1846 – Smithsonian Institution created


After a decade of debate about how best to spend a bequest left to America from an obscure English scientist, President James K. Polk signs the Smithsonian Institution Act into law on August 10, 1846.

In 1829, James Smithson died in Italy, leaving behind a will with a peculiar footnote. In the event that his only nephew died without any 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’s curious bequest to a country that he had never visited aroused significant attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Smithson had been a fellow of the venerable Royal Society of London from the age of 22, publishing 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, and one type of zinc carbonate was later named smithsonite in his honor.

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Article Title

Smithsonian Institution created

AuthorHistory.com Editors

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HISTORY

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https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/smithsonian-institution-created

Access Date

August 10, 2022

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A&E Television Networks

Last Updated

August 6, 2021

Original Published Date

November 24, 2009

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 HISTORY.COM EDITORS

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.