A mere 159 years ago, the U.S. government laid the legal
foundation for the world’s largest museum complex. On Aug. 10, 1846, President
James K. Polk signed into law a congressional act that sanctioned the formation
of the Smithsonian Institution, which has since become perhaps the premier
collection of museums found anywhere on earth.

It was the estate of the late James Smithson—who left a fortune
of 100,000 British gold sovereigns to the United States specifically for the
creation of a scientific institute—that made this act possible. And to this
day, no one knows why.

Born in France in 1765 as James Lewis Macie, James Smithson
was ostensibly the son of James Macie and Elizabeth Keate. In truth, James was
the illegitimate son of Sir Hugh Smithson, who would become the first Duke of

It wasn’t until his mother’s death in 1800 that he adopted
the surname Smithson, ironically at the same time that he inherited his fortune
from his mother’s family. Thus, his
father’s name and his mother’s fortune would form the base of James Smithson’s

Despite a well-traveled career as a respected chemist and
geologist, Smithson never visited the United States, nor did he have any known
connection with American politics or America’s then-fledgling scientific
institutions. Thus, his motive for bequeathing his full estate to the United
States remains unexplained.

When Smithson died in 1829, his will stipulated that should
his nephew—his only heir—die without producing any heirs himself (legitimate or
otherwise), his fortune 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.”

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Smithson’s nephew didn’t
pass away until 1835, and his will remained contested in British courts until
1838, when the government ruled the bequest stipulation valid. The 100,000
sovereigns—worth about $500,000 in U.S. currency at the time, about $8.8
million today—thus passed into the hands of the U.S. Congress, which spent another
eight years arguing over how best to form the required Smithsonian Institution.

What emerged from those nine years’ worth of wrangling was a
charitable trust overseen by a secretary, a nominal chancellor, and a board of
regents. And a quasi-legal tradition allots two of these posts to two of the
most high-ranking officials in the U.S. federal government, a custom still
practiced today.


Which two high-ranking U.S. government positions include the
responsibility—either by law or tradition—of occupying a spot on the
Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents?

The sitting chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court has
always held the nominal post of the chancellor of the Smithsonian. In addition,
the law that created the institution requires the vice president of the United
States to hold a post on the Smithsonian’s board of regents. However, while
these are undoubtedly the two highest-ranking government officials on the
Smithsonian Board, they are hardly alone on the list.

Specifically, Section 3 of the Smithsonian’s charter act
dictates that the board of regents be “composed of the Vice-President of
the United States, the Chief Justice of the United States, and the Mayor of the
City of Washington… three members of the Senate, and three members of the House
of Representatives; together with six other persons, other than members of
Congress, two of whom shall be members of the national institute in the City of
Washington, and resident in the said city; and the other four thereof shall be
inhabitants of States, and no two of them of the same State.”

The act also required that the board elect a chancellor to
lead the group and a secretary to back the chancellor. Tradition has dictated
that the board always elects the chief justice as chancellor.

However, since the chief justice tends to have a full
schedule of previous commitments, the post of Smithsonian chancellor has
largely been a ceremonial one. As such, the secretary of the Smithsonian is
effectively the highest ranking post at the institution, a position held by one
of the two “members of the national institute”—meaning scientists,
rather than any of the various political appointees on the board.

It’s important to remember that the Smithsonian’s original
purpose was an institute for the sponsorship of scientific pursuits and
expeditions—the equivalent of a modern grant-writing organization—and not a
museum. It was the work of the Smithsonian’s second secretary, naturalist Spencer F.
, that shaped the Smithsonian into a national museum rather than
merely a precursor to the National Science Foundation.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

Once again, this week’s quibble comes from the July 20
edition of Geek Trivia, “(Nu)clear to
the moon.”
TechRepublic member Djcinsb
caught me in another one of my frequent lapses in language specificity.

“You state that ‘like the ALRH, natural nuclear decay—rather
than nuclear fission—is the source of power for RTGs.’ But natural nuclear
decay is nuclear fission, just not in
the controlled—and enhanced—form found in nuclear power generators.”

You got me, dear reader. As always, I’ll strive to be more
precise in the future, so keep those quibbles coming.

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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
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books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.