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The scientific writings of James Smithson, the distinguished
founder of the Smithsonian Institution, have been collected and
are published in the present volume, in accordance with the
instructions of the Board of Regents. These memoirs were orig-
inally contributed to the " Transactions of the Royal Society of
London," of which Smithson was a member, between the years of
1791 and 1817, and to Thomson's "Annals of Philosophy,"
between 1819 and 1825. They are twenty-seven in number, and
embrace a wide range of research, from the origin of the earth,
the nature of the colors of vegetables and insects, the analysis of
minerals and chemicals, to an improved method of constructing
lamps or of making coffee. Some of these papers were translated
into French by the author and others, and published in the " Jour-
nal de Physique, de Chimie, et d' Histoire Naturelle, etc."

These writings of Smithson prove conclusively his scientific char-
acter and his claim to distinction as a contributor to knowledge.

Among the personal effects of the founder of the Institution
were several hundred manuscripts, besides a large collection of
scraps and notes on a great diversity of subjects, including history,
the arts, language, rural economy, construction of buildings, &c.,
which unfortunately were destroyed by the fire at the Smithsonian
building in 1865. It is probable that Smithson also contributed
articles to other scientific and literary journals than those men-
tioned, but none have been found, though the leading English
periodicals of the day have been carefully examined for the pur-

Appended to the writings of Smithson is a review of their
scientific character by Professor Walter R. Johnson, communicated



to the National Institute, of Washington, in 1844 ; and one by J.
R. McD. Irby, prepared for the Institution in September, 1878.
The material for this work has been collected and prepared for
publication by Mr. Wm. J. Rhees, Chief Clerk of the Institution.


Secretary Smithsonian Institution.

WASHINGTON, D. C., October, 1879.




An account of some Chemical Experiments on Tabasheer . 1

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol LXXXI, for the year 1791, Part II, p. 368. Bead July 7,
A Chemical Analysis of some Calamines .... 18

Philosophical Transactions of the Eoyal Society of London,
Vol. XCIII, p. 12. Read November 18, 1802.

Account of a Discovery of Native Minium .... 32

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol. XCVI, Part I, 1806, p. 267. Read April 24, 1806.

On Quadruple and Binary Compounds, particularly Sulphu-

rets 34

Philosophical Magazine, London, Yol. XXIX, 1807, p. 275.
Read December 24, 1807.

On the Composition of the Compound Sulphuret from Huel

Boys, and an account of its Crystals .... 34

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol. XCVIII, Part I, 1808, p. 55. Read January 28, 1808.

On the Composition of Zeolite ...... 42

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol. CI, p. 171. 'Read February 7, 1811.

On a Substance from the Elm Tree called Ulmiii . . 47

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol. GUI, Part I, 1813, p. 64. Read December 10, 1812.

On a Saline Substance from Mount Vesuvius ... 52

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol. GUI, Part I, 1813, p. 256 Read July 8, 1813.

A few Facts relative to the Coloring Matters of some Vege-
tables 58

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,
Vol. CVIII, p. 110. Read December 18, 1817.



On a Native Compound of Sulpliuret of Lead and Arsenic . 65
Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Vol. XIV, 1819, p. 96.

On Native Hydrous Aluminate of Lead or Plomb Gomme . 67
Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XIV, 1819, p. 31.

On a Fibrous Metallic Copper ...... 68

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XYI, 1820, p. 46.

An account of a Native Combination of Sulphate of Barium

and Fluoride of Calcium 71

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XYI, 1820, p. 48.

On some Capillary Metallic Tin 74

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XYII ; New Series,
Yol. I, 1821, p. 271.

On the Detection of very Minute Quantities of Arsenic and

Mercury ......... 75

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XX; New Series,
Yol. IY, 1822, p. 127.

Some Improvements in Lamps ...... 78

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XX; New Series,
Yol. IY, 1822, p. 363.

On the Crystalline Form of Ice 80

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XXI ; New Series,
Yol. Y, 1823, p. 340.

A Means of Discrimination between the Sulphates of Barium

and Strontium 81

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XXI: New Series,
Yol. Y, 1823, p. 359.

On the Discovery of Acids in Mineral Substances . . 82

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XXI ; New Series,
Yol. Y, 1823, p. 384.

An Improved Method of Making Coffee .... 87

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XXII ; New Series,
Yol. YI, 1823, p. 30.

A Discovery of Chloride of Potassium in the Earth . . 89

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Yol. XXII ; New Series,
Yol. YI, 1823, p. 258.



A Method of Fixing Particles on the Sappare ... 90

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Vol. XXII; New Series,
Vol. VI, 1823, p. 412.

On some Compounds of Fluorine . . . . . 94

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Vol. XXIII; New
Series, Vol. VII, 1824, p. 100.

An Examination of some Egyptian Colors .... 101

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Vol. XXIII; New
Series, Vol. VII, 1824, p. 115.

Some Observations on Mr. Penn's Theory concerning the for-
mation of the Kirkdale Cave 103

Thomson's AnnaUof Philosophy, Vol. XXIV ; New Series,
Vol. VIII, 1824, p. 50.

A letter from Dr. Black describing a very sensible Balance . 117

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Vol. XXVI ; New Series,
Vol. X, 1825, p. 52.

A Method of Fixing Crayon Colors ..... 120

Thomson's Annals of Philosophy, Vol. XXVI ; New Series,
Vol. X, 1825, p. 236.


A Memoir on the Scientific Character and Researches of
James Smithson, Esq., F. R. S., by WALTER R. JOHN-
SON 123

On the Works and Character of James Smithson, by J. R.

McD. IRBY . 143



From the Philosophical Transactions of the Koyal Society of London.
Vol. LXXXI, for the year 1791, Part 2, p. 368. Read July 7, 1791 .

The Tabasheer employed in these experiments was that
which Dr. RUSSELL laid before the Society, as specimens of
this substance, the evening his Paper upon the subject was

There were seven parcels.

No. 1 consisted of Tabasheer extracted from the bamboo
by Dr. RUSSELL himself.

No. 2 had been partly taken from the reed in Dr. Rus-
SEL'S presence, and partly brought to him at different times
by a person who worked in bamboos.

No. 3 was the Tabasheer from Hydrabad ; the finest kind
of this substance to be bought.

Nos. 4, 5, and 6 all came from Masulapatam, where they
are sold at a very low price. These three kinds have been
thought to be artificial compositions in imitation of the true
Tabasheer, and to be made of calcined bones.

No. 7 had no account affixed to it.

The Tabasheer from Hydrabad being in the greatest quan-
tity, and appearing the most homogeneous and pure, the
experiments were begun, and principally made, with it.

Hydrabad Tabasheer. (No. 3.)

I. (A) This, in its general appearance, very much re-
sembled fragments of that variety of calcedony which is
known to mineralogists by the name of Cacholong. Some
pieces were quite opaque, and absolutely white ; but others

* See Phil. Trans. Yol. LXXX, p. 283.


possessed a small degree of transparency, and had a bluish
cast. The latter, held before a lighted candle, appeared very
pellucid, and of a flame colour.

The pieces were of various sizes ; the largest of them did
not exceed two or three-tenths of an inch cubic. Their
shape was quite irregular; some of them bore impressions
of the inner part of the bamboo against which they were

(B) This Tabasheer could not be broken by pressure be-
tween the fingers ; but by the teeth it was easily reduced to
powder. On first chewing it felt gritty, but soon ground to
impalpable particles.

(C) Applied to the tongue, it adhered to it by capillary

(D) It had a disagreeable earthy taste, something like
that of magnesia.

(E) No light was produced either by cutting it with a
knife, or by rubbing two pieces of it together, in the dark ;
but a bit of this substance, being laid on a hot iron, soon
appeared surrounded with a feeble luminous aureole. By
being made red hot, it was deprived of this property of
shining when gently heated; but recovered it again, on
being kept for two months.

(F) Examined with the microscope, it did not appear dif-
ferent from what it does to the naked eye.

(G) A quantity of this Tabasheer which weighed 75.7 gr.
in air, weighed only 41.1 gr. in distilled water whose tem-
perature was 52.5 F. which makes its specific gravity to be
very nearly = 2.188.

Mr. CAVENDISH, having tried this same parcel when be-
come again quite dry, found its specific gravity to be = 2.169.

Treated with water.

II. (A) This Tabasheer, put into water, emitted a num-
ber of bubbles of air; the white opaque bits became trans-
parent in a small degree only, but the bluish ones nearly as
much so as glass. In this state the different colour pro-


duced by reflected and by transmitted light was very sensi-

(B) Four bits of this substance, weighing together, while
dry and opaque, 4.1 gr., were put into distilled water, and
let become transparent ; being then taken out, and the un-
absorbed water hastily wiped from their surface, they were
again weighed, and were found to equal 8.2 gr.

In the experiment I. (G), 75.7 gr. of this substance ab-
sorbed 69.5 gr. of distilled water.

(C) Four bits of Tabasheer, weighing together 3.2 gr.
were boiled for 30' in half an ounce of distilled water in a
Florence flask, which had been previously rinced with some
of the same fluid. This water, when become cold, did not
shew any change on the admixture of vitriolic acid, of acid
of sugar, nor of solutions of nitre of silver, or of crystals
of soda; yet, on its evaporation, it left a white film on the
glass, which could not be got off by washing in cold water,
nor by hot marine acid ; but which was discharged by warm
caustic vegetable alkali, and by long ebullition in water.

Upon these bits of Tabasheer, another half ounce of dis-
tilled water was poured, and again boiled for about half an
hour. This water also on evaporation left a white film on
the glass vessel similar to the above. The pieces of Taba-
sheer having been dried, by exposure to the air for some
days in a warm room, were found to have lost one-tenth of
a grain of their weight.

To ascertain whether the whole of a piece of Tabasheer
could be dissolved by boiling in water, a little bit of this
substance, weighing three-tenths of a grain, was boiled in
36 ounces of soft water for near five hours consecutively;
but being afterwards dried and weighed, it was not dimin-
ished in quantity, nor was it deprived of its taste.

With vegetable colours.

III. Some Tabasheer, reduced to fine powder, was boiled
for a considerable time in infusions of turnsole, of logwood,


and of dried red cabbage, but produced not the least change-
in any one of them.

At the fire.

IV. (A) A piec*e of this Tabasheer, thrown into a red
hot crucible, did not burn or grow black. Kept red hot for
some time, it underwent no visible change ; but when cold,
it was harder, and had entirely lost its taste. Put into water
it grew transparent, just as it would have done, had it not
been ignited.

(B) 6.4 gr. of this substance, made red hot in a crucible r
were found, upon being weighed as soon as cold, to have
lost two-tenths of a grain. This loss appears to have arisen
merely from the expulsion of interposed moisture ; for these
heated pieces, on being exposed to the air for some days,,
recovered exactly their former weight.

(C) A bit of this substance was put into an earthen cru- .
cible, surrounded with sand, and kept red hot for some time;
when cold, it was still white both exteriorly and interiorly.

(D) Thrown into some melted red hot nitre, this substance
did not produce any deflagration, or seem to suffer any alter-

(E) A bit exposed on charcoal to the flame of the blow-
pipe did not decrepitate or change colour ; when first heated
it diffused a pleasant smell ; then contracted very consider-
ably in bulk, and became transparent ; but on continuing
the heat it again grew white and opaque, but seemed not to
shew any inclination to melt per se. Possibly, however, it
may suffer such a semi-fusion, or softening of the whole
mass, as takes place in clay when exposed to an intense
heat; for when the bit used happened to have cracks, it
separated during its contraction, at these cracks, and the
parts receded from each other without falling asunder.

If, while the bit of Tabasheer was exposed to the flame,
any of the ashes of the coal fell upon it, it instantly melted r
and small very fluid bubbles were produced. That the
opacity which this substance acquires on continuing to heat


it after it is become transparent, is not owing to the fusion
of its surface by means of some of the ashes of the charcoal
settling upon it unobserved, appeared by its undergoing the
same change when fixed to the end of a glass tube, in the
method of M. DE SAUSSURE.*

With acids.

V. (A) A piece of Tabasheer, weighing 1.2 gr. was
first let satiate itself with distilled water ; its surface being
then wiped dry, it was put into a matrass with some pure
white marine acid, whose specific gravity was 1.13. No ef-
fervesence arose on its immersion into the acid; nor did
this menstruum, even by ebullition, seem to have any action
upon it, or itself receive any colour. The acid being evap-
orated left only some dark coloured spots on the glass.
These spots were dissolved by distilled water. No precipi-
tation was produced in this water by vitriolic acid, or by a
solution of crystals of soda. The bit of Tabasheer washed
with water, and made red hot, had not sustained any loss of

The pores of the mass of Tabasheer were filled with
water before it was put into the acid, to expel the common
air contained in them, and which would have made it im-
possible to ascertain with accuracy whether any effervescence
was produced on its first contact with the menstruum.

(B) Another portion of Tabasheer, weighing 10.2 gr. was
boiled in some of the same marine acid. Not the least pre-
cipitate was produced on saturating this acid with solution
of mild soda. This Tabasheer also, after having been boiled
in water, and dried by exposure for some days to the air,
was still of its former weight.

VI. This substance seemed in like manner to resist the
action of pure white nitrous acid boiled upon it.

VII. (A) A bit of Tabasheer weighing 0.6 gr. was di-
gested in some strong white vitriolic acid, which had been

* Journal do Physique, Tom. XXVI, p. 409.


made perfectly pure by distillation. It did not seem by this
treatment to suffer any change, and after having been freed
from all adhering vitriolic acid by boiling in water, it had
not undergone any alteration either in its weight or proper-
ties. The vitriolic acid afforded no precipitate on being-
saturated with soda.

(B) Two grains of Tabasheer reduced to fine powder were
made into a paste with some of this same vitriolic acid, and
this mixture was heated till nearly dry ; it was then digested
in distilled water. This water, being filtered, tasted slightly
acid, did not produce the least turbidness with solution of
soda, and some of it, evaporated, left only a faint black
stain on the glass, produced doubtless by the action of the
vitriolic acid on a little vegetable matter, which it had re-
ceived either from the Tabasheer, or from the paper. The
undissolved matter collected, washed, and dried, weighed
1.9 gr.

VIII. 2 gr. of Tabasheer, reduced to fine powder, were
long digested in a considerable quantity of liquid acid of
sugar. The taste of the liquor was not altered ; and being
saturated with a solution of crystals of soda in distilled
water, it did not afford any precipitate. The Tabasheer hav-
ing been freed from all adhering acid, by very careful ablu-
tion with distilled water, and let dry in the air, was totally
unchanged in its appearance, and weighed 1.98 gr. This
Tabasheer being gradually heated till red hot, did not
become in the least black, or lose much of its weight, a
proof that no acid of sugar had fixed in it.

With liquid alkalies.

IX. (A) Some liquid caustic vegetable alkali being-
heated in a phial, Tabasheer was added to it, which dis-
solved very readily, and in considerable quantity. When
the alkali would not take up any more, it was set by to cool,
but was not found next morning to have crystallized, or un-
dergone any change, though it had become very concen-


tratecl, during the boiling, by the evaporation of much of
the water.

(B) This solution had an alkaline taste, but seemingly
with little, if any, causticity.

(C) A drop of it changed to green a watery tincture of
dried red cabbage.

(D) Some of this solution was exposed in a shallow glass
to spontaneous evaporation in a warm room. At the end
of a day or two it was converted into a firm, milky jelly.
After a few days more, this jelly was become whiter, more
opaque, and had dried and cracked into several pieces, and
finally it became quite dry, and curled up and separated
from the glass.

The same change took place when the solution had been
diluted with several times its bulk of distilled water, only
the jelly was much thinner, and dried into a white powder.

Some of this solution, kept for many weeks in a bottle
closely stopped, did not become a jelly, or undergo any

(E) A small quantity of this solution was let fall into a
proportionably large quantity of spirit of wine, whose spe-
cific gravity was .838. The mixture immediately became
turbid, and, on standing, a dense fluid settled to the bottom,
and which, when the bottle was hastily inverted, fell through
the spirit of wine in round drops, like a ponderous oil.

The supernatant spirit of wine being carefully decanted
off, some distilled water was added to this thick fluid, by
which it was wholly dissolved. This solution, exposed to
the air, shewed phenomena exactly similar to those of the
undiluted solution (D).

The decanted spirit being also left exposed to the air in a
shallow glass vessel, did not, after many days, either deposit
a sensible quantity of precipitate, or become gelatinous;
but having evaporated nearly away, left a few drops of a
liquor which made infusion of red cabbage green ; and, on
the addition of some pure marine acid, effervesced violently.
No precipitate fell during this saturation with the acid ; nor


did the mixture on standing become a jelly; and on the
total evaporation of the fluid part, a small quantity of mu-
riate of tartar only remained. The spirit of wine seems,
therefore, to have dissolved merely a portion of superabun-
dant alkali present in the mixture, but none of that united
with Tabasheer.

(F) To different portions of this solution were added
some pure marine acid, some pure white vitriolic acid, and
some distilled vinegar, each in excess. These acids at first
produced neither heat, effervescence, any precipitate, or the
least sensible effect, except the vitriolic acid, which threw
down a very small quantity of a white matter ; but, after
standing some days, these mixtures changed into jellies so
firm, that the glasses containing them were inverted without
their falling out.

This change into jelly equally took place whether the
mixtures were kept in open or closed vessels, were exposed
to the light or secluded from it ; nor did it seem to be much
promoted by boiling the mixtures.

(G) Some solution of mild volatile alkali in distilled
water, being added to some of this solution, seemed at the
first instant of mixture to have no effect upon it ; but in the
space of a second or two it occasioned a copious white pre-

(H) The flakes remaining on the glasses at (D) and (E)
put into marine acid raised a slight effervescence, but did
not dissolve. These flakes when taken out of the acid, and
well washed, were found, like the original Tabasheer, to be
white and opaque when dry ; but- to become transparent
when moistened, and then to shew the blue and flame
colour, II. (A).

(I) The jellies (F), diluted with water, and collected on a
filter, appeared to be the Tabasheer unchanged.

X. A bit of Tabasheer, weighing two-tenths of a grain,
was boiled in 127 gr. of strong caustic volatile alkali for a
considerable time ; but after being made red hot, it had not
sustained the least diminution of weight.


XL (A) 27 gr. of Tabasheer reduced to fine powder,
were put into an open tin vessel with 100 gr. of crystals of
soda, and some distilled water, and this mixture was made
boil for three hours. The clear liquor was then poured off,
and the Tabasheer was digested in some pure marine acid;
after some time this acid was decanted, and the Tabasheer
washed with distilled water, which was then added to the

(B) This Tabasheer was put back into the alkaline solu-
tion, which seemed not impaired by the foregoing process,
and again boiled for a considerable time. The liquor was
then poured from it while hot, and the Tabasheer edulco-
rated with some cold distilled water, which was afterwards
mixed with this hot solution, in which it instantly caused a
precipitation. On heating the mixture it became clear
again; but as it cooled it changed wholly into a thin jelly;
but in the course of a few days, it separated into two por-
tions, the jelly settling in a denser state to the bottom of
the vessel, leaving a limpid liquor over it.

(C) The Tabasheer remaining (B) was boiled in pure ma-
rine acid ; the acid was then poured off, and the Tabasheer
edulcorated with some distilled water, which was afterwards
mixed with the acid.

(D) The remaining Tabasheer collected, washed, and
dried, weighed 24 gr. and seemed not to be altered.

(E) The acid liquors (A and C) were mixed together, and
saturated with soda, but afforded no precipitate.

(F) The alkaline mixture (B) was poured upon a filter,
the clear liquor came through, leaving the jelly on the paper.

Some of this clear liquor, exposed to the air in a saucer,
at the end of some days deposited a small quantity of a gel-
atinous matter ; after some days more, the whole fluid part
exhaled, and the saucer became covered with regular crys-
tals of soda, which afforded no precipitate during their solu-
tion in vitriolic acid. What had appeared like a jelly while
moist, assumed, on drying, the form of a white powder.


This powder was insoluble in vitriolic acid, and seemed still
to be Tabasheer.

Some of this clear liquor, mixed with marine acid, effer-
vesced; did not afford any precipitate; but, on standing
some days, the mixture became slightly gelatinous.

(G) Some of the thick jelly remaining on the filter, being
boiled in water and in marine acid, appeared insoluble in
both, and seemed to agree entirely with the above powder

With dry alkalies.

XII. (A) Tabasheer melted on the charcoal at the blow-
pipe with soda, with considerable effervescence. When the
proportion of alkali was large, the Tabasheer quickly dis-
solved, and the whole spread on the coal, soaked into it, and
vanished ; but, by adding the alkali to the bit of Tabasheer
in exceedingly small quantities at a time, this substance was
converted into a pearl of clear colourless glass.

(B) 5 gr. of Tabasheer, reduced to fine powder, were
melted in a platina crucible with 100 gr. of crystals of soda.
The mass obtained was white and opaque, and weighed 40.2

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Online LibraryJames SmithsonThe scientific writings of James Smithson → online text (page 1 of 13)