The first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, served from 1846 to 1878. A professor at the College of New Jersey, he was a physicist who conducted pioneering research in electromagnetism and helped set the Smithsonian on its course. Henry was born in 1797 in Albany, New York, to William and Ann Henry. Too poor to pay tuition, Henry did not attend the Albany Academy until the late age of 21 despite being admitted to the school earlier. At the Academy, Henry worked as both a chemical assistant and lecture preparer. When a position opened up in 1826, Henry accepted a job as the school’s professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and it was here that he began his scientific research on electromagnetism and worked on development of the telegraph. In 1832 Henry was named professor of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), and his tour of European scientific centers in 1837 established his international reputation in science. Henry’s achievements as both an educator and scientist made him a prime candidate for the position of Smithsonian Secretary.
First Smithsonian Secretary
Henry’s Research Program
Henry focused the Smithsonian on research, publications, and international exchanges. The system of international exchanges begins in 1849, with the Smithsonian providing a clearinghouse function for the exchange of literary and scientific works between societies and individuals in this country and abroad. Also by 1849, he created a program to study weather patterns in North America, a project that eventually led to the creation of the National Weather Service. The Smithsonian Meteorological Project had a network of more than 600 volunteer observers, including people in Canada, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The Smithsonian supplied volunteers with instructions, standardized forms, and, in some cases, with instruments. Volunteers supplied the Smithsonian with monthly reports of weather observations, charting daily temperatures, barometric pressure, humidity, wind and cloud conditions, and precipitation amounts.
Henry & American Science
- Joseph Henry Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records About Joseph Henry Across the Smithsonian
- Explore Henry’s scientific and Smithsonian careers
- Mary Henry: Eyewitness to the Civil War in the City of Washington, Smithsonian Scrapbook: Letters, Diaries & Photographs from the Smithsonian Institution Archive
- Meredith Farmer, "Henry, Melville, and the Smithsonian," Unbound (blog), Smithsonian Institution Libraries, September 11, 2015, http://blog.library.si.edu/2015/09/henry-melville-and-the-smithsonian/.