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The Lost World of James Smithson: Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian Hardcover – Bargain Price, April 3, 2007

4.8 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Hardcover, Bargain Price, April 3, 2007
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This pleasing biography (the second recent one of Smithson, after 2003's The Stranger and the Statesman by Nina Burleigh) tells the story of the enigmatic Englishman who left the United States a vast sum of money to found "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Ewing, an architectural historian who has worked at the Smithsonian, traces John Smithson's development as a "gentleman-scientist," describing his study of chemistry at Oxford in the 1780s; his membership in the Coffee House Philosophical Society, where learned men discussed scientific news; and his well-received scientific papers. Two of the most fascinating chapters focus on Smithson's will. Ewing hazards a few suggestions about why an English scientist would leave a huge bequest to the United States government, and she examines the controversy Smithson's gift set off—some argued against accepting what they viewed as Smithson's self-aggrandizing bequest. This book is possible only because Ewing is a dogged researcher in countless archives. References to Smithson in his friends' letters and diaries reveal not the dour recluse historians had once thought him to be but an exuberant if eccentric man with a zeal for learning and for life. Ewing ably conveys all this as well as the mysterious roots of the institution that bears his name. Illus. (Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Smithson (1765-1829) was the British chemist, mineralogist, and philanthropist whose $500,000 gift to the U.S. helped establish the Smithsonian Institution in 1836. The bequest to build the foundation in Washington "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men" resulted in an international lawsuit and a decade-long congressional feud. Ewing, an architectural historian, found documents relevant to Smithson's story that revealed facts concerning his mother (lawsuits exposed her manic profligacy and made clear that she left her son much less than she might have) and uncovered his writings on the subject of chemistry, to which he dedicated his life. Most of them were written in an antique language now indecipherable except to a few specialists. As background, Ewing recounts the history of England from 1782 to 1807, much of it focused on Oxford University, where Smithson studied. Ewing has written a hugely ambitious biography that is likely to be the definitive one on the subject. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA; First Edition edition (April 3, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1596910291
  • ASIN: B001G7R84C
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,053,909 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Excellent biography, piecing together what is known about the guy who provided a huge gift to found the Smithsonian, without ever having set foot in the USA. The Smithsonian had originally collected all of Smithson's papers, but they were destroyed in a fire before any serious scholarship. The author traveled through Europe collecting what could be found in original sources elsewhere, and paints a compelling portrait of an eccentric with a love of science and some unusual ideas. If you like 17th century types and the whole revolutionary milieu, this is a good read.
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Format: Hardcover
Due to the loss of most of James Smithson's papers in a fire in 1865, the man who gave his name (and fortune) to The Smithsonian Institution has long been shrouded in myth as an eccentric dilettante who inexplicably left all his money to a place he'd never even visited. Heather P. Ewing's scholarly gamble was that, by recreating the society, intellectual milieu, people and places that defined Smithson, the man at the center would emerge from the shadows. It was a gamble that paid off brilliantly. Not only does the author successfully redefine Smithson as an important scientific figure in a crucial time in the history of science, but as a tormented and fascinating character, driven by ambition to gain acknowledgement from his aristocratic, quasi-secret, father. Smithson's pathologically litigious and improvident mother is an especially colorful character, who would seem right at home in a novel by Fielding or an engraving by Hogarth. In the quest for Smithson as an individual, Ewing creates a remarkably accessible "inside" account of the Scientific Revolution, its characters, controversies and practices, as Smithson crosses paths with a Who's Who of historical characters ranging from scientists Humphrey Davy and Lavoisier to the notorious Emma Hamilton, Dr. William Thornton (future architect of the U.S. capitol) and Napoleon. In this remarkable achievement of scholarship and engaging literary style, Ewing's book offers the reader a glimpse of a flawed and complicated individual at the center of the Scientific Revolution and, in so doing, vividly depicts the opportune historical moment that made possible (after nearly a decade of Congressional debate) the creation of world's largest museum and most sophisticated research complex in the still-rustic capital of the United States.
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Format: Hardcover
This is a captivating, enlightening, and impressively researched investigation into the life and times of this enigmatic Englishman. I was pleasantly surprised at the range of information covered in this biography. A great read for anyone with an interest in any number of subjects, including the origins of modern scientific theory and practice, the social customs and familial relations in 18th century England, the impact on European society, science and travel during the Napoleonic Wars or the founding of the Smithsonian Institution.
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Format: Hardcover
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 complex in the world.

However the book is largely about James Smithson himself (born James Macie) and how he came to leave a large sum of money to a country that he had never visited. Ewing explains in the Prologue that much of the information that the Institution had about Smithson including his papers was destroyed in a terrible fire in 1865, before the contents had been properly catalogued and summarised; this has made the task of writing a Smithson biography very difficult. Quite frequently during the narrative there are places where it is really not known where Smithson was at a particular time or whom he met. Even the way in which he gained his fortune is far from clear. However the difficulty does provide an advantage which Ewing uses to good effect by employing a wide variety of sources, carefully referenced; these provide a wider background to the biography in her examination of motivation and custom, so that the reader is brought into an understanding of the science and the social customs of the times. Factual uncertainties about James Smithson include the date of his birth, the details of his schooling and the cause of his death.
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Format: Hardcover
I have visited Smithsonian museums many times in Washington D.C. At last count there were fourteen (14) of them on the Mall, with other collections elsewhere. Vast and varied!

I vaguely knew that James Smithson (1764-1829) started it all with a whopping great cash gift in the 19th Century, and that Smithson was English and never set foot in the United States. That satisfied my need to know (-it-all) for years.

My interest was pricked a few month ago in reading a biography of John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the United States. Uniquely, he after he left the presidency, defeated in a bid for re-election, he served in the House of Representatives for nearly twenty years, dying at his desk. In Congress he was instrumental in securing the Smithson gift and putting it to work as Smithson intended. (There were others who hoped to siphon the money off for their purposes; these others included the sitting president, Martin van Buren.) Quincy Adams navigated through these sharks and shoals, arriving at the first museum, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, that is the red brick building often referred to as the Smithsonian Castle these days, from the turrets of which Abraham Lincoln observed the Confederate Army at Harper’s Ferry in 1862.

Taken as read, I thought no more of it, until I happened to mention Quincy Adams’s role to a friend, who did not know that the Smithsonian was started with a private bequest or that the donor was English. I then realized how little of the story I knew because I could not shed any light on how or why the gift was made.

Clearly it was time to top-up my know-it-all tank and I sought out and read a biography of James Smithson. What did I find?
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