The first objects in the Smithsonian collections related to the history of transportation were models of canoes and other watercraft used by Pacific islanders, which came to the Institution with the collections of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1858. From then until 1876, there were few other accessions of note. Following the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia, many exhibitors donated their exhibits to the Smithsonian including a number of transportation-related items. In 1880 and 1883, the Smithsonian and the United States Fish Commission participated in the Berlin and London International Fisheries exhibitions, and many models of fishing craft were added to the collections as a result.
As early as 1881, in George Brown Goode's "Scheme of Museum Classification," plans for the care of the transportation collections were being considered. In 1883, the first formal arrangements were made with the appointment of Joseph William Collins of the U.S. Fish Commission as Honorary Curator of the Section of Naval Architecture, Department of Arts and Industries, Division of Anthropology. The Section, with Collins as Honorary Curator, continued in existence until 1893, but Collins' Fish Commission duties left little time for care of the collections.
In 1885, J. Elfreth Watkins, a Pennsylvania Railroad employee, was made Honorary Curator of the newly-created Section of Steam Transportation, also in the Department of Arts and Industries. The Section's name was changed to Transportation in 1887 and Transportation and Engineering in 1888. Watkins continued as Honorary Curator until he joined the Museum staff in 1887 as Curator. Beginning in 1888, Watkins was also assigned various responsibilities for Smithsonian property, buildings, and supplies, and these duties often took precedence over work on the collections. From 1895 to 1946, the transportation collections were administered with the other technological and engineering collections. An 1895 reorganization merged the functions of the Sections of Naval Architecture and Transportation and Engineering, as well as those of a number of other sections, into the Section of Technological Collections, Department of Arts and Industries, with Watkins as Curator. This Section continued until 1897, and administrative units responsible for the transportation collections from then until 1946 included: Division of Technology, Department of Anthropology, 1897-1912; Division of Mechanical Technology, Department of Anthropology, 1912-1919; Division of Mechanical Technology, Department of Arts and Industries, 1919-1931 (administered with the Division of Mineral Technology, 1921-1931); Section of Mechanical Technology, Division of Engineering, Department of Arts and Industries, 1931-1938; and Section of Transportation and Civil Engineering, Division of Engineering, Department of Engineering and Industries, 1938-1946. The air transportation collections were part of the general transportation collections until 1931, when a separate Section of Aeronautics was established.
During this period, 1895-1946, there was no curator of transportation; although, some of the curators of the technology collections did do work in the history of transportation. These curators included J. Elfreth Watkins, Curator, 1895-1903; George C. Maynard, Assistant Curator, 1903-1912, and Curator, 1912-1918; Carl W. Mitman, Curator, 1919-1932; Paul E. Garber, Preparator, 1920-1921, Aid, 1921-1924, Assistant Curator, 1924-1931 (after 1931, in the Section of Aeronautics); and Frank A. Taylor, Aid, 1925-1928, Assistant Curator, 1928-1932, Curator, 1932-1946.
In 1946, a reorganization within the Division of Engineering led to the establishment of Marine Transportation and Land Transportation sections. Frank A. Taylor, who retained his position as Curator of the Division and also became Head Curator of the Department of Engineering and Industries in 1948, was in charge of Marine Transportation until 1955. Kenneth M. Perry, Associate Curator of the Section of Electricity from 1948 to 1956, served as Associate Curator of Marine Transportation from 1955 to 1966. Smith Hempstone Oliver was Associate Curator of Land Transportation from 1946 to 1956, and Robert S. Woodbury was Acting Curator from 1956 to 1957.
With the creation of the Museum of History and Technology in 1957 (National Museum of History and Technology after 1969), responsibility for the marine and land transportation collections shifted to the Division of Transportation, Department of Science and Technology, in that museum. The Division was moved to the Department of Industries in 1969. Curators of the Division of Transportation have included: Howard I. Chapelle, Curator, 1957-1967 (Marine); John H. White, Jr., Assistant Curator, 1958-1961, Associate Curator, 1961-1966, Curator, 1966- (Land); Melvin H. Jackson, Associate Curator, 1966-1968, Curator, 1968- (Marine); and Donald H. Berkebile, Museum Specialist, 1961-1973, Assistant Curator, 1973- (Land). George W. Hilton served as Acting Curator (Land) from 1968 to 1969.