Science and Knowledge: Keeping them Alive
During the early years of the United States, adults esteemed science and knowledge of mathematics as objects of learning. In addition, they loved asking questions about the natural world and the universe. Jefferson’s and Madison’s libraries covered universal subjects in many languages.
Thought in this period rested on what historians call the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. These were ideological shifts about the rights of man that led to the great revolutions of the eighteenth century. In the early 1800s Americans supported not only their revolution, but its ideological underpinnings.
Early Americans were interested in more than politics. Most importantly, they believed that “we the people” could pursue happiness by free inquiry and free thought in all fields. They knew the difference between facts and fiction, and valued systematically analyzed and understood facts. In sum, they admired and valued science; the U. S. Constitution guarantees patent rights to the innovative.
Very few universities existed and most of these focused on the instruction of ministers of religion. Thus, the educational establishment purveyed religion and morality; it did not conduct research and support free inquiry. However, the core curriculum in most universities included mathematics and some practical science. This practical core allowed The College of William and Mary to train and grant a license to George Washington to be a surveyor.
The Philadelphia Museum
None of the thirteen colonies housed museums, although there were several learned societies that pursued the science of the day and diffusion of knowledge. The Philadelphia Museum founded by Charles Willson Peale in 1784 was the first American museum. Peale, a well-known portrait painter, opened the museum with a display of forty- four “worthy persons” of the revolutionary era.
Peale hoped to get commissions for more portraits and charged admission to his museum. At first, his collection occupied the upstairs space in his home. Here is one of Peale’s portraits of George Washington (now hanging at Washington’s home, Mount Vernon):
The Philadelphia Museum began to attract donations of many items and soon had to expand from its original space. For example, displays included Martha Washington’s thimble, American Indian clothing, weapons, and various household objects.
In 1794 Peale moved the museum to the building of the American Philosophical Society, the country’s first scientific society, where Peale served as secretary. Peale, a scholar and student of botany and natural history, collected specimens of plants and animals. Interestingly, he found a place in his museum for a live menagerie including two grizzly bears, a monkey and a bald eagle.
Science and Knowledge of Natural History
The American Philosophical Society pursued science. Members studied and systematically organized their knowledge. They made their discoveries and artifacts available to the public.
In 1801 Peale led an expedition to Newburgh, New York where a farmer had found the skeleton of a large mastodon. Peale and his son, Rembrandt, excavated and reassembled the skeleton and put it on display in the museum. The mammoth caused a sensation and was the most popular item in the Peale collection. As a result of increased visitor interest and attendance, the following year the museum moved to the second floor of Independence Hall.
The Peale Collection was now a serious museum. Visitors received a printed catalogue with collections organized according to a botanical order. Painted portraits hung over glass cases holding birds, reptiles, insects, minerals and fossils. The reassembled mammoth skeleton dominated the museum.
The Smithsonian Institution: Origin and Early History
Similar to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, a group of Washington DC citizens organized the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences in 1816. The organization received a charter from the U. S. Congress in 1818 and elected some prominent members who served as officers.
The Institute proposed to study plant life, to create a botanical garden on the capitol Mall, to study the country’s mineral production, to improve the management and care of livestock, and to create a topographical and statistical history of the United States. In 1824 it occupied a permanent home in the capitol building and provided weekly presentations to members of Congress.
During the life of the society, eighty-five communications were presented to Congress, with more than half devoted to astronomy and mathematics. Of all the activities planned by the institute, two were implemented—the establishment of a botanical garden (it’s still there) and a national museum for the study of natural history. The Institute’s charter expired in 1838. The National Museum, based on the natural history holdings of the society and founded in 1840, later became part of the Smithsonian Institution.
James Smithson was a well-to-do British scientist living in Italy. He died in 1829 leaving most of his estate to his nephew, Henry James Hungerford. Smithson’s will stipulated that should his nephew die without heirs, the estate would pass “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.” The nephew, Hungerford, died in 1835, childless and still in his twenties.
Nobody knows why Smithson did this. He had never visited the United States and knew nobody living there.
Finally, Congress officially accepted the legacy and pledged the faith of the United States to the charitable trust on July 1, 1836. President Andrew Jackson sent Richard Rush to England to collect the bequest, and Rush returned with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns. That amounted to about $500,000 at the time; in today’s dollars, approximately $220 million.
What did Smithson Mean by Science and Knowledge?
President James K. Polk in 1846 signed legislation establishing the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States. The law created a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian who would administer the institution.
Smithson’s will did not specify what he meant by diffusion of knowledge, and the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, wanted the institution to become a center for scientific research. At the same time, it became the depository for various U. S. Government collections.
In 1838 the United States navy embarked on an exploration that would circumnavigate the globe and last four years. The expedition, conducted by a navy crew and nine civilian scientists, sailed on six small ships.
The exploring expedition amassed forty tons of samples of natural history. Artifacts included thousands of zoological specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, thousands of shells, corals, fossils and geological specimens. In addition, the expedition collected a few thousand ethnological curiosities, including 450 weapons. The crew evidently participated in deadly battles with Fijian warriors and collected many intricately carved war clubs.
Housing Science and Knowledge: The Castle
The vast collection brought back by the exploring expedition was catalogued and displayed at the U. S. Patent Office. As a result of the expedition, Congress debated the need for a building on the Mall, to both fulfill Smithson’s wish and to house all of the newly amassed objects. At the time, Washington DC was a small city and the Mall served as its center.
Money was appropriated and construction began in 1849. The building, designed by James Renwick, Jr., imitated a Norman castle. The Smithsonian opened its building, known widely as the Castle, in 1855, completing the requirements of Smithson’s will.
Today the Smithsonian Institution is a giant repository of knowledge and science in Washington DC, a city dominated by politicians and politics. While rhetoric, exaggeration, and obfuscation comprise most of what politicians say, they know where science and knowledge come from. They support the Smithsonian with their budget every year.
Free and open to the public, the Smithsonian has been that way from its beginning. Today it consists of nineteen museums as well as the National Zoo. Eleven of the museums are located on the National Mall along with the National Botanical Garden. In addition, the Smithsonian supports 168 affiliated museums in 39 states, Panama and Puerto Rico.
Still true to the requirements of science, the Smithsonian Institution supports some twenty research centers. Several are connected to affiliated Smithsonian museums.
In 2020, the federal budget and appropriations by Congress for the Smithsonian amounted to $1 billion, or 62 percent of total expenditures. The rest comes from trusts and private donations. Smithson’s legacy still operates.
Science and Knowledge: Magic at the Smithsonian
My family lived in Washington DC during the years my children grew to adulthood. We visited the Smithsonian frequently and one year both my children enrolled in a Smithsonian course on magic.
Christian the Magician acted as professor and he was well known in my neighborhood for presentations at birthday parties. For six weeks he met with his small class teaching them not only the tricks, but how to present them.
The final exam consisted of a performance by the students for an audience of parents and grandparents, held in a small auditorium in the Castle. We sat in a semi-circle on platforms built to serve as seats (no chairs) and could view the small stage from above.
My children managed to demonstrate a display of a complete newspaper page after they had shown the crowd that they had torn it up and shredded it. We cheered loudly as did all the other parents and grandparents.
After the performance I asked the children how they did it. They refused to answer. They had done the work and were keeping the knowledge and science to themselves.