Smithsonian Origins

James Smithson was geologist and chemist, and member of the Royal Society of London. He died in 1829 leaving his fortune to his nephew with instructions that if his nephew died without heirs, the money would pass 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.” No one knows why he made this bequest; he had never even visited America.

Smithson’s nephew died without an heir in 1835 and the United States was informed of the unexpected gift of more than half a million dollars. For a decade, the U.S. government debated on how to use this windfall. During this time, the government lost Smithson’s bequest on shaky bond investments, then restored the money out of its own pockets at the urging of former President John Quincy Adams, then a Representative in Congress. President James Polk finally signed the legislation, much of it shaped by Adams, creating the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

Almost from its inception, the Smith was involved with aeronautics. Its first Secretary, Joseph Henry, was a friend and supporter of aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe. With Henry’s recommendation, Lowe created the United States Army Balloon Corps which used its balloons in the American Civil War to observe troop movements.

Beginning of the Smithsonian Institution