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The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian

3.44  ·  Rating Details ·  68 Ratings  ·  19 Reviews
In 1836 the United States government received a strange and unprecedented gift—a half-million dollar bequest to establish a foundation in Washington "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." The Smithsonian Institution, as it would be called, eventually grew into the largest museum and research complex in the world. Yet the man behind what became "America's ...more
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published April 3rd 2007 by Bloomsbury USA (first published January 2007)
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Jun 26, 2011 Brittany rated it liked it
I'm throwing in the towel. I'm sorry. I hate quitting a book, especially one with such interesting and personally relevant subject material, but I'm just not making any progress. I plan to pick it up again in the future. For now, I'll review the part of it I did read.

The prologue of this book was mind-blowingly cool. I have worked for the Smithsonian for three years, and I had no idea that the Castle burned at one point. This whole chapter, the events, and supporting material were exceptional. T
Nov 19, 2013 Billpalmer rated it it was amazing
Review of The lost world of James Smithson: science, revolution and the birth of the Smithsonian by Heather Ewing

Reviewed by Dr Bill Palmer, Associate, Curtin University, Australia.

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Place: London

Price: £20.00

Heather Ewing provides her readers with a portrait of James Smithson, who was in his time well known as a scientist, but who is now better known as the founder of Washington’s Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian has become the largest museum and research c
Carl Rollyson
Sep 03, 2012 Carl Rollyson rated it it was ok
On June 27, 1829, a rather obscure Englishman died in Genoa. He carried with him a receipt for a will stipulating that the bulk of his fortune — something like £100,000 (around $50,000,000 today) — should be employed by the United States for "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."

James Smithson wrote the will himself and omitted the lawyerly language that might have made his bequest clearer. A chemist by training who published a number of narrowly focused scient
Barbara Geffen
May 02, 2016 Barbara Geffen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
James Smithson gave his earned fortune to the USA, where he never set foot, serendipitously. His only named heir, his nephew, died soon after coming into the inheritance, thus invoking the alternative clause, which had only one condition for the use his gift to the country he had come to love from afar: "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Thus, eventually, came into being The Smithsonian Institution. Smithson was the illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumbe ...more
Sep 01, 2013 George rated it really liked it
James Smithson is a wonderfully interesting figure, a caring contributor to chemistry using small scale instruments and analysis to make his scientific mark. Smithson is a man who strongly desires to be consequential, either through his heritage or through scientific achievement. Neither of these desires come to fruition, but his fame is won through a small secondary line in his will, a germ of an idea that becomes one of the great scientific institutions in the United States. You will marvel at ...more
Lauren Albert
I found myself drifting--probably because I didn't find the science interesting. I'd recommend this book more to people interested in the history of science than to general readers of biographies and histories. I did think that sometimes the author seemed as obsessed with Smithson's illegitimacy (he was the natural son of a duke)as she says he was. But she also had to deal with a lack of evidence since much of what existed was destroyed in the Smithsonian fire. The part I found most interesting ...more
Aug 10, 2010 Kirsten rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science, u-s, europe
I had never really thought about how the Smithsonian came to be until I saw this book on a library shelf, and on a whim, decided to read it.
Mr. Smithson is a little known figure but important to DC. He lived his entire life in Europe, but gave a wonderful gift to the US that almost didn't become the Smithsonian. There were many setbacks along the way, but in the end, the gift he gave the US was priceless and unique.
The book reads quickly, and is a nice overview of his life and the events leadi
Eric Atkisson
Mar 12, 2016 Eric Atkisson rated it really liked it
Wonderful book. The last couple of chapters alone--about the convoluted legal and legislative maneuvers it took to bring Smithson's generous bequest to life--are well worth the read. I also enjoyed the portrait of Smithson and his world that emerged from the author's research, especially of how idealistic and cosmopolitan that generation of European scientists was. They were idealists who believed themselves to be "citizens of the world", but their optimism was sorely tested by the dark turn the ...more
Todd Stockslager
Jun 08, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Biography of the Smithsonian benefactor reconstructs the life of this "English gentleman" scholar and scientist living on the cusp of the professionalization of science and the heady atmosphere of the American and French Revolutions.

I say reconstructs because nearly all the papers and artifacts of his life were lost in the disastrous fire early in the life of the institution he bequeathed to the country he never visited, in lieu of the descendants he (and his surviving nephew) never had. For a p
Mar 12, 2015 Chuck rated it really liked it
Masterful research and an interesting story of the life of a man who has been mostly lost in the mists of time. In the absence of any collection of his own papers (lost in a fire) the author has done an amazing job of piecing his story together from brief mentions in other people's letters, notes he made in his library of books (which has survived) and obscure historical sources such as bank records. Not unlike what we genealogists do when looking for an ancestor. I knew nothing of Smithson or o ...more
Jul 27, 2011 Cheryl rated it really liked it
An interesting biography of the man who bequeathed to the Unites States the money to found the Smithsonian Institute, our "nation's attic." Unfortunately, his journals and scientific papers were destroyed in a fire in the original Smithsonian building in 1865, before they had been documented thoroughly, so what is known about James Smithson today comes from research of letters and diaries of his contemporaries. A citizen of Great Britain, what is truly amazing is that he had never even visited t ...more
Jan 05, 2010 Ginger rated it it was ok
Great start then it slowed a bit. A biography patched together with precision by the author using disparate facts, letters, and government documents from various countries. Given the lack of physical evidence of James Smithson's life, the author did a remarkable job. The best: Smithson's travels and his collisions (and near misses) with significant historical events. The worst: struggling to care about chemistry. Would've given 2.5, but not 3 stars because I won't read it a second time.
Nov 23, 2008 Sarah rated it liked it
I was a *little* disappointed in this book. I guess it's really tough to write about Smithson because all of his records were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian...but I still felt like this book promised a little more than it delivered. But it was kind of cool to read about this world of gentlemen-chemists in Europe all sending weird rocks back and forth to each other.
Oct 10, 2009 Martha rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, geology, own
James Smithson is such an interesting person and it is sad that so much was lost in the Smithsonian fire. Ewing does a really great job at piecing together a biography without all that material -- in fact, it is kind of cool to see how she worked out the puzzle. But, so many mysteries still remain. Great read about the father of the Smithsonian!
Nov 02, 2008 Leslie rated it liked it
Scholarly yet interesting. I've always enjoyed the Smithsonian, but knew next to nothing about the man who made it possible. Quite a read, but perhaps one you need to read with another, lighter read....
Dec 14, 2013 CQ rated it liked it
Going downtown to the Smithsonian museums so often, I really appreciated the background history of the man who made it all possible. I would've appreciated a bit more information on what was going on at the time historically to place other world events.
Anne Marshall
Aug 31, 2012 Anne Marshall rated it it was ok
Shelves: auto-bio, non-fiction
I thought it would be more about the Smithsonian but unfortunately not
Mar 26, 2010 Drew added it
The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian by Heather Ewing (2007)
Oct 12, 2012 E. added it
It's a bit slow going but some interesting information.
Roseanne rated it it was ok
Nov 04, 2012
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Aug 27, 2012
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