Smithsonian got its start thanks to mysterious gift from British scientist

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The Smithsonian is an American treasure with its museums, the National Zoo, the tropical research station in Panama, astrophysical observatory and many other cultural, scientific and historical resources.

But did you know that the thanks for the massive institution go to a British man who never visited the United States?

James Smithson was a wealthy British scientist who was especially interested in chemistry and minerals. Three years before he died in 1829, he wrote in his will that his closest relative, a nephew, would inherit his estate, which was worth more than $13 million in today’s dollars. However, if his nephew didn’t have children, the money would go to the United States and the creation of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” He declared the place would be called the Smithsonian.

The nephew had no children, so the United States government had to figure out how to carry out Smithson’s wish, which came with no explanation of why he made the gift or what kind of “establishment” he imagined.

“It was very vague,” said Pamela Henson, the Smithsonian’s historian.

After debating its meaning for 10 years, Congress finally agreed on a plan in 1846. “The bill that passed has basically everything in it but the kitchen sink,” she said.

The Smithsonian’s first leader, Joseph Henry, decided the institution should be a research lab. So for 50 years, the Smithsonian Institution Building, also known as the Castle, was full of scientists studying topics such as meteorology, anthropology, natural history, electromagnetism and chemistry.

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