The first biography of James Smithson, the Englishman who bequeathed his fortune to establish Washington's Smithsonian Institute - the largest museum and research complex in the world - without ever having set foot in the United States.
The illegitimate son of the Duke of Northumberland and a precocious chemist friendly with all the great scientists of his age, Smithson lived a restless, peripatetic life in the capitals of Europe during the turbulent years of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Coming of age amidst the exploding culture of knowledge of the late eighteenth century, he embarked on his scientific career at a time when chemistry seemed primed to change the world. Smithson and his circle were bursting boundaries at every turn - defying gravity with the first balloon flights, investigating the invisible with the identification of oxygen and other gases, and upending a Biblical timeline for the age of the earth with the uncovering of prehistoric fossils - while across the ocean America was embarking upon its own unique experiment: the kind of government the world had never seen.
The Lost World of James Smithson reveals a life lived at the heart of the English Enlightenment and illuminates the mind that sparked the creation of one of the world's greatest museums.
"By tracking one individual, Ewing - an architectural historian - provides a readable and informative perspective on late Enlightenment chemistry" - Patricia Fara in TLS, September 7, 2007.