Career as Scientist
Few would dispute that Henry fit that description. Henry had been a professor of natural philosophy at the Albany Academy in New York and at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. Among his discoveries were mutual induction, self-induction, and the electromagnetic relay, enabling him to devise the first electromagnetic telegraph that could be used over long distances. He had also designed the most powerful electromagnets of his day, invented a type of electric motor, and discovered the concept of the transformer. Henry's "Record of Experiments," three volumes of laboratory notes, provide insight into his most important research at Princeton and at the Smithsonian.
ADVOCATE FOR BASIC RESEARCH
As head of the Smithsonian, Henry found little time for his own research. He remained committed to basic research, however, and saw the support of original scientific work as the Smithsonian's primary mission. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, launched in 1848 and usually published annually, disseminated original research in a wide variety of fields, including anthropology, astronomy, chemistry, and natural history. The series was inaugurated in 1848 with a seminal work in American archaeology, then a relatively immature field of study. Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis's Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, provided the most detailed description to date and over 250 illustrations of the mounds and other formations that dotted the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys at that time. Henry later published what is now considered a landmark in American ethnology, a six-hundred-page work by Lewis Henry Morgan on kinship, and was instrumental in the documentation of Native American languages and cultures.
Henry did continue to conduct some of his own research and experiments in his role as the federal government's chief scientific adviser. Henry served, for example, on the United States Light-House Board from its inception in 1852 until his death in 1878. During these years, he chaired the board's committee on experiments, and is credited with introducing numerous innovations through experiments he conducted or
Henry hoped that by coordinating widespread meteorological observations, the Smithsonian could contribute to "solving the problem of American storms." 1 It was not yet known, for example, that many North American storms moved from west to east. For his first Smithsonian annual report, Henry commissioned a lengthy survey on the state of meteorological research in the United States, and on the importance of establishing a meteorology program at the Smithsonian. Henry drew upon the data subsequently collected by the Institution in a series of articles he wrote entitled "Meteorology in Its Connection to Agriculture," and oversaw the publication of two other important works based on this data—James H. Coffin's Winds of the Northern Hemisphere and Winds of the Globe. Henry also collected observations of unusual phenomena such as earthquakes, enabling "the Institution to mark the point of chief intensity, and trace out the diverging lines along which the earth-wave passed" after an earthquake shook the Washington, DC, area in 1852.2
Although Joseph Henry never ceased thinking of himself as a research scientist, he was forced to put aside his own research agenda once he was appointed to lead the Smithsonian. His career as a physicist, however, had a profound impact on his leadership. Henry's top priority was to support basic research, and his dedication to this vision throughout his secretaryship shaped the Smithsonian's future. "The discovery of to-day, which appears unconnected with any useful process, may . . . become the fruitful source of a thousand inventions," wrote Henry in his 1851 annual report.7 It is this vision that drove Henry's persistent calls for the Smithsonian to prioritize the support and dissemination of basic research throughout his tenure.
Roger Sherman, "Joseph Henry’s Contributions to the Electromagnet and the Electric Motor," Smithsonian Institution.
David Hochfelder, "Joseph Henry: Inventor of the Telegraph?," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Science Adviser," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Frank Rives Millikan, "Joseph Henry and the Telephone," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Marc Rothenberg, "Joseph Henry: Advocate of Basic Research," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Albert Moyer, "Joseph Henry: Scientist and Christian," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Frederick Seitz, "Joseph Henry Papers Project: A Physicists Persepective," Smithsonian Institution Archives.
Bibliography of Joseph Henry Resources.
1 Joseph Henry, "Programme of Organization of the Smithsonian Institution," Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1847 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1848), 173-190. Return to text
2Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1852 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1853), 74. Return to text
3Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1854 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1855), 224-230. Return to text
4Part II-Continued, vol. 30 of the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1887), 281. Return to text
5 March Rothenberg and Kathleen Dorman, eds., The Smithsonian Years: January 1850-December 1853, vol. 8 of The Papers of Joseph Henry (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1998), 9-10n. Return to text
6 Alexander Graham Bell to Alexander Melville Bell and Eliza Symonds Bell, 18 March 1875,The Smithsonian Years: January 1866–May 1878, Marc Rothenberg, Kathleen W. Dorman, and Frank R. Millikan, eds., vol. 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications/USA, 2007), 524-527, doc. 243. Return to text
7Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for the Year 1851 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1852), 10. Return to text