|The Smithsonian Institution as it looked during the Civil War shortly after the building was completed.|
On August 10, 1846 the Smithsonian Institution was established in Washington, DC with fund from a bequest by a wealthy Englishman who never stepped foot in the United States.
In 1826, British scientist, James Smithson, drew up his last will and testament, naming his nephew as beneficiary and stipulated that, should the nephew die without heirs the estate 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 among men.” Smithson died in 1829 and the nephew died with no heirs in 1833.
In 1836 President Andrew Jackson reported the gift to Congress which accepted the gift that had fallen out of the sky on them and pledged the “faith of the government,” in keeping the charitable trust.
Smithson’s fortune was shipped to the U.S. as100,000 Gold Sovereigns which were melted down by the Mint and re-coined as more than $500,000 in American currency—an astronomical sum of money in those days. Congress heatedly debated just how to use the windfall for ten years with plenty of schemes offered that would have peeled away the wealth for various purposes.
But in the end, Congress remained true to its original promise and in 1845 President James K. Polk signed into law Charter of the Smithsonian Institution as a trust to be administered by a Board of Regents and the Secretary of the Smithsonian.
The bill was drafted by Indiana Democratic Congressman Robert Dale Owen, a socialist and son of Robert Owen, the father of the cooperative movement.
The first Secretary was Joseph Henry whose experiments in electricity and magnetism had earned him a reputation as the nation’s most distinguished scientist. His selection over Francis Markoe, a State Department Clerk, amateur botanist and gemologist, and the founder of a politically well connected organization that had hoped to directly receive the Smithson fortune, was a signal that this post would be one of the few not filled by political patronage.
Henry hoped to make the new institution a center for scientific research but from the beginning various natural history collections occupying cabinets of curiosities in various offices scattered across the government, languishing in storage, or maintained by the military were sent to the new Institution. Almost before he knew what was happening, Henry was in the museum business. Various exploration expeditions in the American West and voyages by the Navy kept up a steady stream of new material. The new museum was at first, by default, a natural history museum.
To house the collection architect James Renwick, Jr. created a building unlike anything else in official Washington. Eschewing the Republican simplicity of the capital’s neo-classical style, Renwick built an ostentatious, some said gaudy, castle of red sandstone on the National Mall.
That building still stands, but the Smithsonian has long since outgrown its stone walls. Today the Institution has 19 museums, a zoo, and 9 research centers, mostly in the Washington area but also including cites in New York City and Panama. The museums embrace aerospace, American history, art—including the National Portrait Gallery, industrial development, Native American culture and history, African American culture and history, the National Zoo, and much, much more.
Over 136 million items are in its collections. The Smithsonian Institution is the largest museum complex in the world. In addition there are dozens of affiliated research institutions including several devoted to science and ecology and Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. The institution also issues numerous publications, including two popular magazines, Smithsonian and Air & Space.