Traveling in time with James Smithson

By Arthur Molella, NMAH
Art in a library, examining documents

James Smithson is the reason why we're called the "Smithsonian Institution," but much of his papers and mineral collections were destroyed in a catastrophic fire long ago. Art Molella, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, takes another tack to get to know the man—time travel.

Born in England in 1765, James Smithson, the illegitimate son of a British nobleman, became a dedicated scientist, deeply versed in chemistry, and well regarded for his careful micro-experiments. From this successful career in chemistry and mineralogy, he invested wisely enough to amass a reasonable fortune. But even those of us who work here know little else about James Smithson because a catastrophic fire in the Smithsonian Castle in 1865 destroyed all his papers and mineral collections, along with all his personal effects.


James Smithson as an Oxford Student, 1786, by James Roberts, Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Ref. NPG.96.28.
James Smithson as an Oxford Student, 1786, by James Roberts, Oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Ref. NPG.96.28.

During a recent trip to England, I found myself on a pilgrimage of sorts to places significant to James Smithson, whose surprise bequest gave birth to the Institution. My first stop was Pembroke College, one of Oxford University's smaller colleges from which Smithson graduated in 1786.

Although the college is currently undergoing renovation, modernization, and physical expansion, respect for its heritage remains strong. Sitting in the common room of the College's main hall, I had a palpable sense of Smithson's presence and of the tradition that shaped him. Around the walls hang solemn portraits of the bearers of that tradition, the Masters of the College.

Smithson, on the other hand, is a somewhat obscure presence at Pembroke. His memory is marked by a rather modest plaque on the outside wall of the entrance to the main hall; it was a gift from the Smithsonian in 1896. The Brits, it seems, are even less familiar with Smithson than we are in the United States.


I was able to view Smithson’s manuscripts in the Royal Society’s archives.
I was able to view Smithson's manuscripts in the Royal Society's archives.


From Oxford, I traveled back to London, where my next stop was the Royal Society. Only 22 when he was inducted into that venerable scientific body in 1787, Smithson was its youngest member. Early on, he had set his sights on becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, still considered an honor on a par with winning the Nobel Prize. In the Society's archives, I saw his manuscripts reporting experiments on Tabasheer, among other chemical substances, submitted for publication in the Society's Philosophical Transactions. I was also thrilled to read the minutes of Smithson's induction into the Royal Society, even though he eventually had a terminal falling out with the organization.


James Smithson’s induction into the Royal Society
James Smithson's induction into the Royal Society

No one really can say why he gave his money to the United States. Some conjecture that his bitter parting of ways with the Royal Society, coupled with anxieties about his illegitimate birth, may have led him to bequeath his largesse not to England but to the United States, a country he had never seen. We have only this famously cryptic mandate: "to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." That was the long and the short of it. Yet, from this seed a large research and museum complex eventually grew.This led me naturally to the question:

What would James Smithson, a chemist known solely for extremely precise analytical experiments, think of his legacy in terms of what the Smithsonian Institution is today?


Jake Andraka at the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards. Photo via Smithsonian Magazine.
Jake Andraka at the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards. Photo via Smithsonian Magazine.

By coincidence, only a few days after returning from my brief Smithson exploration, I attended the inaugural Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Awards. This celebration of creativity in its myriad forms illustrates the modern-day Institution's range, far beyond the highly specialized realms of chemistry pursued by Smithson. Award categories range from the Physical and Natural Sciences to Social Progress to Performing Arts.

For me, one of the most inspiring moments was the acceptance speech by high school sophomore Jack Andraka, the Youth Achievement winner, who invented a paper sensor that can detect a protein linked to pancreatic cancer. Bursting with youthful creative energy, Andraka told us how an uncle's illness prompted his amazingly simple invention.

All of the incredibly talented and accomplished winners, though, represented the spirit and variety of the nineteen museums and research centers that make up today's Smithsonian. They also perfectly embodied the spirit of invention and innovation at the core of the Lemelson Center and of the Smithsonian as a whole. I came away from the event with a much better understanding of the convergence of all forms of creativity, and heightened insight into how the disparate parts of the Smithsonian can work together toward the greater whole.

If Smithson could have traveled in time to our day, though, what would he have made of all this?

  What little survives in Smithson's own hand deals almost solely with his chemical and mineralogical research, but thanks to Heather Ewing's recent biography The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian, we now know a great deal more about him, and we see a man and a world not all that different from our own. Uncovering a wealth of fresh evidence, much of it circumstantial but entirely convincing, Ewing argues that Smithson had a romantic soul and a broad interest in man's place in the cosmos; she documents, for example, his fascination with pre-history and lost civilizations.

Just as important is what she notes about his era: his time was one of amazing discoveries. In Smithson's time, chemistry was emerging as a science and the basis for a world-transforming chemical industry. A host of new gases were being isolated and electric current was revealing itself as an important new force of nature. New planets and galaxies were being discovered, while geology was undergoing a revolution that would challenge the biblical chronology of creation.

In short, it was an age of ingenuity, perhaps even rivaling our own (keeping in mind that we all tend to be technology chauvinists for our own age). Armed with Ewing's new evidence, I feel I can say with confidence that James Smithson would have not only understood but applauded the Smithsonian's American Ingenuity Awards and the wide-ranging institution whose spirit they represent.

Art Molella is the director of the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. This post originally appeared on the Center’s blog, Bright Ideas.