The electric motor, the telegraph, and Joseph Henry's theory of technological progress

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Joseph Henry, America's foremost electrical physicist of the early 19th century and first Secretary of the Smithsonian, was central to the development of science and technology surrounding the discovery of electric current. The electromagnetic telegraph and the battery-powered motor were two leading technological efforts of the period, and Henry closely followed the development of both devices. While he fully supported work on the telegraph, he was opposed to the battery-powered motor on the grounds of impracticality. He stated these views forcefully to the numerous inventors who sought his expert advice on electricity. This paper explores the reasons for Henry's contrasting opinions of the telegraph and the motor. Underlying these opinions were Henry's assumptions about the progress of technology and its proper relations to scientific knowledge and the current needs of society.


Henry, Joseph 1797-1878


Smithsonian History Bibliography


Summary adapted from abstract at

Contained within

Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 64 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • History of Science and Technology
  • Telegraph
  • Electricity
  • History of Technology
  • Secretaries
  • SI, Early History
  • Electrochemistry
  • Motors
  • Electric power supplies to apparatus
  • Electric machinery
  • Electric motors
  • Biography
  • Electric batteries

Physical description

Number of pages : 6; Page numbers : 1273-1278

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