Born in the 18th century, Joseph Henry lived in the 19th century advancing the science that paved the way for technology in the 20th century that we enjoy in the 21st century. His was a rags to riches story that shows the what the opportunities that this great nation provides for individuals, which often lead to great benefit for the rest of us in the United States of America. His work with electricity -- he was the equal to Michael Faraday -- would lead to electric motors, the telegraph and the telephone. Henry's work with ballooning helped the Union in the Civil War. His work with lighthouses led the Coast Guard to appoint him to the United States Lighthouse Board, where he later became the only civilian to serve as chairman of that board. The Coast Guard later named a cutter after him. But he is best known for being the founding secretary of the Smithsonian, which he directed for its first 32 years, until his death on May 13, 1878.
By the time Lincoln became president, Joseph Henry had already burnished his reputation as the nation's leading scientist. Lincoln met Henry while walking; both men attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Lincoln spoke first, "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Henry. I long have heard of you. Come to the White House. I want to know about the Smithsonian Institute, with which you are connected, and what is going on in the world of science."
Lincoln biographer Charles Carleton Coffin wrote, "The acquaintance ripened into one of affectionate intimacy. Professor Henry spent many evenings in the family apartments at the White House. It was a great relief to the President, after the perplexities of the day, to converse with one of the foremost scientists of the age."
However, suspicion was rampant in war-torn Washington. Henry happened to be in the Oval Office when an Army officer told Lincoln: "Mr. President, I bring to you this morning the proofs of what I told you a month ago -- that Professor Henry is a rebel. He is right in with them. Last night at midnight he flashed red lights from the top of his building, signaling to the Secesh [slang for secessionists] who flock on the hills back of us. I saw them myself."
Lincoln then turned to Henry: "Now you're caught! What have you to say, Professor Henry? Why should not the sentence of death be immediately pronounced upon you?"
But this was all part of Lincoln's sense of humor. The night before, Lincoln and Henry had both been atop that building working on Army signals.
The anecdote says a lot about each man. Lincoln and Henry shared troubled childhoods. Lincoln's father worked him like a slave until he was 18 and on his own. Lincoln's his hatred for his father's neglect and alcoholism ran so deep that he never let his father see his grandsons. Joseph Henry, born on December 17, 1797, barely knew his father who died when Henry was young. Henry, too, had to work hard as a youth, attending school in Galway, New York, by day and working in a general store afterward. He was 13. He wanted better for himself; he wanted to be an actor. Fortunately for science, at 16 he read, "Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry." He was blinded by science.
Henry acquired some influential friends and was able to attend the Albany Academy tuition-free, working as a tutor and teacher to pay his expenses. Henry's initial interest was medicine, as the school's principal was Theodric Romeyn Beck, the father of forensic medicine in the United States. However, a brief summer job changed his ambitions, as he worked as an assistant engineer on the project to build a 300-mile state road from the Hudson River to Lake Erie in 1824. Mathematics and natural philosophy -- physics -- beckoned. An inquisitive mind was about to delve into electromagnetism and transform the world.
When Principal Beck offered him a job teaching in 1826, Henry took it. But it was a full-time duty that left little time for research and experimentation. Once, he wrote to a friend: "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."
But he persevered and made time to make new discoveries. Historian Nathan Reingold wrote, "Henry’s earliest known work was in chemistry, in collaboration with Lewis C. Beck, T. Romeyn Beck’s brother. In 1827, when Henry started his work in electricity and magnetism, Beck was also experimenting in this area; but we have no information on the nature of these investigations. By this date Henry’s reading had made him familiar with the work of Davy, Faraday, Ampère, and probably Young, whose wave theory of light influenced Henry’s subsequent views."
His major work had just begun. Historians M.Whelan, Edwin Reilly Jr., and Steve Rockwell wrote, "Henry was the first to tightly coil insulated wire around a ferrous core to make an extremely powerful electromagnet, improving on William Sturgeon’s electromagnet, which used loosely coiled uninsulated wire. Using this technique, he built the most powerful electromagnet at the time for Yale University (The Yale Magnet). He also showed that, when making an electromagnet using just two electrodes attached to a battery, it is best to wind several coils of wire in parallel, but, when using a set up with multiple batteries, there should be only one single, long coil used. The latter made the telegraph feasible."
That Yale Magnet lifted a ton of metal, which was quite impressive for its time. Equally impressive was his use of his newly developed electromagnetic principle to create, in 1831, one of the first machines to use electromagnetism for motion. His machine was, in today's eyes, merely an electromagnet perched on a pole, rocking back and forth as one of the two leads on both ends of the magnet rocker touching one of the two battery cells, a polarity change, and rocking in the opposite direction until the other two leads hit the other battery. This apparatus allowed him to recognize the property of self inductance, just as Michael Faraday was discovering in England. Faraday published his results first, which gave him bragging rights to the discovery.
Also Henry's work on the electromagnetic relay was the basis of the practical electrical telegraph, invented by Samuel F.B. Morse and Sir Charles Wheatstone, separately.
However, the magnet made Henry's reputation. By 1832, he moved up to the big leagues, teaching at Princeton, which from its founding as one of nine colonial colleges in 1746 was called the College of New Jersey; in 1897, it became known as Princeton.
Meanwhile, in jolly old England, the death of British James Smithson, a chemist and mineralogist, and the bastard son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland. Despite his illegitimacy, Smithson was quite wealthy, but childless. He left his fortune to his nephew, Henry James Dickenson, with the proviso that if the nephew died without children: "I then bequeath the whole of my property,.. to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."
Smitthson's nephew died on June 5, 1835, and the money went to the United States, which his uncle had never visited. President Jackson sent former treasury secretary, Richard Rush, to England to retrieve the money, but it took a while. Rush returned in August 1838 with 105 sacks containing 104,960 gold sovereigns, which were worth more than a half-million dollars. While Congress debated just how to "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men," the U.S. Treasury invested the money in the bonds of the new state of Arkansas, which quickly defaulted on the bonds. Most members of Congress thought that resolved the issue -- easy come, easy go -- but former President John Quincy Adams, a representative from Massachusetts, eloquently hectored Congress into doing the right thing. Congress restored the money and on August 10, 1846, President Polk signed into law the legislation that established the Smithsonian Institution as a trust instrumentality of the United States, to be administered by a Board of Regents and a Secretary of the Smithsonian. That December, the board voted 7-5 to hire Joseph Henry.
Henry wanted the Smithsonian to be a research facility. It quickly became a repository of the nation's curios. For example, one of the first collections came from the Navy's expedition of the Pacific from 1838 to 1842. The sailors amassed animal specimens, an herbarium of 50,000 plant specimens, and jars of seawater. Most of the 138 million items in the Smithsonian's 19 museums are historic and not scientific. People refer to it fondly as the nation's attic, but a good rummage sale is overdue.
But do not blame Henry for this overzealous hoarding of collectibles. Henry fought hard to keep the Smithsonian from becoming a purely curatorial institution. Henry organized and supported a group of volunteer 600 weather observers, whose success led to the creation of the U.S. Weather Service. Henry advised Lincoln on technical matters, including the use of hot-air balloons to gather field intelligence and monitor thee battlefield, using "street gas" to fill the balloons from gas lamps. He helped found the National Academy of Science, serving as its second president.
"Henry was firmly against Smithsonian involvement in applied research, the American environment, in his view, providing more than adequate incentive for such work outside the institution. In taking this position he was not at all like the pure scientists of the next century who inhabited ivory towers; the record is replete with instances of concern with applications. What Henry was upholding was the logically anterior role of pure science, the assumption of chronological priority following naturally from that position. In the one public priority squabble of his life, with S.F.B. Morse over the telegraph, he was asserting the primacy of disinterested scientific research seeking general truths over investigations of specific practical solutions. While this assertion was quite odd to most of Henry’s contemporaries, American scientists up to the present would implicitly echo him in urging greater support for pure research," historian Nathan Reingold wrote.
But Henry served as an advisor to young scientists. On March 1, 1875, Alexander Graham Bell arrived with a letter of introduction to meet with Henry. Bell laid out his idea for the telephone but it involved a "harp apparatus." Henry told him to work on his germ of an idea but not to publish anything until he perfected his invention. Bell protested he lacked the scientific knowledge to perfect his idea. Henry replied, "Get it!"
The nudge worked, of course.
"Henry's involvement did not stop at that first meeting. When Bell and Thomas A. Watson exhibited their telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Henry saw to it that the invention received the Certificate of Merit. Even at the edge of death in 1878, he remained a fan: he had a telephone installed by his bed, where among the last sounds he heard were the voices of friends coming through the receiver," historian David Lindsay wrote.
What a fitting end to a long life devoted to hard work and science. He was born poor but died with a wealth of knowledge.
NOTE: The first volume of Exceptional Americans, published by Amazon's Create Space, is now available.