The Joseph Henry Papers Project

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Last updated: August 1, 2007

PUBLICATION OF FINAL VOLUME: Volume 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, subtitled The Smithsonian Years: January 1866-May 1878, was published in August 2007 by the Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications. For more on the volume, see the section on The Papers of Joseph Henry.

NEW VOLUME OUT: Volume 10 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, subtitled The Smithsonian Years: January 1858-December 1865, was published in December 2004 by Science History Publications. For more on the volume, see the section on The Papers of Joseph Henry.

NEW VOLUME OUT: Volume 9 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, subtitled The Smithsonian Years: January 1854-December 1857, was published in December 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution in association with Science History Publications.

Volume 9 documents Henry's clash with Assistant Secretary Charles C. Jewett over the purpose and future direction of the Smithsonian. Their dispute would erupt into a public battle fought in newspapers and literary journals in New York, Boston, and Washington, and in the halls of Congress. As the controversy took on national dimensions, it became entangled in partisan politics and broader issues of the decade, particularly the ever-deepening sectional conflict and the problem of cultural elitism in a democracy.

Henry would eventually win the dispute and keep intact his vision of an institution dedicated to basic research. But even as he emerged with his authority strengthened, Henry would initiate a relationship between the Smithsonian and the federal government that threatened to undermine his vision. Although he believed that the Smithsonian and the federal government "should through all time be kept separate and the former be preserved from political influence," for reasons that have not been clear until now he allowed the Smithsonian to become overseer of the United States National Museum. Volume 9 includes documents that shed new light on Henry's motivations for accepting the national collections in 1857, beginning the process by which, in one historian's view, "activities in research became largely overshadowed by the care of the contents of what was to become aptly described as the nation's attic."

With volume 9, the Joseph Henry Papers Project begins what promises to be a fruitful relationship with Science History Publications, an imprint of Watson Publishing International. For ordering information, please see the home page of Science History Publications.

CONGRESSIONAL RESOLUTION PASSES: On November 27, 2001, the U.S. House of Representatives passed House Concurrent Resolution 157, honoring Joseph Henry "for his significant and distinguished role in the development and advancement of science and electricity." The resolution was introduced by Congressman Michael R. McNulty of New York, Henry's home state. "It is my hope," McNulty explained, "that in recognizing Joseph Henry's numerous accomplishments and his distinguished role in the history of our Nation, we will encourage today's young people to pursue careers in science and technology."

Other House members who commented on the resolution were Constance A. Morella of Maryland and Ralph M. Hall of Texas, both members of the House science committee, and Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, a physicist who from 1989 to 1998 was Assistant Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. Congressman Holt spoke about the pioneering work of Henry and British scientist Michael Faraday on induction, upon which he noted "every motor, every transformer, every telephone, every TV broadcast, in fact, all of modern electronics is built." Holt added, "With all the talk that we have nowadays of the need for science education in the schools, it is not so much that students can do calculations with Henrys and Farads and units of force and voltage and so forth but, rather, so that they learn the idea of empirical science, a way of thinking that is built on evidence." He called Henry "the leading American in developing this kind of empirical thinking that serves us so well today."

MORE HENRY DOCUMENTS ONLINE: Fifty-one documents from volume 7 of The Papers of Joseph Henry are now online at the web site of the Model Editions Partnership. The goal of the partnership, which is sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the University of South Carolina, is to make scholarly editions of historical documents available on the web. The partnership is currently creating "mini-editions," consisting of a selection of documents from previously published documentary editions (and including contextual matter such as introductions and bibliographies). Twelve mini-editions are now online, including the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, The Frederick Douglass Papers, the Abraham Lincoln Legal Papers, the Margaret Sanger Papers, and The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower.

Click on facsimile of Henry letter
Facsimile, Henry to parents.

HENRY DOCUMENTS ONLINE: We've finished preparing a sample of Henry documents for our web site. The sample includes Henry's first surviving letter, an entry from his laboratory notebooks as well as one from his European diary, a student's view of Henry as a teacher, and letters touching on two of his scientific breakthroughs. This selection marks the first time Henry documents have been available in an electronic medium. It includes both the editors' transcriptions (with annotations) and facsimiles.

HENRY ON TV: On November 14, 1999, The Learning Channel aired a documentary program on "Understanding Weather." In a segment on the history of forecasting, Henry was prominently featured as a pioneer in the field. James Fleming, a historian of meteorology and former Smithsonian Fellow in the office of the Henry Papers Project, was interviewed about Henry's role.

HENRY MYTH: Although Joseph Henry is not yet a household name, he has gotten a fair amount of attention lately. In September 1999, for example, the Mini Page, a child-oriented newspaper feature with a national circulation, devoted an issue to his life (see below). The Mini Page, along with the television documentary noted above, focused especially on Henry's contributions to meteorology.

The re-discovery of Henry's contributions in this field is gratifying. But fame does not come without a price. As the publicity spreads, certain facts get highlighted and others distorted. With every re-telling, errors creep in and the original context is lost.

For example, this statement appeared in a weather column in one newspaper: "As the first director of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, [Henry] organized the gathering of weather data through a network of 150 volunteers. His weather spotters would gather readings, submit them to the local telegraph offices where operators transmitted their findings daily to Washington in the 1850s."

Like many others have, the writer of this column unwittingly merged two very different aspects of Henry's meteorological program at the Smithsonian. One was basic weather research, carried out by a volunteer network of observers, numbering more than six hundred at its peak. These volunteers from across the country made thrice daily observations of temperature, barometric pressure, humidity, precipitation amounts, wind and cloud conditions, and other weather phenomena. They did not send this information via the telegraph. Indeed, the density of detail--31 lines (for each day of the month) and nearly 50 columns of data filled out on an oversized form--couldn't feasibly have been sent over the telegraph wires. Instead, after completing their monthly registers, the volunteers, many of whom lived hundreds of miles from the nearest telegraph station, forwarded them to the Smithsonian the old-fashioned way, by mail.

A second aspect of Henry's program was weather forecasting. Henry made arrangements for some telegraph stations--about twenty initially and forty-five by 1860--to send every morning what amounted to crude weather reports. Operators at these stations simply wired the Smithsonian to let it know whether the skies in their locality were clear or cloudy, whether it was raining or snowing, and which way the wind was blowing. Using colored discs to represent these conditions (e.g., black for rain, blue for snow), Henry then displayed the nation's weather on a large map of the United States. The weather map allowed him to show Smithsonian visitors that storms were not merely local phenomena but often part of a broader storm pattern, generally moving from west to east. By following the storm path, Henry made predictions about when rain would arrive in Washington.

The observer network and the telegraph network had different purposes. The former facilitated basic research on climate. The latter fostered public education about the weather and the possibilities of weather forecasting.

Why do people confuse the two programs? Perhaps partly because they underestimate the infrastructure required to collect and move information from place to place. In an age without telephones, letter-writing was the primary means of long-distance communication. The telegraph network supplemented mail service but was still relatively limited in geographic coverage and too expensive for transmitting data-intensive material.

Also, weather forecasting is a lot more exciting to contemplate than weather research. Who wants to dwell on the dreary task of compiling, by hand, the reams of raw data painstakingly gathered by volunteers laboring in their respective communities for love of science but certainly not for instant gratification. Once their numbers reached the Smithsonian, they required extensive mathematical massaging and then awaited scientific analysis that yielded uncertain hypotheses about various meteorological phenomena.

Publicizing Henry's role in the history of American meteorology illustrates one of the dangers of making him better known. But keeping Henry a secret--confined to a small group of historians of science--is not an attractive alternative. We hope that as textbooks and encyclopedias begin to draw upon Albert Moyer's recent biography of Henry and upon our web site, a more rounded picture of America's scientific heritage and Henry's place in it will emerge.

HENRY IN THE CLASSROOM: The Mini Page, a newspaper feature for children, devoted an issue to the life of Joseph Henry, focusing on his role in launching a national weather service. The issue, based on an interview with project editor Marc Rothenberg, appeared in the Washington Post on Sunday, September 19, 1999, and in some 500 other newspapers. The Mini Page recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and has a loyal following of kids, parents, and teachers.

MODEL EDITIONS PARTNERSHIP: The Joseph Henry Papers Project has recently become a member of the Model Editions Partnership, a project sponsored by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and the University of South Carolina.

The goal of the partnership is to make historical documents more widely available to the public through electronic media. The partnership is therefore exploring how best to create electronic editions that meet the standards scholars have come to expect from printed editions. The Henry Papers Project is participating in phase two of the partnership, which is concerned with developing tools for automating the transformation of word processing files into SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) files. For more on the Model Editions Partnership, see their web site.

RECENT BOOK: The Smithsonian Press has published a reissue of the Smithsonian Institution's first publication, Ephraim G. Squier and Edwin H. Davis's Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley. The reissue, published in 1998 on the 150th anniversary of the book's publication, is accompanied by a modern introduction written by David J. Meltzer, professor of anthropology at Southern Methodist University. In his excellent introduction, Meltzer states that Henry "staked his vision for the Smithsonian's future" on the book, which would "set a scholarly and scientific precedent for the institution, launch its Contributions to Knowledge series, and thus help (or hinder) his efforts to establish the Smithsonian's credibility on the national and international scientific scene." In conducting research for the 95-page introduction, Dr. Meltzer utilized volume 7 of the Papers of Joseph Henry and the project's database to the Henry Papers.

NEW VOLUME OUT: Volume 8 of The Papers of Joseph Henry, subtitled The Smithsonian Years, 1850-1853, was published in December 1998 by the Smithsonian Institution Press. It is the second volume of the "Smithsonian Years" series completed thus far.

We think the "Smithsonian Years" will illuminate the multifaceted aspects of Henry's thirty-one-year tenure as Secretary of the Smithsonian. During these years, Henry organized a system of meteorological observation that became the National Weather Service; encouraged and supported original research in anthropology, astronomy, botany, chemistry, geology, paleontology, physics, and zoology; made the Smithsonian into a de facto national science foundation that provided direct research support, publication subventions, and the loan of equipment; and carved out a unique role as national science adviser to both the executive and legislative branches of government on all aspects of science and technology.

Volume 8 documents a difficult period in Henry's life in which he faced both internal and external challenges to his leadership of the Smithsonian.

For ordering information, please see The Papers of Joseph Henry.

HEROIC INVENTORS: The University of Minnesota's Program in History of Science and Technology has created a number of interesting on-line assignments, including one titled "Joseph Henry and Heroic Inventors." Making use of our web site and of Albert Moyer's recent biography of Henry, this assignment compares Henry to Michael Faraday and explores the question, "How can two researchers make the same discovery independently and simultaneously?"

HENRY BICENTENNIAL: December 17, 1997, marked the 200th anniversary of Joseph Henry's birth. Below is a summary of commemorative activities held in honor of the occasion. The staff of the Joseph Henry Papers Project participated in all of these activities.

Commemorations began in February of 1997 with the publication of a series of articles on Henry in the Torch, the Smithsonian's staff newspaper. Most of these articles have been republished in the Joseph Henry section of our Web site.

On April 19, a Joseph Henry bicentennial session was held in Washington, D.C., at a joint meeting of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers with the Canadian Association of Physicists and the Sociedad Mexican de Física. Speakers and their topics were: David Hochfelder, Smithsonian pre-doctoral fellow from Case Western Reserve University, "Joseph Henry and the Telegraph"; Albert E. Moyer, professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, "Professor Henry, Mr. Faraday, and the Hunt for Electromagnetic Induction"; Marc Rothenberg, editor of the Henry Papers, "Science Adviser and Applied Physicist: Joseph Henry Serves His Country"; and Paul Theerman, archivist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, "Joseph Henry's Conception of Scientific Knowledge." The bicentennial session was repeated on November 9 at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society in San Diego, California.

On May 12, the Philosophical Society of Washington honored Henry, one of the society's founders, by hosting the Joseph Henry Memorial Lecture at Ford's Theatre. Marc Rothenberg delivered the lecture, which focused on the role of scientific societies in Henry's life.

The October/November issue of the popular magazine Weatherwise contained a bicentennial tribute to Henry as father of the nation's weather service. Henry Papers staff member Frank Millikan wrote the main article for the issue.

From November 6, 1997, through January 18, 1998, an excellent exhibit on Henry's science, "Joseph Henry: An Enduring Legacy," was on view at Union College's Mandeville Gallery, Nott Memorial, in Schenectady, New York. The exhibit was curated by Frank Wicks, professor of mechanical engineering, Union College, and Rachel Seligman, director/curator of Mandeville Gallery.

In November, the Smithsonian Institution Press published the first scholarly biography of Henry in two generations, Albert E. Moyer's Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist. A familiar figure around the Henry Papers Project, Dr. Moyer has taken a fresh look at Henry's early scientific research, especially in relation to the work of his British contemporary Michael Faraday. Dr. Moyer is a professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Commemorative activities in Albany, Henry's birthplace, were planned by a committee representing a variety of scholarly, research, educational, and corporate organizations in the region, including the Albany Academy, the Albany Institute, the State University of New York at Albany, Union College, the New York State Museum, the Galway Preservation Society, and General Electric. On December 2, the University at Albany Department of Physics hosted a conference celebrating Henry's bicentennial. On December 17, the Albany Academy presented a program on Henry, consisting of music, short talks, a video, a display of Henry apparatus, and a play performed by students of the Joseph Henry Elementary School in Galway. The program was held in the Joseph Henry Memorial Building in Albany.

On December 10, Kathleen W. Dorman, assistant editor of the Henry Papers, presented a slide lecture for the Smithsonian Associates. Her focus was on Henry's struggle to keep Smithsonian programs intact during the Civil War. The Washington Times interviewed Ms. Dorman prior to the lecture and on December 6 ran a story titled "Smithsonian Tries to Play Neutral Role."

On December 17, in addition to the above-mentioned 200th birthday celebration at the Albany Academy in New York, there was a commemoration at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The Great Hall of the Smithsonian Institution Building was designated as the "Joseph Henry Station" of the United States Postal Service for a philatelic cancellation. On the same day, Henry bicentennial bookmarks were handed out at the Smithsonian staff holiday party.

Also on December 17, the Wall Street Journal published a story titled "Forgotten Father of Science." The story was based largely on interviews with Frank Wicks of Union College and Marc Rothenberg.

Last but not least, on December 29 Willard Scott of NBC's "Today Show" paid tribute to Henry, mentioning his role in starting the nation's weather service.

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