Popular Science Monthly/Volume 62/February 1903/The Smithsonian Institution

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


"THE advancement of the highest interests of national science and learning and the custody of objects of art and of the valuable results of scientific expeditions conducted by the United States have been committed to the Smithsonian Institution. In furtherance of its declared purpose—for the 'increase and diffusion of knowledge among men'—the congress has from time to time given it other important functions. Such trusts have been executed by the institution with notable fidelity. There should be no halt in the work of the institution, in accordance with the plans which its secretary has presented, for the preservation of the vanishing races of great North American animals in the National Zoological Park. The urgent needs of the National Museum are recommended to the favorable consideration of the congress." (President Roosevelt's first message to Congress.)

In the first Smithsonian report issued in the twentieth century it may not be amiss to tell the readers of this volume very briefly what the institution is, how it came into being, and how it has fulfilled the purposes for which it was established.

In the popular mind the Smithsonian Institution is a picturesque castellated building of brown stone, situated in a beautiful park at Washington, containing birds and shells and beasts and many other things, with another large adjacent building, often called the Smithsonian National Museum. The institution is likewise supposed to have a large corps of learned men, all of whom are called 'professors' (which they are not), whose time is spent in writing books and making experiments and answering all kinds of questions concerning the things in the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the waters under the earth.

Contrast this popular notion with the facts. The Smithsonian Institution is an 'establishment' created by an act of congress which owes its origin to the bequest of James Smithson, an Englishman, a scientific man, and at one time a vice-president of the Royal Society, who died in Genoa in 1829, leaving his entire estate 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 among men.'

After ten years of debate in congress, turning partly on the question whether the government ought to accept such a bequest at all and put itself in the unprecedented position of the guardian of a ward, congress accepted the trust and created by enactment an 'establishment'


called by the name of the Smithsonian Institution, consisting cf the President of the United States, the Vice-President, the Chief Justice of the United States, and the members of the President's Cabinet. It has also a secretary, with varied functions, among others that of being the keeper of the museum.

Smithson's money, which amounted to over half a million dollars, and later to three quarters of a million, a great fortune in that day of small things, was deposited in the United States Treasury, the government afterwards agreeing to pay perpetually six per cent, interest upon it.

In the fundamental act creating the institution, congress, as above stated, provided that the President and the members of his cabinet should be members of the institution, that is, should be the institution itself, but that nevertheless it should be governed by a board of regents, composed of the Vice-President and Chief Justice of the United States, three regents to be appointed by the president of the senate (ordinarily the vice-president), three by the speaker of the house of representatives, and six to be selected by congress; two of whom should be residents of the District of Columbia, and the other four from different states, no two being from the same state. The fundamental act further provides that the secretary of the institution already defined shall also be secretary of the board of regents. The museum is primarily to contain objects of art and of foreign and curious research; next, objects of natural history, plants, and geological and mineralogical specimens belonging to the United States. Provision is also made for a library, and the functions of the regents and of the secretary were denned.

The preamble of this bill states that congress has received the property of Smithson and provided 'for the faithful execution of said trust agreeable to the will of the liberal and enlightened donor.' It will thus be seen that the relations of the general government to the Smithsonian Institution are most extraordinary, one may even say unique, since the United States solemnly bound itself to the administration of a trust. Probably never before has any ward found so powerful a guardian.

The first meeting of the regents occurred on September 7, 1846, and in the autumn of the same year they elected as secretary Joseph Henry, then a professor at Princeton, known for his extraordinary experiments on the electromagnet, and other subjects relating to electricity. Under his guidance the institution took shape. Its work at first consisted, in the main, of the publication of original memoirs, containing actual contributions to knowledge, and their free distribution to important libraries throughout the world; to giving popular lectures in Washington, publishing them, and distributing them to libraries and individuals; stimulating scientific work by providing apparatus and by making grants of money to worthy investigators, cooperating with other government departments in the advancement of work useful to the general government, etc. These were the principal methods employed by Henry to carry out the purposes of Smithson, for the increase and diffusion of knowledge. Here, too, were initiated certain studies which afterwards became most fruitful and have resulted in important government work, such as the present Weather Bureau, among others. The beginning of cooperation in library work was at this institution. At the same time many—we might almost say most—of the present scientific activities of the government have grown out of it or been stimulated by it. Experiments in fog signaling, in the acoustics and ventilation of public buildings, and in numerous other subjects, were inaugurated. In fact, in these earlier days, with one or two exceptions,


founder of the smithsonian institution.

the Smithsonian was the sole representative of active scientific work directly or indirectly connected with the United States government. Its influence upon the character of private scientific work, too, was very great, since half a century or more ago the avenues for publishing were few, and the funds for the purpose slender.

Gradually, out of the collections which had been kept in the Patent Office, the private collections of Smithson, and of appropriations of his money made by the regents, and largely also through the results of the great exploring expedition of Captain Wilkes, there grew up a Smithsonian Museum, one which was exclusively cared for from the Smithson fund; but which, partly through the greater activity of the government surveys and partly through the gifts of private individuals, and also through the valuable objects presented to the United States government by foreign nations at the close of the Centennial at Philadelphia in 1876, brought about the establishment of what is now known as the United States National Museum of the Smithsonian Institution, which is under control of the regents of the institution, for which a building was. provided, and which now receives direct support from congress. This museum has now the matter belonging to the original institution collected by the Smithsonian's own observers, with much more secured through the general government, making in all over 5,000,000 specimens, and is the foremost collection in the world in everything that relates to the natural history, ethnology, geology, and paleontology of that portion of North America now the United States, besides containing many valuable series from other countries. The collections have been visited by over 7,500,000 persons, and the institution has carried selections of its specimens to every large exhibition held in the United States, and distributed 850,000 specimens to colleges and academies, thus powerfully stimulating the growth of museums large and small in every section of the country.

The publications of the Smithsonian have been in several series, mostly to convey to specialists the results of its original scientific investigations and to thus represent the first half of its fundamental purpose 'for the increase of knowledge,' and, subordinately, others to include handbooks and indexes useful to students, and some publications which, while still accurate, contain much information in a style to be understood by any intelligent reader, and thus represent the second half of the founder's purpose for the 'diffusion of knowledge.' Many valuable publications, too, have been issued by the museum and the Bureau of Ethnology, and recently by the Astrophysical Observatory. In all, 265 volumes in over 2,000,000 copies and parts have been gratuitously distributed to institutions and private individuals, these works forming in themselves a scientific library in all branches.

Partly by purchase, but in the main by exchange for these publications, the institution has assembled a library of over 150,000 volumes, principally of serial publications and the transactions of learned societies, which is one of the notable collections of the world. The major portion of it has been since 1866 deposited in the Library of Congress, with which establishment the most cordial and mutually helpful relations subsist.

In 1850 Spencer Fullerton Baird, a distinguished naturalist, was elected assistant secretary of the institution. To him the great activity in natural history work was due, and by him the museum was fostered, he being greatly aided from 1875 by a young and enthusiastic naturalist, George Brown Goode. Secretary Baird initiated in the Smithsonian Institution those economic studies which led to the establishment of the United States Fish Commission.


first secretary of the smithsonian institution, 1846-1878.

As another means of diffusing knowledge there was early established the bureau of international exchanges, originally intended simply for the proper distribution of the Smithsonian's publications, but which gradually assumed very wide proportions, becoming no less than an arrangement with learned societies throughout the world to reciprocally carry free publications of learned societies, or of individual scientific men, intended for gratuitous distribution. This system was afterwards taken up by various governments which, through treaties, bound themselves to exchange their own publications in the same way. Since the inaguration of this service, 5,000,000 pounds weight of books and pamphlets have been carried to every portion of America and of the world. The institution existing not only for America, in which it has over 8,000 correspondents, but for the world, has throughout Europe,


second secretary of the smithsonian institution, 1878-1887.

Asia, Africa, and the islands of the sea, nearly 28,000 correspondents more without the United States than within—justifying the words 'Per Orbem,' as the device on the Smithsonian seal.

Other work has been intrusted to the institution by the government, such as the Bureau of American Ethnology, for studies relating to the aborigines of this continent; the Astrophysical Observatory, which for ten years has been chiefly devoted to the enlargement of Newton's work on the spectrum, and the National Zoological Park. The establishment of the latter was intended primarily to preserve the vanishing races of mammals on the North American continent; but it has also assumed the general features of a zoological park, affording the naturalist the opportunity to study the habits of animals at close range, the painter the possibility of delineating them, and giving pleasure and instruction to hundreds of thousands of the American people.


third secretary of the smithsonian institution, elected in 1887.

These two latter establishments are due to the initiative of the present secretary, Mr. S. P. Langley, elected in 1887; a physicist and astronomer, known for his researches on the sun, and more recently for his work in aerodynamics. While the fund has been increased of later years by a number of gifts and bequests, the most notable being that of Mr. Thomas G. Hodgkins of a sum somewhat over $200,000, its original capital, once relatively considerable, has now, in spite of these additions, grown relatively inconsiderable where there are now numerous universities having twenty times its private fund. It threatens now to be insufficient for the varied activities it has undertaken and is pursuing in every direction, among these the support of the higher knowledge by aiding investigators everywhere, which it does by providing apparatus for able investigators for their experiments, etc. Investigations in various countries have been stimulated by grants from the fund. It has been the past, as it is the present, policy of the institution to aid as freely as its means allowed, either by the grant of funds or the manufacture of special apparatus, novel investigations which have not always at the moment seemed of practical value to ethers, but which subsequently have in many instances justified its discrimination in their favor and have proved of great importance.

The growth of the institution has been great, but it has been more in activity than in mere bigness. The corner-stone was laid fifty years ago. In 1852 the entire staff, including even laborers, was twelve. In 1901 the institution and the bureaus under it employed sixty-four men of science and 277 other persons. These men of science in the institution represent very nearly all the general branches, and even the specialties to some extent of the natural and physical sciences, besides history and the learning of the ancients; and it may perhaps be said that the income of the institution (which, relatively to others, is not one tenth in 1901 what is was in 1851) has been forced to make good, by harder effort on the part of the few, what is done elsewhere in the government service by many.

The private income of the Smithsonian Institution is not quite $60,000, but it controls the disbursement of about $500,000 per annum appropriated by the government for the bureaus under its charge.

Certain other functions difficult to describe are still of prime importance. The Smithsonian is called on by the government to advise in many matters of science, more especially when these have an international aspect. Its help and advice are sought by many thousands of persons every year, learned societies, college professors, journalists, and magazine editors, and thousands of private individuals, seeking information, which is furnished whenever it can be done without too serious a drain, though naturally a percentage of the requests is unreasonable. It has cooperated with scientific societies of national scope, like the American Historical Association, and has stimulated the growth of a number of the Washington scientific societies, and it may be said to teem with other activities.

The regents control the policy of the institution, and the secretary is their executive officer. Since the beginning the regents have been selected from among the most distinguished men in public life and george brown goode.

Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1887-1896.
louis agassiz.

Regent of the Smithsonian Institution. 1863-1873.
asa gray.

Regent of the Smithsonian Institution, 1874-88.
in the educational and scientific world. Their roll contains the names of the most distinguished American citizens for half a century.

An unwritten policy has grown up which, without instructions or regulations, has been of profound influence in the work. The Smithsonian Institution does not undertake work which any existing agency can or will do as well. It does not engage in controversies; it limits its work to observation and the diffusion of ascertained knowledge,

not to speculation. It preserves an 'open mind' for all branches of knowledge and considers any phenomena which are the object of serious study within its purview. Its benefits are not confined to Washington nor to the United States, but as far as consistent are extended to all men.

Its secretaries, assistant secretaries, and scientific officers have from the beginning—long before a classified service existed—been elected and appointed for merit, and for that alone. No person has ever been appointed on the scientific staff for any political reason or consideration.

It is impossible to look into the future. The Smithsonian Institution has a remarkable organization for the administration of funds for the promotion of science; yet amidst the great benefactions of the past quarter of a century relatively few have come to it. Its activities could be still further increased if it had greater means under its control, and the regents, because of the peculiarly independent position they hold, can be of great public service in suggesting the channel into which gifts for scientific purposes might be directed, even if they do not see their way clear to accepting such donations for the institution itself.

For the National Museum a great new building is a prime necessity. The museum has practically reached a point where it is physically impossible that it should grow under present conditions.

Secretary Langley has for several years past been urging upon the government the dispatch of several expeditions for capturing the species of large mammals so rapidly being destroyed in the United States and Alaska; but even without this, the National Zoological Park, with its relationships to the other great national parks, is destined to be one of the great collections of the world.

The Bureau of American Ethnology, which since its organization has devoted itself to the aborigines of this continent, may have new work to do in Porto Rico and in Hawaii.

Among still other activities, of which there is now but a premonition, a National Gallery of Art (provided for by Congress in the original charter) may be alluded to.

The past of the Smithsonian Institution is secure, its present is known to all men, and it looks forward to the future in the belief that it will worthily continue under whatever changing conditions to 'increase find diffuse knowledge among men.'

  1. This article is reprinted from the recent report of the Smithsonian Institution. We have pleasure in reproducing the official account of the foundation and activities of the institution, as we have had occasion to criticize its present management.