At the Edge of Science: Joseph Henry, 'Visionary Theorizers', and the Smithsonian Institution

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  • This article addresses the response of founding Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry to scientific and technical proposals he frequently received from people on the fringes of the scientific community.The Smithsonian was the first national scientific facility of high public visibility, and at the time of its founding in 1846, there were no scientific societies or journals with sufficient authority to set standards and screen scientific ideas. Henry received some assistance in evaluating proposals from persons such as his assistant William Bower Taylor, but he personally responded to most of them.
  • The author observes that despite his background as a largely self-educated physicist, Henry took a leading role in shaping the nation's professional scientific community. Polices he established to regulate the conduct of scientific investigations served to limit the proliferation of '"visionary theorizers" that flourished during his time. As a public figure with institutional responsibilities, Henry was an arbiter between the world of professional science and the public; he recognized the Institution's increasingly prominent role in the world of science, and strove to establish a framework for scientific pursuit.


  • Taylor, William B (William Bower) 1821-1895
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


Three photographs, one illustration and 53 footnotes are included in the article.

Contained within

Annals of Science Vol. 41 (Journal)

Contact information

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




  • Smithsonian influence
  • American science
  • Secretaries
  • Smithsonian Institution
  • Personnel management
  • Science
  • Employees
  • Learned institutions and societies
  • Scientists
  • Biography
  • Smithsonian Institution--Employees

Physical description

pps. 445-461

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