Joseph Henry (1797-1878), educator, investigator in physics, and first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, was born in Albany, New York, on December 17, 1797, to William and Ann Alexander Henry. He obtained a minimal education in Galway, where he lived for a time with his mother's brother, and in Albany. While in Galway Henry discovered the joy of reading and thus began his love of learning. After his father's death in 1811, Joseph returned to Albany and was apprenticed to John F. Doty, watchmaker and silversmith, where he worked until his master's business went under. During this time Henry also developed a strong interest in the theater and joined a group of young people who felt a similar calling. Until his chance encounter with Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry by George Gregory turned him to science, Henry had planned a career in the theater.
As a result of his newly found interest in science, Henry set out to prepare himself for admittance into the advanced curriculum at the Albany Academy, an academic high school. He attended the Academy from 1819 until 1822, first passing the examination of the Academy with honors after seven months of preparation and then continuing on to more advanced studies. He took one year off during this time to teach in a rural school to earn money. This position was the only one for which he ever applied; thereafter employers would come to him.
For the ten years after Henry completed his education at the Albany Academy he was employed there in a variety of capacities ranging from lab assistant to teacher. During this time he was also a tutor of Henry James and of the children of General Stephen van Rensselaer. In 1825, Henry headed a leveling party that was engaged by New York State to assist in the preparation of new road sites from the Hudson River to Lake Erie. In the spring of 1826 he was elected to the professorship of mathematics and natural philosophy at the Academy. While in this position he began research in a comparatively new field dealing with the relation of electric currents to magnetism. His first notable scientific accomplishment was his improvement of William Sturgeon's electromagnet, which he achieved by both insulating individual coils and developing multi-layer coils. During this time he also developed an electromagnet with the capacity to lift 750 pounds.
In 1830 Henry married his cousin, Harriet Alexander, a daughter of his mother's brother. All told they had six children. Four lived through infancy, although the only son, William Alexander, died in 1862. Their three surviving daughters were Helen, Mary, and Caroline.
In 1831 Henry developed the "little machine," or the electromagnetic engine. During this year he constructed the first electromagnetic telegraph. He was also responsible for the completion of an electromagnet for Yale University with the capacity to lift 2,300 pounds. The following year Henry published the results from his experiments that proved magnetism could produce electricity. The article was published in the American Journal of Science and was titled "On the Production of Currents and Sparks of Electricity and Magnetism." His article also described his discovery of electromagnetic self-induction.
Henry received an appointment to the chair of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey, (Princeton University) in October of 1832. That same year he constructed for Princeton a magnet with the capacity to lift 3,500 pounds. At Princeton Henry continued his scientific experiments in electricity and magnetism as well as conducting research in terrestrial magnetism, meteorology, and other geophysical topics. Henry continued to be interested in these fields the rest of his life. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1835, and often served as an officer.
In 1837 Henry took his first voyage to Europe. While on his six-month trip he visited England, France, Scotland, and Belgium and had the opportunity to meet a number of scientists including Michael Faraday. It was this experience that caused Henry to resume his former level of scientific research, which had significantly diminished between 1832 and 1837. Between the years 1838 and 1842 Henry did a good deal of research into the induction of one current by another. He also participated in the investigation of solar radiation and the heat of sunspots as well as becoming interested in the cohesion of liquids and capillarity. On November 2, 1838, Henry made a presentation before the Philosophical Society in which he delivered a paper that described his discoveries of inducing currents of the third, fourth, and fifth orders.
On December 3, 1846, Henry's appointment from the Board of Regents to the office of Secretary of the new Smithsonian Institution was announced. He left Princeton for Washington on December 14, 1846, to assume his position as first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Henry intended to follow the letter of James Smithson's will, which had left the funds to the United States to establish the Smithsonian Institution for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." To Henry that meant supporting knowledgeable and skilled persons doing original research and providing for the dissemination of the findings from those and other experiments through periodical publications. To encourage this Henry established a system for the exchange of publications between nations. This plan was presented to the Board of Regents on December 8, 1847, with his first report as Secretary and was titled Programme of Organization of the Smithsonian Institution.
The first major scientific undertaking of the Institution was the Smithsonian Meteorological Project, which directed the systematic collection of data from all over the United States. It was proposed with Henry's Programme of Organization, built into the budget in 1848, and begun in 1849. Between the years 1853 and 1855 Henry consolidated his position by dismissing assistant secretary Charles Jewett, the Institution's librarian. Initially the Regents had worked out a division of the Institution's funds between research and collection. Jewett had become the Institution's advocate for development of a national library. Henry believed as much of the funds as possible should be used for research, and that the library should be only for support. Henry was able to maintain control.
In 1858 the Institution began accepting the national collections from the United States government. Until this time Henry had resisted the assumption of the collections because he was concerned about the Institution becoming too much a part of the government and because of the cost of their maintenance. The acceptance of these materials brought with it the beginning of direct federal funding. Under Henry the Smithsonian gained its reputation as the nation's attic.
The cornerstone for the Smithsonian Castle was laid on May 1, 1847. The building was completed in 1858, although the Henry family began to inhabit the east wing in 1855. A fire on January 24, 1865, destroyed the Upper Main Hall and primary towers including Henry's offices in the south tower, taking with it many of Henry's papers, both personal and official.
The telegraph was a major point of contention in Henry's life. Samuel Morse was not the only individual who made discoveries along the lines of the electromagnetic telegraph; Henry was also a contributor. However, Morse patented the electromagnetic telegraph in 1840. Henry did not oppose Morse by applying for his own patent because he believed that patents prevented the sharing of scientific information. The telegraph controversy was finally settled in 1857 when an investigative board stated that Morse's claims against Henry were "positively disproved." In 1849 Henry was elected to the post of president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an organization he helped to found. Henry received an appointment to the Light-House Board at the time of its establishment in 1852. During the course of his capacities as a Light-House Board member Henry devoted himself to research and experimentation in the fields of sound, light, fog, fog signals, and illuminating oils. In recognition of his efforts Henry was appointed the board's chairman in 1871, a position he held to his death.
Henry was also an original member of the National Academy of Sciences, formed in 1863. In 1866 he became its vice-president and in 1868 its president. The Philosophical Society of Washington was founded in 1871. Henry was involved in its establishment and served as its president. He held both these positions until his death in 1878.
Henry's second trip to Europe was in 1870. While on this four-and-one-half month voyage he visited England, Scotland, Ireland, Belgium, Switzerland, France, and Germany. The main purpose of this expedition was to attend an international conference on the metric standard in Paris and to testify on the administration of science in London.
In 1871 the Institution supervised Professor John Wesley Powell's federal expedition of the Colorado River. The expedition not only surveyed the area but also collected specimens of various kinds. The Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 also had a substantial impact on Henry's Institution. The display of specimens at the International Exposition was the major activity of the Institution in 1876. Items from the Exhibition became permanent parts of the Smithsonian's holdings. These items so expanded the collections that a new Material Museum Building was planned, which opened in 1879.
In December 1877 Joseph Henry became ill with nephritis, and on May 13, 1878 he succumbed to his illness. Congress approved the erection of a memorial statue on June 1, 1880. William W. Story's bronze likeness of Henry was unveiled on April 19, 1883. At the International Congress of Electricians held in Chicago during the 1893 World's Fair the standard unit of inductance was named the 'henry' in honor of Joseph Henry.
For more extensive information on Joseph Henry's life, see Joseph Henry--His Life and Work by Thomas Coulson, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1950; Notes on the Life and Character of Joseph Henry by James C. Welling, Collins Printer, Philadelphia, 1878; A Memorial of Joseph Henry, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1880; Joseph Henry's Lectures on Natural Philosophy: Teaching and Research in Physics, 1832-1847 by Charles I. Weiner, University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, 1965; A Scientist in American Life: Essays and Lectures of Joseph Henry, edited by Arthur P. Molella, et.al., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., 1980; and The Papers of Joseph Henry, edited by Nathan Reingold, Maaet.al., eleven volumes, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C., and Science History Publications, Sagamore Beach, MA, 1972-2006. For more detailed bibliographical information consult the articles on Joseph Henry by William F. Magie in the Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 4, pages 550-553, and by Nathan Reingold in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 6, pages 277-281.