Henry, Joseph

Joseph Henry, physicist and Princeton University professor, was the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Born on December 17, 1797 in Albany, New York Henry was the son of a teamster who discovered the world of science when he picked up Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry (1808) as a sixteen-year-old. Although Henry’s only formal schooling was the three years he spent at Albany Academy beginning in 1819, the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) hired Henry as a professor of natural philosophy in 1832. Two years previously, Joseph Henry married his cousin Harriet Alexander and the Henry’s had four children together. Throughout his professional career Henry focused his research on electromagnetism, heat, and light. Henry’s background in scientific research influenced his ideas for the direction of the Smithsonian. When the Board of Regents chose Henry as the institution’s secretary on December 3, 1846, they were still determining what James Smithson’s bequest would fund. Under Henry’s leadership, the Smithsonian developed a separate national museum for natural specimens, moved away from acting as a traditional library, and eventually its scope as an outgrowth of the many scientific publications, research, and explorations that the institution funded. Henry remained the secretary of the Smithsonian until his death on May 13, 1878. The standard biography on Joseph Henry is Thomas Coulson’s 1950 Joseph Henry: His Life and Work. Henry’s papers are published in a fifteen-volume set with a separate two-volume edition for his scientific publications. (By Rebecca Solnit)
Life Span
Full name
Joseph Henry
Place of Birth
Birth Date Certainty
Death Date Certainty
Free State
No. of Siblings
No. of Spouses
No. of Children
William Henry (father), Ann Alexander (mother), Harriet Alexander (wife)
Other Education
Albany Academy
Scientist or Inventor
Other Occupation
Relation to Slavery
White non-slaveholder
Church or Religious Denomination

Joseph Henry (American National Bibliography)

Contemporaries often compared Henry to Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790). Like Franklin, Henry became a larger-than-life symbol of American accomplishment in science. At the end of the nineteenth century, Henry was enshrined as one of the sixteen representatives of human development and civilization memorialized in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress, along with such notables as Isaac Newton, Herodotus, Michelangelo, Plato, and William Shakespeare. His name was given to the standard unit of inductance. There arose a hagiographic literature written by scientists and engineers that treated Henry as the father of modern electrical technology and an isolated example of American excellence. He was renowned as the greatest American physicist of the mid-nineteenth century.
In the late twentieth century, historians have shifted their focus to Henry's role as a leader of American science and as an institution builder. Without denying that he was America's foremost scientist in the 1840s, they view his success as an experimenter as important not only because of the discoveries he made, but because these discoveries gave him the prestige and respect necessary for success as a science administrator and spokesman.
Marc Rothenberg, "Henry, Joseph," American National Biography Online, February 2000, http://www.anb.org/articles/13/13-00739.html.
How to Cite This Page: "Henry, Joseph," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College, https://hd.housedivided.dickinson.edu/node/32938.