(Roughly) Daily

Taking tunes along on that summer outing (pre-iAge)…

(thanks, Boing, Boing)

As we adjust our headphones, we might spare a thought for James Smithson, who died on this date in 1829, in Genoa, Italy.   Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, and had published numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry.  In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals; indeed, one type of zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.

But perhaps most notably, Smithson left behind a will with a peculiar footnote:  In the event that his only nephew died without heirs, Smithson decreed that the whole of his estate would 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.”

Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, and had published numerous scientific papers on mineral composition, geology, and chemistry.  In 1802, he overturned popular scientific opinion by proving that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals; indeed, one type of zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.

Six years after his death, his nephew, Henry James Hungerford, died without children; so on July 1, 1836, the U.S. Congress authorized acceptance of Smithson’s gift.  President Andrew Jackson sent diplomat Richard Rush to England to negotiate for transfer of the funds, and two years later Rush set sail for home with 11 boxes containing a total of 104,960 gold sovereigns, eight shillings, and seven pence, as well as Smithson’s mineral collection, library, scientific notes, and personal effects. After the gold was melted down, it amounted to well over $500,000– a fortune in those days.

After considering a series of recommendations, including the creation of a national university, a public library, or an astronomical observatory, Congress agreed that the bequest would support the creation of a museum, a library, and “a program of research, publication, and collection in the sciences, arts, and history.”  On August 10, 1846, the act establishing the Smithsonian Institution was signed into law by President James K. Polk.

John Smithson, who had never visited the United States while alive, is interred in a tomb in the Smithsonian Building (“The Castle,” as it is popularly known).

James Smith

Written by LW

June 27, 2009 at 12:01 am

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