James Smithson, the man behind the Smithsonian Institute, never visited the U.S.
Source: Original photo by Rozenski P./ Alamy Stock Photo

James Smithson, the man behind the Smithsonian Institute, never visited the U.S.

Born in France and raised in England, chemist James Smithson (1765–1829) was well-traveled, spending significant chapters of his life in Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. According to his will, he also gave much thought to transatlantic affairs in America, a destination that eluded him during his lifetime. He inherited a substantial sum from his mother (although not from his father, the Duke of Northumberland, because he’d been born out of wedlock), which he invested in emerging technologies such as canals and steam engines. 

The architect of the Smithsonian Institution Building, James Renwick Jr., began college when he was 14.
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It's a Fib
Renwick began taking classes at Manhattan's Columbia College — later renamed Columbia University — at age 12. In 1836, the year he turned 18, he earned an engineering degree; a master's soon followed. He later designed New York’s St. Patrick's Cathedral, among other buildings.

Smithson never married or had children of his own, and when he died, his will bequeathed his riches to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford — with an unusual clause. If Hungerford died without legitimate or illegitimate heirs, Smithson’s estate would be set aside for the United States “to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Hungerford only outlived his uncle by six years, and died without having children. Hypotheses abound concerning Smithson’s motives: Perhaps he wanted to denounce classist England, advocate for democracy, or simply create more charitable organizations grounded in a shared love of learning and science. After Congressional debate about whether the then-hypothetical Smithsonian would impinge states’ rights (among other concerns), in 1846 the Senate passed an act establishing what would become the world’s largest museum and research complex, which President James K. Polk duly signed into law. Today, the vast majority of the Smithsonian’s museums — such as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Museum of American History — are still located in the nation’s capital, and admission to these facilities is free.  

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Numbers Don’t Lie
Year 20th Century Fox released "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian”
2009
Kickstarter funds the Smithsonian received for a case to preserve Judy Garland's "Wizard of Oz" slippers
$349,026
Total guests the Smithsonian's museums and zoo welcomed in 2019
22 million
Objects in the Smithsonian's collections (less than 1% are currently exhibited)
155 million
President _______'s saxophone is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
President Bill Clinton's saxophone is on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
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James Smithson is entombed in the U.S.

In the years before his death in 1829, James Smithson was living in Genoa, Italy. His remains were buried about a mile outside the city, in an English Protestant cemetery, where they remained untouched for almost 75 years. Then, around 1904, Smithsonian representatives were notified that Smithson’s grave site would be moved to accommodate an expanding quarry. Allegedly acting without the consent of his fellow Smithsonian regents, Alexander Graham Bell — the inventor of the telephone — traveled to Genoa and collected Smithson’s remains, chaperoning them on a two-week sea voyage to the U.S. In Washington, D.C., a mortuary chapel was constructed on the ground floor of the Smithsonian Institution Building (nicknamed the Castle), allowing visitors to pay their respects at Smithson’s tomb. In 1973, shortly before the chapel was renovated, workers opened his coffin and accidentally set its silk lining on fire. The bones within were left unscathed, and the tomb can still be visited near the building's north entrance.   

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