Professor Henry and His Philosophical Toys

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  • This popular article on Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, emphasizes Henry's discoveries in electromagnetism and the basic components of the telegraph. The author contends that despite Henry's ground breaking research in electricity, he remains relatively unknown because he "failed to promote or capitalize on his own discoveries." Henry believed it incompatible "with the dignity of science to confine benefits which might be derived from it to the exclusive use of any individual." The author speculates that the roots of Joseph Henry's interest in self-promotion or monetary gain from his discoveries were in his rigid Calvinistic upbringing.
  • The author discusses Joseph Henry's early years in Albany, New York, as a silversmith's apprentice and an actor. After becoming chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the prestigious Albany Academy in 1826, Henry carried out much of his research at night or during summer recess using a vacant classroom as his laboratory. By 1831, he had "invented the modern electromagnet, built the first electric motor, and assembled the first electromagnetic telegraph." The author briefly discusses prior scientific discoveries in electricity and why Henry may have chosen to pursue this line of research. Henry was likely the first to discover mutual induction (electricity from magnetism), although he did not publish his results until after English scientist Michael Faraday announced his own discovery of mutual induction in August 1831. Henry is more widely credited for discovering self-induction.
  • The author goes on to describe Henry's invention of the four basic components of the telegraph: the electromagnet, the series circuit, the relay, and the receiver. Henry advised and supported Samuel Morse, but because he refused to credit Morse with any of the scientific discoveries that underlay the telegraph's development, Morse publicly attacked Henry.
  • As the nation's leading scientist, Henry was appointed Secretary of the fledgling Smithsonian Institution in 1846. The author attributes his decision to accept this position to his concern for the state of American science, which was lacking a framework and was not recognized in Europe. Henry used his position at the Smithsonian to support a broad range of scientific research in fields such as anthropology, botany, and meteorology. Henry also served as a scientific consultant to the federal government in areas such as acoustics and oils for lighthouses.


  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • Faraday, Michael 1791-1867
  • Morse, Samuel Finley Breese 1791-1872
  • Smithsonian Institution General History


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography

Contained within

American Heritage Vol. 15 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Electric apparatus and appliances
  • Magnetic induction
  • Telegraph
  • American science
  • Secretaries
  • Electromagnets
  • Experiments
  • Physics
  • Magnetic Telegraph
  • Physics--Experiments
  • Electromagnetism
  • Electromagnetic Induction

Physical description

pp. 24-29

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