The National Institute (1840-1862) was first organized as the National Institution for the Promotion of Science at Washington, D.C., in 1840 as a voluntary society interested in promoting study of diverse subjects, particularly natural history and the physical sciences. In 1842 Congress granted the body a federal charter, and it was known as the National Institute for the Promotion of Science thereafter until its dissolution in 1862. In fact, the National Institute could trace its origins to two earlier organizations. The Columbian Institute, founded in 1816, lost its federal charter in 1838 and joined the Institute in 1841, and the American Historical Society, created in 1835, attached itself to the Institute in 1840.
The National Institute was probably formed with a view to gaining control of the bequest of James Smithson, and it certainly pursued that goal until the Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846. However, despite its chronic lack of funds, the Institute did not wait for the Smithson legacy before pursuing its interest in science and the arts. An active program of collecting specimens of natural history and of corresponding with scholars and societies at home and abroad was begun immediately and soon created problems.
Joel Poinsett, the Institute's first president, arranged in 1841 for his organization to act as custodian for the advance collections of the Wilkes Expedition, and many other items were also received. To deal with this flood of specimens, the Institute had only a small space--in the Patent Office--and even less money for preservation, since it could not obtain government appropriations. The government's lack of interest in the Institute was further displayed when, in 1842, custody of the collections of the Wilkes Expedition was transferred from the Navy Department to the Joint Library Committee, which had no sympathy for the Institute's ambitions.
The Institute tried to improve its deteriorating position in 1844 by promoting a gathering of the country's leading men of science at Washington. From the gathering the Institute hoped to obtain resolutions of support which would influence the government to offer it financial aid. The meeting was held and a memorial adopted urging the Institute's claims upon Congress. The Congress remained unmoved and the Institute continued its decline, hastened in good part by the indifference of prominent scientists like Joseph Henry. Even though the Institute was responsible for organizing the American contribution to the Great Exhibition of 1851, its revival was short-lived. Finally, in 1862 the Institute transferred its remaining collections to the Smithsonian Institution and quietly expired.