James Louis Macie was born out of wedlock in 1765 to Hugh Percy, a man who was a duke in Britain, and a widow named Elizabeth Macie. When James was about 35, his mother died, and he took his father’s last name, but we’ll talk more about that in a bit. Despite his ignoble birth, James was able to parlay his father’s connections into schooling at Oxford. His university degree in hand, James decided to spend his life traveling about Europe, to experience the culture, to see the sights, to learn the history and art.
He chose an interesting time to be a nomad in Europe. Due to this propensity for travel, James found himself in Paris when the French Revolution began. He witnessed the Napoleonic Wars, even being held as a prisoner (and possible spy?) during that conflict. Again, James played the “dad card” and used that influence to gain his freedom from the French.
Meanwhile, his mother managed to gain an inheritance from an estate. When James’s mother died, he split the estate proceeds with a half-brother. Now, he had money on his own. And James proceeded to use the money to perform things like scientific experiments in metallurgy and chemistry. He discovered a new way to produce brass, for example.
For a seeming half-wastrel, James had a good head on his shoulders. He appears to be the first person to use the word “silicates” in a scientific paper. Some of his work in minerals debunked religious beliefs regarding the idea of a Noahic world-wide flood. He made a steady income doing research for others including glassmakers across England.
James never married, and he had no recorded children. His will left his fortune to a nephew, one James Dickenson. So, when James died in 1829 in Genoa, Italy (on one of his excursions), Dickenson received the inheritance. However, there was a codicil to the will. It specified that if the nephew died childless, then the money would go elsewhere. And that elsewhere is why we remember James.
In all his travels, James never made it to the United States. However, he always admired the young nation, and his will said that, if no other heir was to be found, that the US would receive his money. You see, when he took his father’s last name, Hugh Percy had changed his last name to Smithson. And James Smithson’s fortune was used in Washington, D.C. to establish, as he put it, a place “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”
We call it the Smithsonian.