Henry, Joseph

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  • This article by Nathan Reingold discusses the life and career of 19th century American scientist Joseph Henry. Henry served as Secretary of the Smithsonian from the time of its founding in 1846 until his death in 1878. The author edited volumes 1-9 of The Papers of Joseph Henry.
  • Joseph Henry was born in 1797 in Albany, New York, where he and studied and later taught at the Albany Academy. During this time, Henry began experimenting with electricity and developing his own electromagnets, and by 1832, he had independently discovered self-induction. This is also the year he was appointed to the faculty of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). He continued to carry out experiments related to electromagnetism as well as research on capillarity, phosphorescence, and the relative radiation of solar spots. He later published papers on atomicity, the theory of imponderables, the aurora, and heat. Henry was also very interested in color blindness, and as a member of the United States Light House Board from 1852 to 1878, undertook numerous experiments on the propagation and detection of light and sound.
  • "As secretary of the Smithsonian," the author writes, "Henry was not concerned with popularizing science or with education but with supporting research and disseminating findings." Among his early achievements was the establishment of an international system for exchange of scientific publications. Henry continually fought off attempts to transform the Smithsonian into a national library or a popular museum, believing such activities to be incompatible with serious research. He was also concerned with protecting the Smithsonian from outside influence, especially that of the federal government, which prevented Henry from seeking needed funds for the institution.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Faraday, Michael 1791-1867
  • Franklin, Benjamin 1706-1790
  • Baird, Spencer Fullerton 1823-1887
  • Jewett, Charles C (Charles Coffin) 1816-1868
  • Albany Academy
  • College of New Jersey (Princeton, N.J.)
  • United States Light House Board
  • Smithsonian Institution General History


Smithsonian History Bibliography


A narrative bibliography of works by and about Joseph Henry follows the article.

Contained within

Dictionary of Scientific Biography 6 (Book)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, SW, Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu




  • Electric apparatus and appliances
  • Electricity
  • American science
  • Electromagnets
  • Experiments
  • Physics
  • Physics--Experiments
  • Electromagnetism
  • Electromagnetic Induction
  • Electromagnet
  • Biography


  • Albany (N.Y.)
  • Princeton (N.J.)
  • Washington (D.C.)

Physical description

Number of pages: 5; Page numbers: 277-281

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