Esteemed thinker: James Smithson

Smithsonian InstituteTo preserve the past is to save the future, and though this observation may be heard by some as a contradiction, it is the very irony of its verbiage which makes it true.  Not all of the events of the past are positive and for that very reason we must not forget them. To discover, reflect, and evaluate what came before may help humanity not repeat its mistakes and crimes.  And so, what better place is there than a museum to learn about what it was like “before”. In glass cases and plexi-glass displays, on walls and  on pedestals are the gatherings of artifacts and relics, all of which made the world we inhabit today. Setting forth newly acquired facts in the fields of anthropology, biology, history, geology, technology, and the arts…they all are set before us with the intention of simply allowing us to ponder.

And so, I encourage you to take a walk and stroll through the corridors of any museum for surely there will be a bit of the world that will amaze you.

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Today’s blog brings you the esteemed thinker: James Smithson (1765-1829) British scientist who willed his estate to the United States for the creation of what we know today as The Smithsonian Institute. Born in Paris, France, he was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson and Elizabeth Keate Hungerford Macie, a widow of royal blood. He was named James Lewis Macie at birth however, in 1800 following the death of his mother, he took his father’s name.

Because of his birth status, he was unable to pursue careers of most nobility at that time in the military or clergy, so he turned to the sciences. He went to Pembroke College at Oxford University, and there became interested in the natural sciences. He graduated as a mineralogist and chemist, devoting his life to research. He published at least 27 papers on chemistry, geology, and mineralogy in scientific journals and proved that zinc carbonates were true carbonate minerals, not zinc oxides as popularly believed.

He inherited a great deal of land from his mother and his management brought him a great deal of money. Having never married, he left a portion of his wealth to his nephew, and “Under the arrangements of his will, the whole estate went “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.” As such the reasoning was most likely his resentment over the circumstances of his illegitimate birth. He had once written, “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Northumberlands and Percys are extinct and forgotten.”

Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, however in 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson’s remains to the United States to rest at the Institution he had established.

(In 1865 a fire at the Smithsonian Institute destroyed most all of Jameson’s published work)

First image: Rendering of the Castle Smithsonian Institute, 1840

Second Image: Painting of James Smithson by James Roberts, 1786

 

Esteemed thinker: Herodotus and the past

 

street sign

If you think you can escape the past, think again. We are reminded, though in a subliminal way, of those events or people who came before. In any town, hamlet, and city, one has only to look up at the street signs to be reminded of those who may have made a big or little mark in history. It is a way of honoring those who contributed to a community, a well-meaning intention to give recognition to a person. However, like landmarks, airports, and cities that were named after persons of notoriety, the past today has often little meaning and has become as commonplace as the billboards we drive by each day.

So, here’s to those who may have made a positive mark and those who remember the ones that came before.

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Today’s blog brings the esteemed thinker: Herodotus (c. 484 – 425/413 BCE) a writer who invented the field of study we know today as “history”. He is documented as being the world’s first historian, having authored of the first great narrative history written in the ancient world, the History of the Greco-Persian Wars. He was well traveled, going over the East, Egypt, North Africa and Greece. Acquainted with the Sophoclean circle, he joined the Athenian colony at Thurii in Southern part of Italy and died there before the end of the century. The information he gathered was derived mainly from oral sources, as he traveled through Asia Minor, down into Egypt, round the Black Sea, and into various parts of Greece and the neighboring countries.

Although there are some who claim that his narratives are all but fabrications of tales he designed, criticism of his work may have originated among Athenians who took exception to his account of the Battle of Marathon (490 BCE). While it is said that Herodotus makes some mistakes in his work, it is also believed that his Histories are moreover reliable and scholarly studies in all disciplines concerning his work continue to validate his most important observations.

And so we take time from our busy day to look back into antiquity, and read a snippet from his work, An Account of Egypt (440 BCE) Place yourself in this era, if you dare, and imagine how unbelievable his description must have sounded. I bring you the “father of history”, known only by one name, Herodotus.

“… Of the crocodile the nature is as follows: —during the four most wintry months this creature eats nothing: she has four feet and is an animal belonging to the land and the water both; for she produces and hatches eggs on the land, and the most part of the day she remains upon dry land, but the whole of the night in the river, for the water in truth is warmer than the unclouded open air and the dew. Of all the mortal creatures of which we have knowledge this grows to the greatest bulk from the smallest beginning; for the eggs which she produces are not much larger than those of geese and the newly-hatched young one is in proportion to the egg, but as he grows he becomes as much as seventeen cubits long and sometimes yet larger. He has eyes like those of a pig and teeth large and tusky, in proportion to the size of his body; but unlike all other beasts he grows no tongue, neither does he move his lower jaw, but brings the upper jaw towards the lower, being in this too unlike all other beasts…”

First Image: Street sign and houses, Yates Gardens 1920