8/10 1846 – The Smithsonian Institution was chartered by the U.S. Congress. The “Nation’s Attic” was made possible by $500,000 given by scientist Joseph Smithson.

James Smithson and the Founding of the Smithsonian

James Smithson
James Smithson, c. 1765-1829
Artist: Hattie Elizabeth Burdette

Smithson, the illegitimate child of a wealthy Englishman, had traveled much during his life, but had never once set foot on American soil. Why, then, would he decide to give the entirety of his sizable estate—which totaled half a million dollars, or 1/66 of the United States’ entire federal budget at the time—to a country that was foreign to him?

Some speculate it was because he was denied his father’s legacy. Others argue that he was inspired by the United States’ experiment with democracy. Some attribute his philanthropy to ideals inspired by such organizations as the Royal Institution, which was dedicated to using scientific knowledge to improve human conditions. Smithson never wrote about or discussed his bequest with friends or colleagues, so we are left to speculate on the ideals and motivations of a gift that has had such significant impact on the arts, humanities, and sciences in the United States.

Visitors can pay homage to Smithson with a visit to his crypt, located on the first floor of the Smithsonian Castle.