For more than four months, hundreds of persons a week have probably viewed a display of minerals and meteorites exhibited at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington, DC. A collection of minerals and meteorites were part of James Smithson’s bequest to the United States for founding the Smithsonian as an institution “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.” James Dwight Dana, a mineralogist, looked at Smithson’s collection and described the minerals:
a choice and beautiful collection…comprising, probably, eight or ten thousand specimens. The specimens…are extremely perfect, and constitute a very complete Geological and Mineralogical series….
Dana described Smithson’s meteorites as “a valuable suite of meteoric stones, which appear to be specimens of most of the important meteorites which have fallen in Europe during several centuries.”
The minerals and meteorites exhibited at the Smithsonian are not Smithson’s collection. They are a small number of specimens gathered from a variety of sources to indicate what Smithson’s collection probably had been like. The exhibit explains that the minerals and meteorites in Smithson’s collection were destroyed in a fire that greatly damaged the upper floor of the Smithsonian Castle in 1865. But how could a fire destroy minerals and meteorites? Stones don’t burn!
Heather Ewing’s deeply researched book, The Lost World of James Smithson, notes:
There remains some confusion about what exactly survived from the regents’ room in the south tower. The report investigating the fire states vaguely that among the losses is “a part of the contents of the regents’ room, including the personal effects of Smithson, with the exception of his portrait and library.” Smithson’s library and portrait survived because they were kept in the west wing of the building ( which was unharmed in the fire), where the institution’s library was housed. [p. 356, note 9]
The fire at the Smithsonian apparently was an open fire fueled by wood and interior furnishings. There’s no reason to believe that the fire was hot enough to melt or transmute minerals and meteorites. The fire would have left Smithson’s minerals and meteorites disorganized and covered in soot, but not destroyed or even significantly damaged. So what really happened to Smithson’s mineral and meteorite collection?
The Smithsonian Institution has for more than a century offered nationally sanctioned and acclaimed displays of authoritative scientific knowledge. In those circumstances, a claim that stones were destroyed in a fire apparently passes unquestioned. That’s an impressive monument to the value of blogging and Wikipedia.