Our ties across the pond

What, or who, connects the Royal Institution in London with another famous institution in Washington D.C.? Gail Cardew and Frank James investigate.

  • Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Rotunda

    Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Rotunda

    Credit: Flickr: wrightbrosfan

Our Director of Science and Education Gail Cardew writes...

Since the Ri Channel launched around two years ago we have been amazed at its success. The figures are growing so quickly they’ll be out of date as soon as this blogpost is uploaded, but roughly they are: 5 million video views, 27 million minutes watched, over 75,000 YouTube subscribers and two thirds of our reach is now international with the highest proportion being USA followers at 34%. The US penetration is even more interesting given that we don’t have any current US partners and haven’t spent a penny (or a cent) on marketing the channel there.

I mentioned this in conversation with our friends at the US Embassy, with whom we have been collaborating on bringing over some great US scientists to speak at the Ri. They then nominated me – as well as our Head of Development Haseena Farid– to take part in the US International Visitor Leadership Program. You could have knocked me over with a feather when they mentioned that alumni of this program include Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Margaret Thatcher.

We’ve just come back from the visit awash with ideas to take forward, having met a huge number of creative and thoughtful people, not just in the world of science but across the whole cultural and digital sector. How lovely to think that we’re rekindling a relationship with the US first sparked nearly 200 years ago, as described by our Professor of the History of Science Frank James below.

The Royal Institution and the Smithsonian Institution

Many will have heard of the Royal Institution through watching the annual CHRISTMAS LECTURES for young people on television, or by knowing that Michael Faraday made his fundamental physical discoveries in its laboratories in the middle third of the 19th century. Less well known, however, are the Ri’s crucial relations with American science. Indeed one of the figures who helped establish the Ri, following its founding in 1799, was Benjamin Thompson (Count Rumford of the Holy Roman Empire).

Born in Massachusetts in 1753, Thompson supported the British government during the War of Independence and consequently had to leave the new US. He undertook much of the basic administrative work of the new Ri founded at the Soho Square house of the President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks. The task of the Ri was ‘For diffusing the Knowledge, and facilitating the general Introduction, of Useful Mechanical Inventions and Improvements; and for teaching, by Courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments, the application of Science to the common Purposes of Life’ at a time of global war, imperial expansion and rapid industrialisation.

Originally the Ri was owned by proprietors who paid fifty guineas (the annual pay of a good cook) for the privilege. One of those who joined, on 27 April 1799, was James Macie, a natural son of the Duke of Northumberland who later changed his name to Smithson. Primarily interested in mineralogy (indeed he was an active member of the Ri’s chemistry committee between 1810 and 1815), Smithson was also wealthy and bequeathed his fortune worth $508,318.46 to ‘the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men’ – clearly influenced by the Ri’s founding principles.

This money arrived in the United States in 1835, but there were some years of discussion, including Alexander Bache enquiring of Faraday what Smithson’s role had been at the Ri, before Congress implemented the terms of the will. With Faraday’s strong support Joseph Henry was appointed the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. At his request Faraday provided details of the Ri’s activities and its physical layout. Although the Smithsonian Institution followed a very different path from that of the Ri, (a reflection of the different scientific needs of the US and Britain), nevertheless the inspiration behind both organisations stemmed from the same belief in the practical value of scientific knowledge.

Prof Frank James will be online @ri_science from 1.30pm to 2.30pm on Friday 28 March to answer all your questions about science and society at the Ri as part of Twitter's first ever #MuseumWeek.

  • James Smithson

    James Smithson

    Credit: Wikimedia Commons

  • Scan of 27 April 1799 entry in the Royal Institution Managers Minutes - Recorded at Joseph Banks's House Soho Square

    27 April 1799 entry in the Royal Institution Managers Minutes - Recorded at Joseph Banks's House Soho Square

    Credit: Royal Institution

Latest Posts