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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

British scientist left mysterious mark in Washington, D.C.          By Paul Niemann

[April 05, 2007]  I spent last week attending a trade show and being a tourist in our nation's capital or, as the locals affectionately call it, the Land of Taxation without Representation. Ah, those locals are so clever with their nicknames.

An English scientist named James Lewis Macie created a controversy in Washington, D.C., that eventually had a very positive effect on America. This is the story of Macie's contribution to science and history.

James Macie was born to Sir Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate. The problem, though, was that his parents were not married. Well, not to each other anyway. Elizabeth was married to James Macie, so she named her illegitimate son after her husband, even though the boy's biological father was Hugh Smithson.

As a scientist, Macie conducted research in chemistry, mineralogy and geology. His work on calamines, which he presented to England's Royal Society, resulted in having a carbonate of zinc renamed in his honor, back in 1832. There is also something else far more important and more recognizable that is named in his honor.

First, it might help if you know that James Macie changed his birth name to his biological father's last name of Smithson when his mother died. The carbonate of zinc that is renamed in his honor is known as smithsonite.

What was James Smithson's contribution to the world of science and history -- the one that bears the name of this scientist who never once stepped foot in America while he was alive?

The Smithsonian Institution.

James Smithson bequeathed 11 boxes of gold sovereigns (coins) worth $508,318 to the United States to form what became the Smithsonian Institution. There was a catch, though.

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Smithson, who had no children of his own, bequeathed his money to his nephew, Henry Hungerford Dickerson, on the condition that if Dickerson didn't have any children, he was to donate the money "to the United States of America, to found at Washington an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." If his nephew had any children, then the money would go to them.

Smithson's nephew died without heirs in 1835, and Congress accepted the gift the following year. A lawsuit in England followed, but the British court ruled that the money should go to America as Smithson had requested. After eight years of debate in Congress over what the Smithsonian should be, the Smithsonian Institution was formed in 1846.

When Smithson died in 1829, he was buried in Genoa, Italy. Alexander Graham Bell, who was the Smithsonian's regent in 1904, brought his body to America and had him entombed in the Smithsonian Building. Today the Smithsonian Institution, which is the world's largest museum complex, consists of 16 museums, plus a number of research centers and libraries.

So why would James Smithson, a man who had never been to America and had no known connections to America, leave his fortune to America to build the Smithsonian?

To this day, it remains a mystery. No one, other than James Smithson himself, knew why. I guess you could say that the answer lies somewhere in the Smithsonian.

Paul Niemann may be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2007

[Text from file received from Paul Niemann]

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