Today, let's talk about American expansion, and the
Smithsonian Institution. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run and the people whose ingenuity
What a year 1846 was -- a
watershed year, the year America turned from a
struggling new nation into the new bully on the
block! This was the year America claimed her
"Manifest Destiny" to own the continent. We'd
annexed the sovereign nation of Texas in 1845. Now
we wanted present-day California, Arizona, New
Mexico, Nevada and Utah. So we went to war with
Mexico. We lost 2000 men in action and 12,000 more
to disease, and we got all that land.
My great-grandfather set out on foot for Sutter's
Fort in 1846 -- just when California was claiming
to be a sovereign nation under a flag with a bear
on it. As soon as he got there, he joined the army
fighting Mexico. He owed money to his companions
and needed the enlistment bonus to pay his debt.
1846 was also the year the Mormons set out for
Great Salt Lake. They would, for a time, claim Utah
as a sovereign nation -- and call it Deseret.
While the West was in ferment, the rest of America
was turning into a developed nation. By now,
riverboats, railways, and canals were moving raw
materials to new manufacturing centers. America was
revealing a new inventive genius. Elias Howe
patented his first sewing machine. The son of a
former slave Norbert
Rillieux patented the multistage evaporator.
And we were just learning how to manufacture with
interchangeable parts -- all in 1846.
Meanwhile, an English nobleman, James Smithson, had
inexplicably left a half-million dollars to support
the "increased diffusion of knowledge" in America.
Why? It wasn't at all clear and Congress had sat on
the money for 17 years. Finally, at the urging of
people like John Quincy Adams, we took Smithson's
money and set up the Smithsonian Institution. Now the
Smithsonian celebrates its 150th birthday with a
book titled 1846.
It tells how the great Swiss naturalist, Louis
Agassiz, came to America that year, bringing a new
scientific luster with him. Of course it doesn't
mention that Agassiz never accepted Darwin and, on
the eve of the Civil War, preached White
Agassiz immediately met the famous electrical
pioneer Joseph Henry -- one of the few American
scientists as well-known as he was. Today, the unit
of electrical inductance is called the henry.
Henry, the new head of the Smithsonian, set out his
plans for the Institution on the last day of 1846.
Its purpose would be to do research, publish
papers, and educate Congress. It was to be the
national think tank, not a museum.
The Smithsonian was small potatoes against the vast
tapestry of 1846. But it was part of the process of
putting us on an international stage. This was the
year America, imperialist and racist, claimed its
intellectual as well as its territorial place. We
had a lot of growing-up yet to do. Still, this was
the year we left infancy. After 1846, the game
would not be the same again.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds