Joseph Henry's Contributions to the Electromagnet and the Electric Motor

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Before becoming the first Secretary of the Smithsonian in 1846, Joseph Henry became known for his ground breaking research in electromagnetism. This article discusses the research Henry undertook as a physics professor, first at the Albany Academy in New York and later at Princeton University (then the College of New Jersey). As a teacher, Henry was primarily interested in developing tools for the classroom. The powerful, efficient electromagnet he developed in the late 1820s, described in an article he published in 1831, was developed by tightly wrapping a magnet with a much longer length of copper wire than had previously been used. Later in 1831, Henry published another paper describing how his electromagnet could be used to develop a "little machine," an early version of the reciprocating motor. Again, Henry saw this as a mere "philosophical toy" useful for classroom demonstrations. The author describes further iterations of this invention, and discusses Henry's concern later in life that he, rather than the English experimentalist William Ritchie, receive credit for it.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Ritchie, William
  • Albany Academy
  • College of New Jersey (Princeton, N.J.)


Smithsonian History Bibliography


The author of this article is a museum specialist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. The article was written for a website created in 1997 by the staff of the Joseph Henry Papers Project to mark the bicentennial of Henry's birth. The article contains photos of apparatus developed and/or owned by Joseph Henry in the collections of the Smithsonian.

Contained within

Joseph Henry, American Physicist (Website)

Contact information

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




  • Electric apparatus and appliances
  • Scientific apparatus and instruments
  • Electromagnets
  • Motors
  • Electromagnet
  • Electromagnetism

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