Career as Teacher
"He was an enthusiast of true science, preeminently an educator, all the students having for him an unbounded admiration and affection. He was the culmination of the College."1
These words were penned in 1912 by a former student of Joseph Henry, for sixteen years a favorite teacher at the one of the nation's most prestigious schools, the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Henry, a renowned physicist, was tapped to become the Smithsonian's first Secretary in 1846, and served in this role until his death in 1878. He would continue to mentor young scientists as time permitted, but was greatly missed as a professor.
A RESEARCHER AND A TEACHER
Henry began his career as an educator in 1826 at his alma mater, New York's Albany Academy, as Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. As the only professor at Albany to be honored with a formal inauguration, Henry gave an inaugural address that revealed he had already formed strong opinions on his role as teacher and professional scientist.2 Henry taught at Albany until being appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Princeton in 1832.
At a time when the primary modes of instruction were lectures and recitations—during which students were required to demonstrate their understanding of the material—Henry's innovative practice of engaging students in scientific experiments made him a popular teacher. Henry often designed these experiments as a component of his own research in electricity and magnetism, so their outcomes were not known in advance.3 A set of lecture notes Henry drafted at Albany illustrates his use of experiments as a teaching tool and his diligence as a teacher. Classroom experiments on electricity and magnetism contributed to some of Henry's major scientific achievements during his years at Albany, including his independent discovery of electromagnetic induction. He described these in letters to colleagues Benjamin Silliman, at Yale, and British scientist and co-discoverer of electromagnetic induction Michael Faraday.
At Princeton, classroom laboratory sessions and record of experiments continued to serve as opportunities for research and reflection by Henry.4 "[Prof. Henry] showed us his huge Magnet & to show its power made it lift a number of us—equivalent to 3500 lbs.," wrote Princeton senior John Buhler in 1846. Henry's notes from the same day confirm that the powerful electromagnet he had developed thirteen years earlier was capable of lifting eight men, with others pressing down on a lever, and that the "magnet exhibits the curious phenomenon of persistence in polarization."
IMPACT OF TEACHING ON RESEARCH
Unfortunately, the demands of his professorship at Princeton limited the time Henry was able devote to scientific pursuits outside the classroom. "My college duties are such that I can do nothing in the way of investigation during the term and at the end of the vacation I often find my self in the midst of an interesting course of experiments which I am obliged to put aside and before I can return to them my mind has become occupied with other objects," Henry wrote in January 1846. He went on to remark that he had not been credited for some of his discoveries because he had failed to publish them promptly. Michael Faraday, who was considered Henry's British counterpart, was credited with the 1832 discovery of mutual induction shortly after reading about Henry's recent experiments with electromagnets, but before Henry had time to finish carrying out his own experiments.5 Henry's natural philosophy course consisted of morning lectures at least three times a week, afternoon recitations, and additional sessions for experimental demonstrations.6
In addition to preparing his lectures, Henry had to refurbish Princeton's laboratory, which was lacking in basic apparatus for teaching and research.7 This required trips to Philadelphia and New York; identifying local artisans to construct, for example, large zinc sheets for battery plates; as well as his own labor. Henry also traveled to Europe on Princeton's behalf in 1837, in part to procure equipment for the lab.8 He fulfilled his teaching responsibilities before leaving "by compressing into the space of three months the usual labors of a college year." In 1839-40, Henry oversaw the renovation of Princeton's Philosophical Hall, which took up much of his time outside the classroom.9
For his first several years at Princeton, Henry gave a short series of lectures on architecture, focusing primarily on ancient Greek and Greek revival churches and public buildings as well as Roman and Gothic styles.10 Henry also taught a summer course in astronomy for four years.11 From 1841 until 1853, by which time he had become the Smithsonian's first secretary, Henry taught a summer geology course, a subject not previously offered at Princeton.12
Henry's research interests were expanded by his development of a detailed syllabus for his natural philosophy course at Princeton.13 When Henry arrived at Princeton, no such curriculum existed and the field lacked a comprehensive textbook from which to teach. Henry instead relied on various books dealing with electricity and magnetism, mechanics, optics, and the steam engine, but he was not fully satisfied with these texts.14 In a letter to British experimental physicist and inventor Charles Wheatstone, Henry complained of American publishers' disinterest in original scientific texts, and that the lack of an international copyright law to protect such work made him reluctant to produce a textbook himself. Henry had, nevertheless, planned to write a textbook with the Philadelphia-based scientist Alexander Dallas Bache, a close friend. However this project was never completed, probably because of Bache's move to Washington, DC, in 1843 to become head of the US Coast Survey.15
Henry instead immersed himself in the development of his physics syllabus, requiring him to delve more deeply than he had before into psychology and metaphysics, and to refine his understanding of various scientific principles.16 Henry discussed the content of the syllabus—more like a modern-day study guide that relieved students of copying lessons onto the blackboard at the beginning of each lecture—in correspondence (March 1, 1845; May 31, 1845; June 30, 1845) with Lewis Reeve Gibbes, a scientific colleague whose critique Henry requested. "[W]hen I came to put my propositions on paper many of them required a more profound investigation than I had previously given them and such is the habit of my mind that I cannot put on paper what I do not thoroughly understand," Henry wrote to mathematician Charles Francis McCay in 1846, after much of the syllabus was completed.17 Part I of Henry's syllabus was later reprinted by the Smithsonian. (Part II was not reprinted)
A FAVORITE TEACHER
Beyond being highly educational, Henry's demonstration of scientific phenomena to his students made his classes entertaining. At Albany, for example, Henry demonstrated to his students that a battery current could be transmitted through a thousand-foot wire, strung around the upper perimeter of the academy's assembly hall, resulting in a bell being struck at the far end of the wire.18 Henry is also credited with possessing an unusual combination of intense intellect, modesty, and a sincere interest in his students' learning. "[H]e affects no superiority over the smallest, is free & familiar & social—but . . . I always feel as if I were in the presence of a Superior Being," wrote a member of Princeton's 1846 graduating class.19 Other letters, including one from Princeton's senior class, attest to the esteem accorded Henry by his students.20
HENRY'S PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION
In 1846, former student Francis M. Levison wrote to Henry to thank him for imparting what he saw as the most valuable skill for his chosen profession as a lawyer, the "ability to reduce particular cases under the great general principles of the Law." "That habit of generalization," as Levison put it, was central to what Henry hoped to give his students. In closing remarks delivered to his natural philosophy students that year, Henry had admonished them "to afix principles in your mind by applying them to various ideas until you understand them." Henry also urged students not to use his class as a venue for demonstrating intellectual superiority, advising them to "let [their] desire be to arrive at truth rather than obtain victory." Finally, Henry felt strongly that research experience must be required of science professors, and advocated against hiring based on a candidate's connections or apparent abilities as a lecturer. "[W]hatever may be a persons capacity for communicating knowledge he cannot teach more than he knows," Henry wrote to Benjamin Silliman, Jr., who hoped to become a science professor himself.
HENRY'S LEGACY AS A TEACHER
Henry's engagement of his students in actual scientific research, and the combination of knowledge and enthusiasm he brought to the classroom, are important elements of his legacy as a scientist. "A genius for education,"21 Henry saw the value in good teaching, writing to one Princeton graduate that "if you succeed in awakening a single undeveloped mind to the importance of knowledge you may console yourself with the reflection that you have not lived in vain." Judging from the warm letters Henry received from his former students, and from memorials penned after his death,22 Henry's influence as a teacher was profound and long-lived.
List of student notebooks from Joseph Henry's classes, 1835–1849.
Joseph Henry's lecture notes and student notebooks, Smithsonian Institution Archives, RU 700, Boxes 16-19, 31.
Joseph Henry, "The Philosophy of Education (1854)," in A Scientist in American Life: Essays and Lectures of Joseph Henry, eds. Arthur P. Molella, Nathan Reingold, Marc Rothenberg, Joan F. Steiner, and Kathleen Waldenfels (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1980), 71-87.
Joseph Henry, "Geology and Revelation (early 1840s)," in A Scientist in American Life, 23-29. The final installment of a short lecture series given by Henry, open both to Princeton students and non-students.
Charles Weiner, Joseph Henry's Lectures on Natural Philosophy (Ph.D. dissertation, Case Institute of Technology, 1965).
Charles Weiner, "Joseph Henry and the Relations between Teaching and Research," American Journal of Physics 34 (1966).
Barbara Myers Swartz, "Joseph Henry--America's Premier Physics Teacher," The Physics Teacher 16 (September 1978): 348-57.
Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Promoter of Anthropology," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Educator," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
1 Rev. Stephen Grover Dodd, "Princeton in the Forties," Princeton Alumni Weekly, XIII, 11 December 1912, 239. Cited in Charles Weiner, Joseph Henry's Lectures on Natural Philosophy (Ph.D. dissertation, Case Institute of Technology, 1965), 79. Return to text
2 Nathan Reingold, Stuart Pierson, and Arthur P. Molella, eds., The Albany Years: December 1797-October 1832, vol. 1 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972), xxiv. Return to text
3 Charles Weiner, "Joseph Henry and the Relations between Teaching and Research," American Journal of Physics 34 (1966): 1100. Return to text
4 Ibid, 1095. Joseph Henry produced more than thirty-five original research publications from 1835 to 1847. Return to text
5 Albert E. Moyer, Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 79-86. Return to text
6 Weiner, "Joseph Henry and the Relations between Teaching and Research," 1097. In 1835, Henry delivered seventy-five lectures; in 1845-46, he gave eighty-nine; Nathan Reingold, Arthur P. Molella, and Michele L. Aldrich, eds., The Princeton Years: November 1832-December 1835, vol. 2 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1975), 353n; Joseph Henry to John Torrey, 16-19 February 1839, in The Princeton Years: January 1838-December 1840, Nathan Reingold, Arthur P. Molella, and Marc Rothenberg, eds., vol. 4 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1981), 179; Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, John C. Rumm, and Paul H. Theerman, eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, vol. 6 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1992), 412n; Stanley M. Guralnick, Science and the Ante-Bellum American College (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 1975), 74-75. See Guralnick on recitations. Return to text
7 Reingold, Molella, and Aldrich, eds., The Princeton Years: November 1832-December 1835, xxi. "Before I was called to the chair of Natural Philosophy in this Institution, no lectures had been given on the subject nor experiments shown to the class for many years. The apparatus was not only very deficient in quality but also the articles in a very bad state of preservation." Return to text
8 Joseph Henry European Diary, 14-16 March 1837, in The Princeton Years: January 1836-December 1837, Nathan Reingold, Arthur P. Molella, and Marc Rothenberg, eds., vol. 3 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979) 171 and 81n. Henry toured Europe in March through September 1837. Return to text
9 Joseph Henry to Benjamin Silliman, Sr., 17 August 1839, The Princeton Years: January 1838-December 1840, 249. Return to text
10 Reingold, Molella, and Aldrich, eds., The Princeton Years: November 1832-December 1835, 431n. This note describes Henry’s architecture course at the Albany Academy. Return to text
11 Reingold, Molella, and Rothenberg, eds., The Princeton Years: January 1836-December 1837, 121n. During the first half of the 19th century, professors of natural philosophy were frequently responsible for teaching astronomy. No notes survive from Henry's astronomy course. Return to text
12 Nathan Reingold, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Paul H. Theerman, eds., The Princeton Years: January 1841-December 1843, vol. 5 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), 43-45n. These notes describe Henry's geology course and the texts he used. Return to text
13 Rothenberg, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 480n. Return to text
14 Reingold, Molella, and Aldrich, eds., The Princeton Years: November 1832-December 1835, 145n, 299n; Reingold, Molella, and Rothenberg, eds., The Princeton Years: January 1836-December 1837, 239-40n; Wiley & Putnam to Joseph Henry, 30 January 1844; and Rothenberg, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 12-13 and 250n. Return to text
15 Reingold, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1841-December 1843, 449n. Return to text
16 Joseph Henry to Charles Francis McCay, 25 August 1846, The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 486. Return to text
17 Rothenberg, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 237-244n. These notes include a detailed description of Henry’s Syllabus of Lectures in Physics; Weiner, Joseph Henry's Lectures on Natural Philosophy. This dissertation contains a full account of Henry's lectures and how they relate to his research and to the teaching and research of others. Return to text
18 Moyer, Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist, 65-69. Return to text
19 Rothenberg, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, 376n. For other excerpts from Princeton senior John Buhler's diary on Henry and his natural philosophy course, see 21 February 1846 and 1 June 1846. Return to text
20 Rothenberg, et al., eds., The Princeton Years: January 1844-December 1846, xx-xxi; Weiner, Joseph Henry's Lectures, 78-79. Return to text