10 Weirdest Items in the Smithsonian Institution

Home to over 137 million objects, specimens, and works of art, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. is called “America’s attic” for a good reason. From a 16th-Century mechanical monk to a $25 artificial heart, check out some of the strangest items among its vast collection.

116th-Century Mechanical Monk

One of the earliest automatons of all time, the monk can walk around while beating his chest, lifting his cross, and praying silently. Standing 15 inches (38 centimeters) tall, it was made of wood and iron and manufactured by Juanelo Turriano, the mechanician of Emperor Charles V, in the 1560s.


2World's Longest Beard

Hans Langseth was born in Norway in 1846. When he died on November 10, 1927, he was an American citizen and had a beard 18-and-a-half feet long. During his years as a farmer in Minnesota and North Dakota, he used to roll up the beard and tuck it into his jacket. Later on, he joined a circus act and displayed his beard full-time. His relatives cut off the beard and donated it to the Natural History Museum upon his death, where it remains as one of the Smithsonian’s strangest artifacts. A photo of museum staff “trying on” the beard also resides in the Institution’s archives.


3David Vetter's Bubble Suit

Famously called the “bubble boy” by the media, David Vetter entered a plastic germ-free environment that would be his home for most of his life less than ten seconds after being removed from his mother’s womb. He was born with severe combined immunodeficiency (SCID), a disorder that causes the immune system not to work. Water, air, food, diapers, and clothes were sterilized before entering the sterile chamber. Items were placed in a chamber filled with ethylene oxide gas for four hours at 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 Celsius), and then aerated for a period of one to seven days before being placed in the sterile chamber. Approximately $1.3 million was spent on David’s care, but scientific study failed to produce a true “cure” and no donor match was identified.

At the age of 12, David became ill for the first time and had to be taken out of the chamber for treatment. He died 15 days later from Burkitt’s lymphoma. The Smithsonian acquired David’s bubble suit, one of his stationary isolation units, and several of his possessions including games, toys, and drawings.


4$25 Artificial Heart

For a total of $24.80, student William Sewell, along with his advisor William Glenn, created this heart pump in 1949 using just a child’s Erector set motor and other simple materials. The model they presented took over the functions of the heart’s right side, moving deoxygenated blood to the lungs. They reported that they had kept dogs alive for up to 90 minutes using their device, without significant changes in blood pressure or oxygen saturation. In 1959, the Smithsonian acquired the heart pump from Sewell’s mother.


5Mormon Sunstone

In 1989, the Smithsonian spent $100,000 to purchase one of only two known surviving “sunstones” from one of the first temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Adorned with these sunstones, along with moonstones and starstones, the temple’s construction was halted after an arson attack in 1848 and a tornado in 1850.


6Giant Female Squid

Caught in a fisherman’s net off the coast of Spain in 2005, this female Giant Squid was probably 2-3 years old and, when alive, 11 meters (36 feet) long with tentacles that extended 6.7 meters (22 feet). It weighed more than 150 kilograms (330 pounds).


7Original Teddy Bear

Did you ever wonder why they call them “Teddy Bears?” US President Theodore (aka “Teddy”) Roosevelt made news by refusing to shoot a bear cub on a hunting trip in 1902. Inspired by a political cartoon in the Washington Star depicting Roosevelt with the cub, the Ideal Toy Company created the “Teddy bear.” A cuddly alter ego for the macho Roosevelt, the toy instantly became a popular culture icon.

In 1963 the son of the toy company’s founder presented one of the original stuffed bears to Roosevelt’s son Kermit, who donated it to the Smithsonian along with other mementos of his father.


8Presidential Hair

The practice of hair preservation used to be quite common, and the Smithsonian has preserved locks of hair from the first 14 US presidents for display, along with hair from other persons of distinction.


9Napoleon's Napkin

Emperor Napoleon gave this table napkin to William Bayard on February 26, 1815, the morning Napoleon escaped from his exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy. It ended up at the Smithsonian in 1914.


10The Saint Augustine Monster

In November of 1896, two young boys became famous after they found the “St. Augustine Monster” on Anastasia Island in Florida. Originally postulated to be the remains of a gigantic octopus, it is one of the earliest recorded examples of a “globster,” an unidentified organic mass. Recent analysis concludes that the St. Augustine Monster was a large mass of a collagenous matrix of whale blubber, likely from a sperm whale.


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