• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Flickr

eBay had the following rare letter for sale in June 2017. [Now owned by THFFI] The seller's description is as follows:

James Smithson EN307 (c.1765-1829) Autograph Letter Signed, Paris April 13, 1821 to Louis-Benjamin Fleuriau de Bellevue Quarto, three pages of a bi-folium, neatly inscribed in ink, in very good, very clean and legible condition.


Rare letter by the Founder of the Smithsonian Institution

James Smithson, English chemist and mineralogist, and the founding donor of the Smithsonian Institution, writes to Louis-Benjamin Fleuriau de Bellevue (1765-1852) French naturalist, geologist, and philanthropist. "Fleuriau de Bellevue gave Smithson a personally inscribed copy of his pamphlet on the 1819 meteor fall at Jonzac."1 Smithson's letters are quite rare, his papers were destroyed by fire at the Smithsonian Institution in 1865: "Smithson's trunks had been filled with some two hundred unpublished manuscripts, the record of countless experiments and investigations from the dawn of modern chemistry. They had also contained his correspondence, evidence of the extraordinarily sociable and international network of scientists in which he labored, and the diaries of his travels, which he had kept since adolescence. His extensive mineral collection, lauded as the finest in the United States in the 1840s, had been entirely consumed. Gone, too, were all the tools of his life's work - the thermometers, balances, and blowpipes; as well as his personal belongings, the trappings of his life as an aspiring aristocrat, a man accustomed to fine things: the sword and riding whip, the china service, his smoking pipes and candlesticks. With these losses Smithson, along with the story of his life, seemed to have utterly vanished."2
The Smithsonian Archives has "three original letters from Smithson, acquired since the fire, photocopies of about a dozen more from other repositories, and a handful of Smithson's notes, including a few draft catalogues of his mineral collection and some memoranda from experiments. There is a collection of calling cards and signatures of prominent scientists, dating from Smithson's days in Paris, as well as the diary of Smithson's brother and the passport of his nephew. Mostly, the archives contain a record of the search for Smithson, a long trail of dead-end inquiries made by various officials in the years since the fire. As long ago as 1880 the Smithsonian concluded that after "unusual exertions" they had collected "all the information likely to be obtained."3

Smithson writes in French to Fleuriau de Bellevue discussing various aspects of mineralogy:

"Mon cher Monsieur,

Comme j'en avoit concus des soupcons d'apres ce que vont m'avez dit, ni l'un ni l'autre des subilames que vous m'avez envoyé n'est de l'ambre. L'on n'en obtient point d'acide succinique. L'acohol ayant peu d'effet sur eux, ils se n'approcheroit plus du copal.

Je ne seroit point ponté a attribuer capacité et l'etat tenue de centaines parties du No 1 aux que vous nommez, ni meme peut etre a aucun changement chemique; mais plus tot a un simple des assignation.

La croute blanchatre a la surface du No 2 puit aussi avoir la meme cause, mais d'autre parties opaques sont due a la presence d'une matiere etrangere.
Il y a enclavé dans quelques endroits de cette masse des granit blanc demi transparent qui nayent le verve au feu ils deviennent opaque mais ne fondery pas il est donc probable quils sont du quartz.

Les parties opaques de cette masse, No 2, puiser dans sons interieur et ainsi a ... d'un melasse de la couche terneuse dans la quelle elle etoit enfouie, laissent après leur combustion une matiere noire la quelle devient ordinairement noye en ne froidissant. J'ai trouvé dans ce residu des grains de quartz, un peu de chaux, et beaucoup de fer.

Le No 1 pour sa combination fournit une matiere blanche. Une partie considerable de matiere blanche n'est pas de la chaux, mais je n'en est pas determiné la nature.

Etant dans l'intention il n'y a pas longtemps d'aller au Angleterre, jai jetté presque toutes mes creatifes je suis ainsi fort en canassé en faisant des experiences, n'ayant pas un choix de moyens, etant meme souvent sans moyens du tout.

Le mélange de matiere minerals dans le No 2 disposenoit a croire que cette ... avoit originalement coulé de l'ambre terne. On dis que cela arrive au copal. Mr Banks m'a donné des morceaux d'un copal dit tené de la terne. Ils on tune croute exterieur opaque et blancahtre comme le No 2, quoique leur interieur soyent d'une transparence et d'une purité parfait.

Je serai tres charmé si ces experiences tres imparfaites respondent du tout a ce que vous des envies. Jai envoit fort desiré pouvoir faire d'avantage, et vous etre plus eclaté, et je vous pris de me croire

Sincerement le votre

James Smithson
Paris April le 13 1821 ..."


[THFFI added] English translation per Google:

"My dear sir,

As I had conceived suspicions of what was said of me, neither of the submates that you sent me is amber. No succinic acid is obtained. The acohol having little effect upon them, they would no longer approach the copal.

I should not be bridged to attribute the capacity and condition of hundreds of parts of No. 1 to the names you designate, nor even to any change of course; But sooner has a simple assignment.

The whitish crust on the surface of No. 2 may also have the same cause, but other opaque parts are due to the presence of a foreign matter.
In some places of this mass, there are enclosed white semi-transparent granite which nay the verve in the fire they become opaque but do not foundery it is therefore probable that they are quartz.

The opaque parts of this mass, No. 2, drawn from inside, and thus from a molasse of the dull layer in which it was buried, leave after their combustion a black matter which is commonly drowned by not cooling . I found in this residue quartz grains, a little lime, and a lot of iron.

The No. 1 for its combination provides a white material. A considerable portion of white matter is not lime, but I am not certain of its nature.
Being with the intention not long ago to go to England, I threw almost all my creatives I am thus strongly in canassé making experiments, not having a choice of means, and even often without means of the all.

The mixture of minerals in No. 2 led to the belief that this had originally flowed from dull amber. It is said that this happens to the copal. Mr Banks gave me pieces of a copal said to have been dull. They have an opaque and white exterior crust like No. 2, although their interior is of a perfect transparency and purity.

I will be very charmed if these very imperfect experiences correspond at all to what you desires. I am very desirous to be able to do more, and you will be more eclectic, and I take you to believe me.

Sincerely yours

James Smithson was the illegitimate son of Hugh Smithson, the first Duke of Northumberland, and Elizabeth Hungerford Keate Macie, a wealthy widow who was a cousin of the Duchess of Northumberland. His exact birthday remains unknown because he was born in secret in Paris, where his mother had gone to hide her pregnancy. In his youth, his name was James Lewis Macie, but in 1801, after his parents died, he took his father's last name of Smithson.
Smithson never married; he had no children; and he lived a peripatetic life, traveling widely in Europe during a time of great turbulence and political upheaval. He was in Paris during the French Revolution, and was later imprisoned during the Napoleonic Wars. Friends with many of the great scientific minds of the age, he believed that the pursuit of science and knowledge was the key to happiness and prosperity for all of society. He saw scientists as benefactors of all mankind, and thought that they should be considered "citizens of the world."

Smithson was interested in almost everything and studied a wide range of natural phenomena: the venom of snakes, the chemistry of volcanoes, the constituents of a lady's tear, and even the fundamental nature of electricity. He published twenty-seven papers in his lifetime, ranging from an improved method of making coffee, to an analysis of the mineral calamine, critical in the manufacture of brass - which led to the mineral being named smithsonite in his honor. In one of his last papers, he laid out his philosophy most clearly: "It is in knowledge that man has found his greatness and his happiness ... No ignorance is probably without loss to him."

Toward the end of his life, under a clause in his will, he left his fortune to the United States, a place he had never visited, to found in Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, "an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." Smithson died in Genoa, Italy, on June 27, 1829, and was interred nearby. In 1904, Smithsonian Regent Alexander Graham Bell brought Smithson's remains to the United States to rest at the Institution his bequest created. Smithson's papers and his vast mineral collection were all destroyed by fire in 1865.

Smithson's letters and manuscript material are indeed rare in the market place: we can trace but one recent auction record for a three page ALS dated May 9, 1792, describing the current political situation in Paris- Enys Collection, Bonham's, Sept. 28, 2004, £18,000 ($ 32,285).

1. Ewing, Heather, The Lost World of James Smithson Science, Revolution, and the Birth of the Smithsonian (Bloomsbury: New York, 2007) p. 184
2. ibid. p. 8
3. ibid. p. 10
See also: Torrens, H. S. "Smithson, James Lewis (1764-1829), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004

View File

Submitted by Richard Hungerford at 9:19 AM on June 23, 2017.


← Go Back