Joseph Henry A Life in Science

Learn about the scientific research of Joseph Henry (1797–1878), first Smithsonian Secretary and renowned physicist, and how he helped set the Institution on its course.

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Joseph Henry's Life

Joseph Henry as a young man



Joseph Henry (1797-1878) became the Smithsonian's first Secretary when the Institution was founded in 1846. As its director for the next thirty-one years, Henry profoundly influenced the future of American science. In keeping with Henry's commitment to basic research, the Smithsonian provided essential institutional support for coordinating and funding research, publishing original studies, and facilitating communication among scientists in the United States and abroad. "The worth and importance of the Institution is not to be estimated by what it accumulates within the walls of its building," Henry wrote, "but by what it sends forth to the world."1


Albany Academy Where Joseph Henry TaughtBorn in 1797 near Albany, New York, Henry experienced a difficult childhood, living with relatives. He apprenticed to a watchmaker and a silversmith briefly, but was drawn to a career on the stage. An accidental encounter with a popular book on science, George Gregory's Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry (1808), gave his life new direction. He attended the Albany Academy from 1819-1822, although older than most students, and was appointed a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy there in 1828. In 1820, he married his cousin, Harriet Alexander, and they had four children, Will, Mary, Helen and Caroline. 

Joseph Henry's Home in Princeton, New JerseyIn 1832, Henry accepted a position as professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University. A popular lecturer, he taught natural philosophy, geology, and architecture. He published scientific articles on his original research on a wide variety of subjects, including electromagnetism, optics, acoustics, astrophysics, molecular forces, and terrestrial magnetism, but his reputation was built primarily on his work in basic and applied electromagnetism. His reputation as a scientist was solidified on his 1837 tour of European science centers where he established a network of scientific colleagues. 


The Smithsonian Board of Regents  appointed Henry the first Secretary of the newly founded Institution in December of 1846. It was a difficult decision for Henry as a scientist and for his family. He knew the new position would make significant demands on his time, but he was committed to advancing American science and seeking federal support for scholarly research. When Joseph Henry moved to Washington, DC, in 1847, he was accompanied by his wife of sixteen years, Harriet, and their four children, William (15), Mary  (13), Helen (11), and Caroline (8). For the previous fifteen years, the family had lived in Princeton, New Jersey, where Henry was a well-liked professor. Moving to Washington uprooted the family from a tight-knit college community and took them farther from their extended family in Albany, New York. As evidenced by Henry's repeated reassurances in letters written after he had arrived in Washington but before his family had joined him, his wife did not look forward to the move.2 The swampiness, poor sanitation, and sweltering summer heat caused the English author Charles Dickens to comment that "few people would live in Washington . . . who were not obliged to reside there."3 Henry found the city "almost intolerable with heat, dust, and mosquitoes" during the summer of 1853 and later became involved with the effort to bury Washington's open canal, "a vile nuisance" which he believed to be a source of disease during the city's long, humid summers.

Henry Family at East Door of CastleUpon moving to Washington in 1847, the Henrys initially lodged with renowned ethnologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and his family, but moved several times before settling into their permanent quarters in the east wing of the Smithsonian Institution Building,  or "Castle," in 1855. Cut off from downtown Washington by the canal, it was not prime real estate, and the ever practical Henry disliked the monumental building designed by the Board of Regents. Harriet and the four children, like other middle-class Washingtonians, spent summers in cooler locales, often staying with family and friends in Princeton or Albany. Although Henry was required to stay in Washington for part of the summer, he too left during the hottest period. "The thick walls of the [Smithsonian] building," Henry wrote, "become like the sides of an oven sufficiently hot to cook whatever they may enclose." The south tower, where Henry worked in 1853, was "hot beyond endurance." In 1865, he complained that the heat left him without the energy "to do any thing to which [he] was not urged by dire necessity." Henry often escaped by heading north to conduct experiments for the United States Light-House Board off the coast of New York and New England.

Henry's prominence and his large network of colleagues brought the family many prestigious visitors. Although both Joseph and Harriet came from modest backgrounds, Henry's position made them members of Washington's social elite. While Henry had assured Harriet that the city's transient character "will enable you to choose to mingle or not in society," she was required to adjust to the expectations of a Washington hostess. Henry would find it impossible to continue his electromagnetic research once he arrived at the Smithsonian. "Of all places in the country," he later wrote, "Washington is I think the worst in which to persue [sic] scientific investigations. The constant drudgery and anxiety of an office unfits a man for profound and continuous thought."4


Programme of Organization for Smithsonian InstitutionHenry remained committed to basic research, however, and saw the support of original scientific work as the Smithsonian's primary mission. His 1847 "Programme of Organization," therefore, included the publication and distribution of scientific papers as a key component. Without support from an institution such as the Smithsonian, "many valuable articles [would] never see the light," Henry wrote in 1847. Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, launched the following year and usually published annually, disseminated original research in a wide variety of fields, including archaeology, astronomy, chemistry, and natural history. This a