Joseph Henry. He changed our world; he was one of the country’s first great scientists. Henry was the first American to discover the practical application of the principles of electromagnetic induction (key to most electronics), the electric motor and electric current. Without Henry there might not be any telephone, TV, refrigeration, central heating or automobiles. His work lead to the invention of all the things we depend on in 21st century everyday life.
Henry, in the statue, is holding an intensive electromagnet – the basis of most of his important scientific discoveries.
(The statue stands in front of the Joseph Henry Memorial Building that currently houses the office of the Albany City School District. In 1817 it opened as the location of the Albany Academy (for Boys). In 1971 it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. The statue honoring Henry was installed in the late 1920s. )
Henry was born in 1797 on Division St. in Albany. His family was Scots Presbyterian that immigrated to America on the eve of the Revolutionary War in 1775. The family was poor and Henry’s father an alcoholic. Prior to his father’s death in 1811 Henry and his siblings were sent to live with his mother’s parents in Galway in Saratoga County. In his later teens Henry returned to the Albany and was apprenticed to a silversmith, while he dabbled with theater and considered an acting career.
The story has been told that Henry stumbled across a cache of books including “Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry”. Heavy reading for a half-educated teen, but it included a great description of scientific experiments. They fired his imagination and scientific curiosity. Apparently Henry was hooked and he enrolled in the Albany Academy, paying his way through a variety of jobs (he tutored Stephen Van Renssleaer IV, who would be the “last patroon”) and Henry James Sr. -father of novelist Henry James). One of his jobs, as an assistant NYS road surveyor, moved him in the direction of engineering.
Ultimately he became a professor at the Academy in 1826. Teaching at the Academy didn’t thrill him. A few years later he described his situation in a letter: “. . . My duties at the Academy are not well suited to my taste. I am engaged on an average seven hours in a day, one half of the time in teaching the higher classes in Mathematics, and the other half in the drudgery of instructing a class of sixty boys in the elements of Arithmetic.” (One of his students was Albany’s Herman Melville, the author of “Moby Dick”, who did quite well in Henry’s class, winning a prize.)
Nevertheless Henry found a little time, a little space, and a little money to do research.
Like most scientists of his day Henry was not a specialist, and explored all aspects of the physical sciences, but an initial focus was electromagnetism. He began to build electromagnets which, for the first time, were wound with many strands and layers of insulated wire. (According to legend, at one point he used silk strips torn from his wife’s petticoats for insulation.)
In one famous experiment Henry strung wire from his laboratory at the Albany Academy to the roof of the Van Vechten building on State St., just below Eagle St.). His goal was to send an electromagnetic pulse across a distance. “The cheers of the school boys on the roof of the Van Vechten building gave Henry the first intimation that his experiment had been a success.” Henry also invented the precursor of the first electric motor and identified the principles that made the telegraph possible.
In 1830 Henry married a cousin, Harriet Alexander. While he was teaching the couple lived on Columbia St. They had 4 children. Henry served on the board of trustees that over saw the first public school, the Lancaster School, in Albany (supported in part by money allocated by the Common Council) as well as the publi financed City’s African School.
In 1832 Henry accepted a position as professor at what is now Princeton University in New Jersey. He taught natural philosophy, geology, and architecture. At Princeton he had the opportunity continue his scientific research and published on a variety of subjects, but it was his work on basic and applied electromagnetism for which he became known. Henry thrived at Princeton. He was paid the princely sum of $1,000 annually and soon his brother-in-law, Stephen Alexander from Albany, arrived to teach astronomy.
By 1846 Henry was widely known and respected among the scientific community worldwide. (During his first European tour in 1837, he met the greatest scientific minds, including Michael Faraday, on the other side of the Atlantic.)
Consequently he was offered and accepted the position as the first secretary/director of the new Smithsonian Institution*. He continued in that position until his death. It was under his tenure that the National Museum of Natural History was established in the first Smithsonian building – known as “The Castle ”** today. (The Henry family had quarters in the east wing – every night was a “Night at the Museum”for the Henry kids. )
As awesome as the museum is, Henry wanted to be more than a museum curator. He led the Smithsonian in the support of original research and dissemination of scientific knowledge worldwide.
In 1849, Henry assumed the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (founded in Albany in 1839 by Henry’s colleagues). Henry served on the board of managers that oversaw the American exhibit at Prince Albert‘s Crystal Palace in 1851 in London. In 1867 He beacme president of the recently established National Academy of Science to further ensure that America would support science and scientific research of all kinds.
For years Henry didn’t get the recognition he deserved, but over time more has emerged about his life. Today, it’s fairly widely accepted that if Henry had patented his work he, rather than Samuel Morse, would be credited with invention of the telegraph. (Henry thought that patents inhibited the sharing of scientific information.) More light has been shed on Henry’s somewhat tense relationship with President Lincoln and his much closer relationship with Senator Jefferson Davis, who would become President of the Confederacy.***
(Henry was circumspect about his political sentiments and rarely spoke about them in public. He abhorred slavery, but favored colonization rather than abolition and thought that a peaceful secession was better than a Civil War. In 1862 an association asked for and was granted permission to give a series of lectures in the Smithsonian auditorium, with the proviso that it be made clear that use of the Smithsonian in no way constituted an endorsement. At the end of the series all hell broke loose in the District when Henry denied Frederick Douglass the right to speak.)
Alexander Graham Bell and Henry
However, our favorite story is the relationship between Alexander Graham Bell and Henry. After Henry’s death his widow was left in reduced circumstances. As a result the Bell Telephone Co. was prepared to remove her telephone because she hadn’t paid her bill. Bell himself stepped in and gave Mrs. Henry free phone service for the rest of her life. Bell readily acknowledged that without the help of Henry he would never have succeeded with his invention. When Bell visited Henry at the Smithsonian with his preliminary work, Henry was encouraging. But when Bell told Henry that he didn’t have enough knowledge of electromagnetism to make his theory a reality Henry is said to have simply replied, “Get it”.
Joseph Henry died May 13, 1878 (his funeral was arranged by General William Sherman). He, and his wife and children, are buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in the District of Columbia. Henry’s parents were buried in the First Presbyterian Church lot in what is now Washington Park. Those remains were transferred to Albany Rural Cemetery. Henry’s siblings remained in Albany and are buried in Section 55 of Albany Rural.
*The Smithsonian Institution was founded with a bequest of James Smithson, a wealthy Englishman and amateur scientist. The Smithson funding was intended for “the increase and diffusion of knowledge”.
**The Castle was designed by James Renwick. Renwick became the pre-eminent architect of the period. He designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC and Trinity Episcopal Church, on Trinity Place, in Albany. Trinity Church was allowed to degenerate into a state of neglect and was demolished in 2011.
*** The Henry/Davis friendship has become the basis of myth and novels that link the Smithsonian to the Confederacy, especially lost Confederate treasury gold.
Copyright 2021 Julie O’Connor