase, by his personal researches, by stimulating others, and by carefully preserving those received. In the departments of herpetology, icthyology and mammals, its collection is already remarkably rich. In the single item of serpents, the Institution possesses twice as many North American species as were given in the great work of Dr. Holbrook. It is also rich in undescribed species in various departments, but more especially in regard to fishes and reptiles. Large and important additions may be looked for from the various exploring expeditions, both on land and sea, and constant donations are received from officers in the army and the navy. Indeed the value of Washington as a central point for the means of stimulating researches, and collections in all directions, and in all the various departments of knowledge, as well as of redistributing to all the various scientific associations and colleges its surplus wealth of duplicate specimens, has been well attested by what has already been done by this institution, even in its infancy, and when one half its income was each year applied to the stone and mortar of its costly edifice.

For a gallery of fine arts the only articles that have been collected, in accordance with the act of Congress, have been a valuable series of engravings by the old masters.

The act of Congress required the delivery of public lectures in Washington. This requirement has been complied with. It may however be doubted whether any thing so limited in their influence as local lectures could have been contemplated by Smithson himself. Yet we are not disposed to find much fault with this requirement. That they do good we doubt not. No one who has heard them, or seen the crowded and respectful audiences they are sure to call out, can honestly question their beneficial moral influence on a city like Washington. Still we are quite as clear in our opinion that not even the good they may do can justify Congress in paying for them from the Smithsonian fund to any large amount, and that, if it be desirable to extend them, as we are very far from disputing, [p.129] they should be paid for by our own government, or from other sources, and only a small sum taken from the Smithsonian income.

Having thus passed in review the history of this Institution, briefly, for our space is limited, yet we trust with sufficient fulness to exhibit both what was the mission assigned it by its founder, and what has been done by its trustees, and their servants, towards its fulfilment, it still remains for us to consider how far its true mission has been understood, in its organization, and carried out, in its subsequent operations. To be able to do this correctly, we must keep constantly in view the specific purpose to which Smithson restricted his bequest, as well as his own life, character and recorded views, so far as they throw light upon, and make evident his expectations in making the bequest. It was not alone to found a library, or a museum, or a gallery of fine arts, nor to give popular lectures. It was simply to advance or increase knowledge; and to diffuse what was thus called into being. That only could be a fulfilment, in good faith, of this bequest, which sought to apply its income in such a manner, as most successfully to do those two things: increase knowledge and then to diffuse that increase among men. But has Congress, in the organization of this Institution, thus discharged the requirements of honor and good faith by keeping within the bounds indicated by its founder’s will? To our perception it is very clear that it has, in certain respects, deviated from it. In the first place, it caused the expenditure, in comparatively useless stone and mortar, of nearly three hundred thousand dollars. It has saddled the Institution with the charge of several expensive and onerous departments, which do not properly belong to it, and any one of which, to be cared for as it should be, would absorb the whole of its limited income; thus, while no single object is satisfactorily obtained, in this minute subdivision of a sum none too large for its own legitimate purposes, these last are dwarfed and suffer, for want of that which is rightfully all their own. Congress found the subject a novel one. It was familiar only to a few who had looked into it, and, apparently, they had committed the radical error of supposing its income, the interest of half a million, to be inexhaustible. While some thought of embellishing the capital of the nation with a magnificent building, others supposed that they could also have a large library, a gallery of fine arts, a museum, &c, and still have an income large enough for the more legitimate purposes of the institution. In the conflict of these various objects of preference, none could be carried on upon so large a scale as was contemplated, and it was found necessary to make a temporary compromise, by an equal division of the income between the active operations and the library and museum. It is in contemplation so far to modify this arrangement as to permit more just and liberal appropriations for the more active and immediate increase of knowledge.

Not content with these features in the laws establishing the Institution, Congress has thrown upon it burdens, which it is as clearly the duty of government to provide for, as are any of their recognized liabilities. Of this nature, is the law requiring it to receive, keep, and make a registry of (but not to use) all the copyrighted publications of this country. We shall not stop to inquire whether complete collections of all the copy-righted publications of each year, issued in the United States, is of sufficient value or interest, present or prospective, to warrant the expense incurred by it; for that has nothing to do with our present purpose. It is enough for us that it is totally foreign from the purpose designed by Smithson, and clearly belongs, if it be a duty, to any, to that branch of the government which has charge of the Patent Office. Congress is bound in honor, and good faith, to recall a gift which is felt to be a burden, and not a favor.

The true mission of the Smithsonian Institution is to increase knowledge, and to diffuse that increase world wide. This is all its founder left it to do. His bequest cannot with honor be diverted to other purposes, be they ever so desirable. How noble a mission this is, how rich and how fruitful is the field before it, has been abundantly shown even with its crippled finances, its restricted means, and the disorders incident to a commencement, and even with the burdens thrown upon it during its seven years’ existence. During that time, its assiduous and faithful secretary, sensitively awake to the intention of its founder, and the spirit of his bequest, has at least demonstrated how much may be done, even with limited means, by active operations, and the publication of their results, and how much more might be done, with the full, undisturbed use of the whole fund, for the purposes to which it was designed and [p.130] restricted by its founder. At the same time other results have been made equally clear by the experience of the institution, and call for the intervention and aid of Congress. These not only show that this Institution is not able to provide for all the departments assigned to it, without a perversion of its funds, and an abuse of its founder’s confidence, but also make manifest how desirable and important it is, that our government should make suitable provision to meet, in a liberal spirit, and one worthy of a great nation, possessed of an overflowing treasury, the wants it has itself called forth. Let us have a great national library at Washington, worthy an educated and enlightened nation. We care not on how magnificent a scale it may be founded, only let us pay for it out of our own treasury. Let us certainly not pervert for it the bounty of a stranger, who trusted it to us for a different purpose. Let us have, too, our national gallery of fine arts ; if you will, our public lectures, too, at Washington; above all, let us have a great national museum. We already have a magnificent commencement in the proceeds of the great exploring expedition under Captain Wilkes, covering every department of nature. We have yet others in store from the several expeditions to the Arctic region, to Japan, and the North Pacific, besides others on land, in explorations of our unsettled territories. Having gone thus far, our government cannot, with credit, cannot with due regard to the best interests of the country, now draw back. We must, however, provide the means. We are abundantly able to do this. To a great, prosperous, and wealthy nation, the cost involved would be a mere bagatelle.

Let us meet, then, these self imposed duties, in a manner becoming the nineteenth century, and an honorable nation. Let us recall from the Smithsonian Institution all the burdens our government has imposed upon it, that are inconsistent with its legitimate mission, the increase of knowledge, leaving to it only those things which have proved to be kindred to its design or desirable to it as aids. Let Congress, in a word, found, or rather we should say organize, for it was already founded, a great national Institution, at Washington, sufficiently distinct from the Smithsonian to relieve it of all the expenses, the cares and the burdens of the details, sufficiently under its control to permit it to derive from it all the aid and co-operation that may be required. It is obvious that it must soon do something of this kind in order to provide proper protection for the extensive collections it has made, and the yet more extensive ones it is still making. We could do nothing that would better meet the wishes and wants of the American people, or more exalt us as a nation in the eyes of the world of science. Congress has imposed upon the Smithsonian Institution an expensive and costly building, involving an outlay six times as large as would be required for one limited to its wants. Its first movement should be to take this building off its hands and appropriate it to its own national collections, and refund the cost to the Smithsonian Institution for the purposes assigned to it by Mr. Smithson. Thus relieved of its burdens, and the uncongenial tasks assigned to this Institution, it would be enabled to enter upon a sphere of usefulness commensurate with the wishes and bounty of its founder. It could still retain a library suited to its own wants, without incurring any great expense, for its exchanges with scientific societies, at home and abroad, are now giving to it a very large proportion of the publications chiefly, required. It might, with advantage, retain a museum of natural history sufficient to verify its own publications, and to exhibit typical, rare or new genera and species, or even a complete series of North American objects. It might even, with advantage, retain the general direction of the national collections, the distribution of the duplicates to the learned societies of the world, and the custody of such articles as might be desirable for its own purposes and for study. Thus aided by government, instead, as now, of being burdened by uncongenial tasks, the Smithsonian Institution would become all the most ardent wishes of its illustrious founder could have desired, confer great practical benefits upon mankind, and achieve a noble position before the world of science. The great value of this Institution in the eyes of this world of science is that, in its legitimate mission, it discharges duties which but for its aid might never be done by any one. The history of nearly every great discovery shows that he who adds new and important truths to the previous stock of knowledge, is so far in advance of his age, that their productions cannot be given to the world, without pecuniary loss, which not every one is able or willing to incur. It is not every one that has the fortune of a Bowditch wherewith to publish his discoveries, and his labors. Yet without it even his great work could [p.131] not have been given to the world. This then is a part of the great accepted mission of the Smithsonian Institution, to give that aid to the advance of science which cannot be looked for from any other source. It is a high and holy mission. If followed, in good faith, upon the principles laid down for itself, in its programme of active operations, it will not fail to contribute invaluable aid to the true greatness of this country, in the development of its intellectual power. It has been well said by one of the soundest writers upon the study of nature, ‘‘Science is inseparably interwoven in all that gives power and dignity to a nation.” In his eyes it was a subject of reproach to England of the present day, that while science was more generally than ever before diffused among the mass of his countrymen, so little are the higher objects— the true philosophy—of science esteemed or cultivated, that discoveries of the just order, which open a new and unexpected field for the most important generalizations, “had been suffered to die almost in their birth,” although they had been begun by his own countrymen. A reproach like this can never be preferred against our own country, so long as the Smithsonian Institution shall be permitted to fulfil the important duties, and to discharge the high mission its illustrious founder assigned it. with a far-sighted wisdom which shall for ever connect his name with the advance of science in America, or so long as it shall continue to aid in the increase of knowledge or to promote the diffusion of that increase among men.

Since the above was prepared. we have received the recent report, made by Senator Pearce, in behalf of the special committee appointed by the Regents in relation to the distribution of the fund. The following passage is so pertinent to this point that we copy it in this connection :—

“The terms of Smithson’s will requires that Washington should be the locality of the Institution; but, if this section had reference to a public library, absorbing almost the whole interest of the fund, would such language have been employed? If a library at Washington was to be established, it was wholly unnecessary to provide that the business of the Institution should be conducted there, since the business of a library must be conducted where it is placed. The use of this language would seem to imply active transactions, and not to refer to books.”

2 The following account of Professor Walker’s discoveries we have found, since the above was written, in a lecture delivered by Professor Henry before the American Association for the advancement of Education, is interesting in this connection:—

“A few years ago a new planet, now known by the name of Neptune, was discovered in a remarkable manner. Its place was indicated by mathematical deductions from irregularities observed in the motion of the planet Uranus; and when the glass of the observer was pointed to the heavens in the proper direction, the planet was found in the precise place which had been predicted. The news of the discovery and the manner in which it was effected, produced a lively sensation throughout the world. The predictions which led to the actual discovery were made simultaneously, but independently, by two mathematicians— Leverrier in France, and Adams in England. They not only pointed out the direction in which the planet was to be found, but from a priori considerations, gave the dimensions, form, and position of the orbit which it described around the sun. The direction indicated, as I stated before, was the true one, but the form and dimensions of the orbit were widely different from those subsequently found to belong to the real orbit of the planet

“Mr. Sears C. Walker, of the National Observatory, was particularly interested in this discovery, and immediately commenced a series of investigations in reference to it. After the motions of the planet had been accurately observed for about four months, during which time it had passed through less than the 600th part of its whole circuit round the sun, he calculated an orbit from these observations of its actual motion, which enabled him to trace its path among the stars of the celestial vault, through its whole revolution, and to carry its position backward until it fell within a cluster of small stars, which had been accurately mapped by Leland about the close of the last century. After minute and critical investigation, he was led to believe that one of the stars represented on the map of Leland, which had been observed by him on the night of May 10th, 1795, was the planet Neptune. The weather at the time this interesting conclusion was arrived at was stormy, the heavens had been clouded for weeks, when he placed in the hands of the Secretary of the Institution a sealed package containing an account of his results, and others were given to different persons. On the first clear night the telescope of the Observatory was directed to the heavens. The result was. all the stars mapped by Leland fifty years before were in place except one, and that was the one which had been fixed upon as the planet Neptune. Professor Pierce, of Harvard University, visited Washington at that time, and was sceptical on the subject. He examined the map drawn by Leland, and observed a query (? ) affixed to the missing star. To remove this doubt a request was made that the original records of Leland, deposited in the Observatory at Paris, might be examined. It was found that Leland had twice observed the star which he had recorded, and not obtaining precisely the same results each time, and not dreaming that it was a planet, subject to motion, he selected one of the observations for publication, and, like a true philosopher, he placed a query after the star. Want of time, or some other cause, prevented Leland from examining it again. Had be done so, he would have discovered the new planet. Mr. Walker next calculated what the motion of the planet ought to he during the two weeks of interval of the observations of Leland and found it exactly to agree with the two places which had been recorded by that astronomer. He now had observations embracing not a few months of the motion of the planet, but that of an interval of fifty years. From this data he proposed to deduce the true elliptical orbit, or one which the body would describe, were there no other planet in die system, he had left the Observatory, and could not afford the necessary time to the mere numerical calculations which would be required. The Smithsonian Institution came to his aid, and undertook to defray the expense of the Investigation. It advanced about $800 to complete the research. Professor Pierce investigated the action of the other planets on Neptune, and his results enabled Mr. Walker, by means of his elliptical orbit, to calculate an ephemeris of the actual places of the new planet, which has been received by all the astronomers of the world as the only one which exhibits with precision all the motions of this new discovered member of our solar system, and which enables the astronomer to follow it from night to night in its path among the stars.

“The Astronomer Royal of England has made a series of observations, to compare the predictions of the Smithsonian ephemeris, as it is called, with the actual place of the planet as determined by observation, and has stated that the ephemeris gives the place with so much precision, that no difference could be observed with the most powerful telescope between the place of the actual and the theoretical planet. From this account it is evident the Smithsonian Institution has assisted in giving the honor to this country of completing one of the most interesting discoveries in astronomy of the present century. But, alas! this triumph has been gained at the expense of a sad bereavement. The labor of the investigation was too much for Walker, and science has to mourn his untimely loss. Peace to his memory, he was a man,—take him for all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.

3 From the more recent report of the Regents it would seem that the library consists of 12,000 volumes and 8000 pamphlets, besides parts of volumes.


The opening quote is by Joseph Henry. Photo, not in original text, added from source shown above. Footnotes moved from their original pages, gathered at the end of the article, and renumbered accordingly. Text from 'The Smithsonian Institution: Its Legitimate Mission', Putnam’s Monthly (Aug 1854), 4, No. 20, 121-131. (source)


See also:

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

Albert Einstein: I used to wonder how it comes about that the electron is negative. Negative-positive—these are perfectly symmetric in physics. There is no reason whatever to prefer one to the other. Then why is the electron negative? I thought about this for a long time and at last all I could think was “It won the fight!” ...(more by Einstein)

Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
Quotations by: • Albert Einstein • Isaac Newton • Lord Kelvin • Charles Darwin • Srinivasa Ramanujan • Carl Sagan • Florence Nightingale • Thomas Edison • Aristotle • Marie Curie • Benjamin Franklin • Winston Churchill • Galileo Galilei • Sigmund Freud • Robert Bunsen • Louis Pasteur • Theodore Roosevelt • Abraham Lincoln • Ronald Reagan • Leonardo DaVinci • Michio Kaku • Karl Popper • Johann Goethe • Robert Oppenheimer • Charles Kettering  ... (more people)

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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
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William Harvey
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John Keynes
Carl Gauss
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- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
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Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
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- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
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Robert Oppenheimer
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- 20 -
Carl Sagan
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- 10 -
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