Who’s that Guy? (The Statue in front of the School District Building) – Albany’s Joseph Henry

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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.

b(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.

Albany Academy
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.)

The Smithsonian

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. )


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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

Hello Central! Albany Calling; Beginning of the Telephone.

1Alexander Graham Bell obtained his original telephone patent today in 1876. The first telephone in the area was installed in early 1877 in the house Charles Sewall (manager of the local Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Co.) in Bath-on Hudson (about North Greenbush today) with a line strung from his office on Broadway in Albany. In June, 1877 Sewall invited Gardiner Hubbard, a principal in the Bell Telephone Co., to demonstrate the telephone in Albany (a month later, Alexander would marry Gardiner’s daughter). During the demonstration, a 2 mile wire was run between a business office on Broadway and a telegraph office in the Lumber District in North Albany.


The results of the demonstration were so impressive that by late 1877 there were 63 hand telephones and 21 box telephones in Albany (about 10% of all the phones in the country at that time). But none were interconnected through an exchange; they could only be used “point to point”. The first private phones in Albany were installed for Clarence Rathbone in the office of the Rathbone Stove Works on Broadway, the stove factory in North Albany and his home on Elk St. According to Thomas Watson (yup, that Watson) Albany had the first police telephone system in the world. In October, 1877 telephones were installed in the office of Chief of Police and his home and linked to the 5 police precincts and the Mayor’s Office. The cost was about $800, with an annual cost of about $30.

2In May 1878 the American District Telephone Co. installed the first telephone exchange in Albany (and the 4th in the nation – the first three were in New Haven, Meriden, Ct., and Lowell Mass.). It was located on the 2nd floor of the Van Huesen & Charles Building at 468 Broadway (demolished in the 1970s) just up from State St. The exchange opened with about 75 subscribers; mostly doctors, manufacturers and merchants. By later that year, there were 358 subscribers in Albany, Troy, Watervliet and Cohoes. (Oh, those early adopters!)

The first telephone connections were primitive and the first operators were young teenage boys. When a caller reached the exchange, a young man would answer and yell the name of the person being called to another boy to make the connection. If lines weren’t open and/or the boys weren’t paying attention it could take up 10 minutes to link up the call. And because the first Albany telephone company was operated by a telegraph messenger service, many of the phone calls were requests for assistance – ranging from a bottle of whiskey to a barber for a sick man. (Some form of the messenger service continued until the beginning of the World War I). In 1880, over 1,000 calls per day were handled through the Albany exchanges.

6 By 1882, the American District Telephone had been acquired twice over and was owned by the Hudson River Telephone Co., a Bell Telephone subsidiary. In addition to the Broadway exchange there were exchanges on So. Pearl at the corner of Hamilton and 68 Washington Ave (now Lafayette Park). In 1883 Hudson River expanded into western part of Albany; it built a new exchange on the corner of Quail St. and Hudson Ave. That building remains today and is the home the Hudson River Coffee House. This new exchange was more efficient and could handle a larger number of calls.

The Hudson River building contained the first telephone switchboard as we know it. It was soon staffed by young women operators who were courteous, attentive, didn’t swear and didn’t play pranks. The female operators worked 10 hours/day, 7 day per week. After a year, they earned $25.month – real money in those days. The work was demanding, but not nearly as tough as other work available to unskilled single women – in factories or as store clerks. And it was respectable. The Troy-Telegram of 1883 instructed its reporters to remove their hats when talking to a female telephone operator. They were called “Hello Girls”, the “Voices with a Smile” and even “Call Girls”.*



11bIn 1891 the Hudson River Co. constructed a larger main exchange building at the corner of Maiden Lane (now Corning Place) and Chapel St.; the exchange on Broadway was decommissioned and as the Quail St. exchange. By the early 1900s it was enlarged; the number of phone subscribers had grown to about 5,000. That building was demolished in the early 1970s for a hotel/parking garage combo.


At the same time the Hudson River Telephone Co, was developing, there were a couple of other phone companies in Albany operating at the same time, but they disappeared through mergers and acquisitions. The Home Standard Telephone Co. came on the scene in the 1880s; it was acquired by the Albany Home Telephone Co. Over the long haul, American Home couldn’t compete with Hudson River and its Bell/NY Telephone affiliation, but it did construct an iconic building in 1901 that survives today, home of the City Beer Hall, at the corner of Howard and Lodge.

By 1912 it too was acquired by Bell/NY Telephone. (The aggressive acquisition and market denomination strategy was crafted by Theodore Vail, first cousin of Alfred Vail, a key figure in the invention of the telegraph.)

17 In 1914 a new Bell/NY Telephone building was constructed on State St. above Eagle. At 11 stories, it was the tallest building in the city, and dominated Capitol Hill and downtown. The new building allowed consolidation of all telephone exchange services for Albany and administrative services for surrounding counties. (By 1915 there were about 18,000 subscribers in Albany and adjacent counties.) It’s now known as the Verizon Building, the company most recently formed as a result of the breakup of the Bell telephone monopoly in the early 1980s.

The Albany Connection.. literally

Bell’s telephone built upon the work of Albany’s Joseph Henry “Father of Modern Electricity” who became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian. Henry was also instrumental in encouraging Bell to perfect the telephone and to experiment with electricity as a means facilitating the transmission of the human voice.

Bell never forgot Henry’s contribution; he installed a telephone in Henry’s house in 1878 shortly before Henry’s death. Bell then arranged free telephone service for Henry’s widow, Harriet, and her daughters. Several years later, he intervened when the phone was removed from service. Writing the president of American Bell Telephone Company, as it was now named, Bell explained why he strongly urged restoration of service: “This telephone was placed in position there and no charge was made therefore in recognition of the efforts and services of Professor Henry in the early history of the instrument and who did a great deal to encourage the invention.”

Copyright 2021  Julie O’Connor