The First Hundred Years of the Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1946

The First Hundred Years of the Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1946

The First Hundred Years of the Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1946

The First Hundred Years of the Smithsonian Institution, 1846-1946

Excerpt

The Smithsonian Institution is an American tradition. Five generations of Americans have been familiar with the name "Smithsonian" and have associated it--perhaps more or less vaguely-- with some sort of a cultural organization and museum in Washington where information on anything under the sun may be obtained. Relatively few people, however, have known of its origin, its gradual but steady expansion as a national scientific institution, and the amazing volume of basic research by which it has aided in building up American science from a very small nucleus to the commanding position it occupies in the world today.

As the Smithsonian Institution crosses the hundred-year mark, it is well for it to pause and look back over a century of activity to see how it has succeeded in carrying out the behest of its founder and to try to discern how best it may serve mankind in the centuries to come. A hundred years is a long time measured on the scale of a man's lifetime, but looking back down the long vistas to the period of man's emergence into the light of civilization, it is but a minute space on the historical time scale. For the Smithsonian it is merely a conventional interval. The Smithsonian had a definite beginning but has no foreseeable end. Its stated purpose knows no time or space limits, and it will go on through the centuries, changing with a changing world and so adjusting itself that it may fill a useful role in the upward struggle of mankind.

Although the last hundred years form but a very small fraction of man's recorded history, yet that brief period has seen greater changes in his way of life than all the time that preceded it. New means of transportation and communication have suddenly shrunk his physical world until the peoples of all lands are literally neighbors. Mechanical labor-saving devices have given to each common man in advanced nations the equivalent of 30 slaves, and the making of goods by machinery has yielded him far more leisure than his ancestors enjoyed. These and many other drastic changes have come through one basic source--the rapid and ever-accelerating growth of science. The Smithsonian in all modesty may rightfully claim a part of the credit for this growth, for the Institution happened to come into being at the time . . .

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