​Almanac: The Smithsonian

Visitors look at the Apollo 11 Command Module Columbia at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in this 2003 file photo. STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images

And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac: August 10th, 1846, 168 years ago today . . . the day President James Knox Polk signed a measure establishing the Smithsonian Institution.

This most American of American institutions was actually created with the wealth of a British scientist, James Smithson, who in his will left the whole of his property "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."

Though no one really knows for sure why Smithson left his fortune to a country to which he had no personal connection, there is no doubt about the impact his gift has had.

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The Smithsonian Institution Building (a.k.a. "The Castle," on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Smithsonian Institution
Beginning with the Institution's first Secretary, Joseph Henry, the Smithsonian has pursued its twin missions of increasing and diffusing knowledge with energy and imagination.

From its original red sandstone castle on the National Mall, the Smithsonian has expanded to 19 individual museums and galleries -- not to mention the National Zoo.

They include the Natural History Museum . . . the Air and Space Museum . . . and the American Art Museum, which two years ago featured an exhibition on the Art of Video Games . . . just one example of how the Smithsonian's extensive and eclectic collections have deservedly earned it the title "The Nation's Attic."

Less visible to the public, but just as important in fulfilling Smithson's original vision, are the Institution's nine research centers specializing in everything from art to astrophysics to the environment.

Still, it's the museums that are the big draw, with the Natural History Museum rated Washington D.C.'s number one tourist attraction last year, followed by the Air and Space Museum . . . both well ahead of the Lincoln Memorial, which came in at Number Three.

Not a bad American legacy for England's Mr. Smithson.


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