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No. 1148:

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 created them.

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 superiority.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Christman, M., 1846: Portrait of a Nation. Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 1996.

I am grateful to Roger Eichhorn, UH College of Engineering, for providing the Smithsonian 1846 book.


Joseph Henry