Thomas W. Smillie: The Smithsonian’s First Photographer

It was, surprisingly, funding from the estate of James Smithson (1765-1829), a British chemist and mineralogist, that established the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC in 1846 and whose mission was defined as the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Photography, introduced less than a decade earlier, soon came to play a pivotal role in achieving that goal and in shaping the Smithsonian’s collecting, displays, management, and public outreach. In 1870, Thomas W. Smillie (1843-1917) became the first official photographer at the Smithsonian and was named its curator of photography in 1896. Like many photographic enthusiasts in the 19th century, Smillie had a broad understanding of the various ways the new medium might function. He built a collection of photographic equipment (which included Samuel Morse’s daguerreotype camera and apparatus, which he paid $23 for), made photographs to document the museum’s collection objects and installations, organized the Smithsonian’s first photography exhibit in 1913, and worked closely with Smithsonian scientists, helping them to better understand how photographic images could be both used in and further their research.