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Joseph Henry                                                                                                       

From a modest background, Joseph Henry (1797-1878) forged an identity as the most prominent scientist of mid-nineteenth-century America. He was born in Albany, New York, to Ann Alexander and William Henry, a teamster, and spent much of his childhood living with relatives in the nearby village of Galway. His father suffered from alcoholism and died when Henry was thirteen.

Henry described himself as "principally self educated." He devoured books at the village library, and a popular exposition of science seems to have inspired his interest in the field. He attended the Albany Academy in his twenties (between 1819 and 1822) and became a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (physics) at the academy in 1826.

Despite a heavy teaching load, Henry managed to pursue original research on electromagnetic phenomena that brought him to the attention of the scientific world. He discovered (independently of Michael Faraday of England) mutual electromagnetic induction--the production of an electric current from a magnetic field--and electro-magnetic self-induction. In the course of his experiments during the early 1830s, he constructed the most powerful electromagnets of his day, a prototype telegraph, and the first electric motor. His electromagnetic telegraph proved it was possible to transmit an electric current with sufficient force to perform useful mechanical work at a distance.

In 1832 Henry was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). While continuing his work in electromagnetism, Henry also investigated auroras, lightning, sunspots, ultraviolet light, and molecular cohesion. He often gave classroom demonstrations of his experiments, and surviving student accounts portray him as a popular, innovative, and even awe-inspiring teacher.

In 1846 Henry was elected secretary of the newly established Smithsonian Institution, a post he retained until his death. From his base at the Smithsonian, he aided scientific expeditions to the American West, the arctic, and the tropics. Through a publications program, a grants program, and an international exchange program at the Smithsonian, he fostered research in a variety of fields, including anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, botany, geophysics, and zoology. He also set up a national network of volunteer meteorological observers, which eventually evolved into a national weather service.

In addition to directing the Smithsonian for nearly thirty-two years, Henry served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1849-1850), an original member of the United States Light-House Board (1852-1878; chairman from 1871), and president of the National Academy of Sciences (1868-1878).

For more detailed biographical information, including articles on Henry's role in the development of the telegraph, the electric motor, and the telephone, please consult the home page of the Joseph Henry Papers Project at

This mini-edition, introduced below, includes fifty-one documents (from January to May 1847) taken from Henry's first year as head of the Smithsonian.

Joseph Henry, miniature ca. 1829, attributed to Julius Rubens Ames (1801-1850). National Museum of 
American History, Smithsonian 


The Papers of Joseph Henry: Launching the Smithsonian Institution

When Henry accepted the office of secretary from the Smithsonian Board of Regents in December 1846, he faced a challenge unprecedented in the history of American science. He became head of an institution established by an act of Congress but funded entirely by the enigmatic bequest of a foreigner. Congress had passed the legislation only after years of debate,1 during which there arose contradictory interpretations of the language, "to found at Washington under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," in the will of British scientist James Smithson. The vagueness of the bill and its passage in the final hours of the session reflected the difficulty of reaching a consensus.

While the legislation called for the construction of a building to accommodate various anticipated functions of the institution--a museum, a library, an art gallery, and a laboratory--it left almost every other detail of the Smithsonian's program to the Board of Regents. In electing Henry, the regents apparently endorsed his vision of the Smithsonian--a vision of the Smithsonian as a supporter of research and publication2--as it had been presented to them by his close friend and colleague, Alexander Dallas Bache, a member of the Board of Regents and superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. Henry's goal was to launch an institution which, in his own words, would "call forth the original talent of the country and put those who are capable of increasing the sum of human knowledge in bold relief."3

As secretary of the Smithsonian, Henry faced three equally daunting tasks: first, to construct a program which in his own mind satisfied the charge given in Smithson's will; second, to acquire support for his program among the regents, Congress, the American scientific community, and to a certain extent, the American public; and last, to implement his program. An additional challenge was to do all these without the luxuries of precedents, experience, adequate funds, or sufficient staff.

James Smithson (1765-1829), miniature, tempera on paperboard, 1816, by Henri-Joseph Johns. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.


Henry had a clear sense of what he wanted the Smithsonian to be. Because Smithson was a scientist, he argued, "he [Smithson] intended by the expression 'for the increase of knowledge' an orginization which should promote original scientific researches."4 The appropriate role of the Smithsonian, therefore, was to support basic research and to disseminate the results of that research through scholarly publication. Henry was less certain about Smithson's views on diffusion, but was confident that the donor did not want the Smithsonian to serve only local or even national needs, but rather to function as an international institution ("among men"), albeit in a national context. The primary form of diffusion would be through journals providing accounts of the "progress of the different branches of knowledge as compiled from all the journals of the world."5

As envisioned by Henry, the Smithsonian was to be part of the larger program he and Bache envisioned to upgrade science in the United States. They had long been concerned about the lack of support for basic research in this country. As Henry wrote in 1847:

Practical Science will always meet with encouragement in a Country like ours. It is the higher principles--those, from which proper practice naturally flows that require to be increased and diffused.6
Elsewhere he lamented that "our country has produced but one Franklin to five hundred Fultons."7 He and Bache had complained for years about the lack of standards in American scientific publications, difficulties in getting access to the current literature, the lack of time and funds for research, problems in international communication, lapses in scientific ethics, and the ignorance and gullibility of the public and Congress when faced with scientific questions. He had not only a firm conviction of the rightness of his vision, but also an invaluable ally in Bache, who had defined the job of secretary and had engineered Henry's election to it.

Unlike Henry, with his sureness of purpose deriving from his interpretation of Smithson's will, the fifteen members of the Board of Regents had varied ideas of the purpose of the institution. These derived from the legislation and also from the many years of debate prior to the founding of the institution. Despite the election of Henry, among the regents were men who still hoped to use Smithson's bequest to establish a national library, or a school to train teachers, or to erect a monumental building designed for activities to entertain and educate the citizens of Washington. These were uses Henry opposed, because "their influence would be local and would not carry out the wishes of the Donor in the best manner."8 Henry had been elected by only a slim majority and that majority had been achieved through a deal arranged by Bache in which Massachusetts jurist Rufus Choate and other supporters of a large library "concurred"9 in Henry's appointment if Henry would include a library in his program and would name Charles Coffin Jewett of Brown University assistant secretary in charge of the library. As a result of the differing visions of Henry and a divided board, the early months of Henry's tenure were marked by a great deal of uncertainty.

Henry began imposing his vision in his reworking of Robert Dale Owen's "Report of the Organization Committee of the Smithsonian Institution." Originally presented to the regents on December 1, 1846, two days before Henry's election, the report had been referred back to the committee on December 21.10 Although the revised report, presented to the Board of Regents on January 25, 1847, and adopted the next day, still appeared under Owen's name, it bore Henry's extensive input. In contrast to the original, which dealt almost entirely with how the Smithsonian could diffuse knowledge, the revised report made clear that the institution's mission would also embrace the increase of knowledge. It included Henry's specific plans for a scholarly series of refereed papers, "containing positive additions to the sum of human knowledge,"11 and for appropriations for original research.

Henry came to realize he could convince the board to endorse his program for the Smithsonian only by compromising and establishing what was in a sense a dual-track program. His strategy during these early months was very complex and subtle. On one hand, he often used language that was rigid and uncompromising. This has led Wilcomb Washburn, in his ground-breaking study of Henry's conception of the Smithsonian, to use terms like "single-minded devotion" and "religious fervor" to describe Henry's commitment to his plan.12 However, Henry also took the half-loaf, formed alliances, and otherwise proved to be a skilled politician. Rigidity and confrontation frequently gave way to adroit compromise. Henry's letters throughout the first months of 1847 are filled with phrases that indicate that the compromises adopted provided him with less than he had wanted, but as much as he had reasonably hoped for, and more than enough to satisfy him for the moment.

An example of Henry accepting the half-loaf during this period was the major compromise which marked the regents' debates during January 1847. After much give-and-take, the regents voted to divide the annual income--once the building was complete in five years--between the library and museum collections on the one hand, and research and publications (Henry's program) on the other. Three factions competed on the Board of Regents: proponents of a large library, led by Choate; champions of Owen's position that the institution take on educational and utilitarian roles, who were allied with those Washingtonians who wanted the institution to focus on local activities; and the Bache-led supporters of Henry's belief that the Smithsonian should support basic research in science. The Henry-Bache faction based their position on a particular interpretation of Smithson's will rather than any mandate in the congressional legislation and on the regents' discretionary authority granted them in the legislation.

As with any compromise, each interested party gave something up but found some satisfaction in the outcome. Choate relinquished his dream of devoting most of the institution's income to a large library, but succeeded in getting Henry to nominate Jewett as assistant secretary and librarian. Owen, for his part, found nothing in the compromise to prevent the construction of the grand Smithsonian building he envisioned. Henry, though disappointed that half of the institution's annual income was to go to the library and museum, nonetheless was pleased that the regents appropriated the other half for his programs.

Overshadowing all the programmatic activities of the Smithsonian, at least in terms of its budget, was the construction of the building. It had been Henry's fervent belief that the Smithsonian did not need and could not afford an elaborate and expensive building. Aware of similar cases--notably the Girard College for Orphans in Philadelphia--Henry lobbied hard against the large building which had virtually been approved before his election. In this case, the sentiment among a majority of the regents was the opposite of Henry's. They wanted a distinct physical presence in Washington. As Henry related to his wife, Harriet, "nothing but a large building immediately erected will satisfy the Washingtonians"; indeed, "the very salvation of the integrity of the union of the states is thought to be connected with a large building at Washington."13 Faced with such fervor, Henry yielded, telling Harvard botanist Asa Gray that "I have concluded not to attempt to stop the erection but to endeavour to control the expenditure."14

His attitude toward the building came from his concern for the Smithsonian's finances. The original bequest was over $515,000, but the only guaranteed source of operating funds was the interest on that amount, which at six percent was just under $31,000 per year. Henry's $3,500 salary alone took over one-tenth of that amount. (By way of comparison, the Smithsonian budget was only one-quarter of the Coast Survey's expenditure in 1847.) Henry advocated increasing his annual operating funds by adding to the principal of $515,000 as much as possible of the $242,000 interest which had accumulated during the eight years Congress had debated what to do with the bequest. Bache devised a plan to do this by deliberately spreading the construction of the building over five years and thereby preserving more of the building fund so it could continue to earn interest.

* * * * *

In leaving Princeton to become secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Henry would enter a very different environment in the nation's capital. He would exchange an intellectual community for a political one, a private persona for a public role, research for administration, and a sphere of action in which he was uniformly revered and respected for one in which he was occasionally the target of public criticism.

Henry's colleagues at Princeton had warned him that, given his need for "freedom from anxiety & unusual responsibility,"15 Washington would be dangerous for his mental health and that one of his "high noble spirit"16 would suffer greatly from being subjected to the "harassing questionings of coarse & incompetent men."17 Having spent years in the New York state capital, however, Henry was familiar with a city in which politics was a preoccupation. Although he missed the contemplative quiet of Princeton, he was stimulated by Washington, a city "where every one does as he chooses."18 Finding Washington a magnet for visitors, he enjoyed chance encounters with former students and acquaintances from Albany. He realized he would "be spattered by the News papers in various ways & served up for good and for evil"19 but resolved to ignore such coverage as long as he felt he was "in the line of my duty"20 and unless his honor was "impeached."21

Henry wisely kept his options open, given the uncertainty over the fate of his vision for the Smithsonian. As correspondence in this mini-edition shows, when Henry accepted the secretaryship, he retained his professorship at Princeton. With the full cooperation of the administration of the College of New Jersey, which was eager to keep him, he did not move his family out of the house provided by the college or give up his teaching responsibilities. He also continued to conduct his usual round of experiments at Princeton, such as testing the conclusions of Count Rumford of nearly a half-century earlier regarding the role of non-combustibles in increasing the heat output of a fire. Included in this edition are five entries from his "Record of Experiments," the laboratory notebook he had kept since 1834.

In the first months of 1847, Henry commuted from Princeton to Washington to attend meetings of the Board of Regents or confer with the executive committee, and he found a temporary space to work at the Capitol Building in the office of the vice-president.  Henry needed time to overcome his wife's reluctance to move to Washington. To Harriet Henry, Washington was an alien place, devoid of family, containing few friends, and rumored to be unhealthy. Henry worked hard to persuade her that her fears were exaggerated. His letters to her included such phrases as "I think the transfer to Washington when once it is made will be much less disagreeable than you immagine"22 and "I think when you are once settled here you will be pleased with the place."23 She was reassured about the rumors of the unhealthiness of Washington: "I also learn that the most health part of the city is on the mall where the Smithsonian Hall is to be erected."24 He even saw advantages in the transience of the population of Washington. Inhabitants came and went as the fortunes of political parties or individuals changed. Henry comforted Harriet that "your position will if you chose give you standing and the constant changes in the inhabitants will enable you to choose to mingle or not in society."25 His trump card was that Washington was a much more desirable environment to raise their three daughters than Princeton. The latter had too many young men and too few educational opportunities for young women.

Henry's correspondence with his wife is essential to understanding his early tenure as secretary of the Smithsonian. Often, these letters supply the only surviving account of his activities. They are also a singular window into his private thoughts and feelings regarding his public life and into his decision-making process. (His surviving desk diaries, which begin in 1849, record meetings and correspondence but only rarely his private thoughts and plans.) Because we lack Harriet's side of the correspondence, we do not know if Henry was simply using these letters to think out loud or using her as a sounding board and advisor. On at least one occasion, however--the dispute over the terms of the contract for the Smithsonian Building in March 1847--Henry consulted with Harriet and proceeded to take an aggressive position upon her advice and with her "concurrence."26

Henry's soul-searching letters to Harriet often discussed the forces arrayed against him and underscore the tentative nature of his attempt to shape the Smithsonian. In one such letter, Henry wrote about the prospects for the institution:

I have sometimes high hopes of its usefulness and then again the future is dark but every think in life is uncertain, and when we think we are standing on the firmest earth the hiden fire may be burning beneath us. The sailor boy on the bending mast often lives through the storm while the landsman in fancied security is crushd with his falling house.27
With little assurance of success, Henry set the Smithsonian on its course during the five months covered by this mini-edition. Like the sailor boy on the mast, he would survive the storms of this period.

1. See Henry Papers, 6:463-471.
2. For Henry's initial ideas about the Smithsonian, see Henry Papers, 6:493-503.
3. Henry Papers, 7:108.
4. Henry Papers, 6:497.
5. Henry Papers, 6:624.
6. Henry Papers, 7:121.
7. Henry Papers, 7:561.
8. Henry Papers, 6:624.
9. Doc. 11.
10. See Henry Papers, 6:557n-558n.
11. Rhees, Journals, p. 26.
12. "Joseph Henry's Conception of the Purpose of the Smithsonian Institution," in A Cabinet of Curiosities: Five Episodes in the Evolution of American Museums, ed. Walter M. Whitehill (Charlottesville, 1967), pp. 163-165.
13. Doc. 10.
14. Henry Papers, 7:324.
15. Henry Papers, 6:572.
16. Henry Papers, 6:577.
17. Henry Papers, 6:572.
18. Doc. 49.
19. Henry Papers, 6:578.
20. Henry Papers, 6:578.
21. Henry Papers, 6:586.
22. Doc. 51.
23. Doc. 16.
24. Doc. 16.
25. Doc. 49.
26. Doc. 25.
27. Doc. 15.

Joseph Henry, daguerreotype, ca. 1845-1850. Chicago Historical Society.
Joseph Henry, daguerreotype, ca. 1845-1850. Chicago Historical 


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