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Collector and Scholar Pried Loose History's Secret Gems

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 9, 2007

He was known as the capital's walking encyclopedia, because Silvio A. Bedini had a rare and remarkable breadth of interests and expertise.

In California during the 1960s, he caught a glimpse of a gilt object, wrapped and tied with rope outside a repair garage. It was a Chinese equatorial sundial from the Ming Dynasty, the only one of its kind in the Western world. He alerted the owner to its rarity, then persuaded him to sell it to the Smithsonian Institution.

In Spain, he looked through the archives in which Christopher Columbus's papers were held. Famous and celebrated historians were not allowed in the archives, but, somehow, Bedini was. Later, some of the papers were lent to the Smithsonian for an exhibition.

While poking through the Vatican, he wound up in obscure tunnels beneath the Holy City where he found the burial place of Pope Leo X's pet white elephant, Hanno. Perhaps that's where he found what's reputed to be the shed skin of the serpent from the Garden of Eden.

"He goes about prying things loose," said Washington Post columnist Henry Mitchell in a 1979 article headlined "The Great Bedini's Rare Gifts."

Bedini, who died at 90 of pneumonia Nov. 14 at Suburban Hospital, was a historian at the Smithsonian, but as exalted as that title is, it damns the polymath with faint praise. His books on timekeeping, early American scientific instruments, African American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker, Thomas Jefferson's lap desk and the origin of dominoes hint at his wide horizon of interests.

He collected things, his son Peter said in his eulogy. "Before he could afford to collect any objects, he collected tidbits of information -- anything he found interesting: how the Coca-Cola bottle got its shape, what is the most poisonous snake, how to write and break codes. And he carefully filed these tidbits away for some unknown later use."

His daughter Leandra recalled childhood visits to graveyards with her father, where he sought out original source material for his many projects.

"In the years since, we not only frequented many cemeteries, but I learned to appreciate the art of crafting of headstones as well as the history that can be gleaned from them, but more so I learned about the diligence and rigor required for tight and accurate research," she said in her eulogy.

Bedini, a native of Ridgefield, Conn., corresponded as a boy with animal collector Frank "Bring 'Em Back Alive" Buck. In college, studying comparative literature at Columbia University, he kept a pet snake in a desk drawer. His education was interrupted by World War II, but even in the Army he had a pet -- a stray puppy that he named Rigor Mortis, which won his heart by relieving himself at the commander's door.

Bedini's interest in codes apparently got him selected for a top-secret job at Fort Hunt, working in a unit known only as P.O. Box 1142. About 34,000 German prisoners of war were interrogated there, but Bedini's job was to devise ways for Allied POWs to conceal messages to be sent home.

Back in Connecticut after the war, Bedini ran the family contracting and landscaping business and began researching and writing stories about science and technology for "true comics," supplements for elementary students. "Fleas on the Floor" was about the invention of the microscope, and "Words Without Wires" addressed the invention of wireless telegraphs. He wrote for encyclopedias, for the magazine Hobbies and about the world of timekeeping.

A $20 wooden clock with a brass movement and a Latin inscription, bought at a junk shop, launched his research into the clockmaker, which led him to a story about the insomniac Pope Alexander VII Chigi, who sought a clock that wouldn't keep him awake with its ticking. His partner in research was the woman who was to become his wife for the next 56 years.

At 44, he was invited to become the curator of tools at the Smithsonian's Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). He rose to assistant, then deputy director of the museum. He dreamed up several exhibitions, including "The Unknown Leonardo" in 1974, "Columbus and His Times" in 1976 and "Jefferson and Science" in 1981. Bedini was largely responsible for the creation of the Smithsonian's Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, a world-class collection of 35,000 rare books and 2,000 manuscript groups.

A favorite of reporters, he was a scholarly, self-taught man who could delight with tales of stray chickens at an inaugural ball, bats in the Castle's tower and problems with the bee exhibit in the natural history museum.

His bookplate, his son said, was an engraving by Gustave Dore of a man absorbed in books, surrounded by the phrase "Satis Temporis Non Est Nobis": For us, there is not enough time.

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