Joseph Henry’s Legacy

A man of science and compromise, the Smithsonian’s first Secretary laid the foundation for success

A teenager in Albany, New York, faced a difficult decision. Should he pursue a career on the stage, a career for which he had already demonstrated the requisite talent as an amateur? Or should he study nature, yielding to his burning desire, as he later recollected, "to devote my life to the acquisition of knowledge"? Joseph Henry (1797-1878) chose the laboratory over the theater, and we should be grateful for his decision. This month we commemorate the bicentennial of the birth of that perplexed adolescent who became one of the most important American scientists of the mid-19th century, a renowned teacher of physics at the Albany Academy from 1826 to 1832 and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) from 1832 to 1846, and the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, from 1846 to 1878. To mark his 200th anniversary, an exhibition and other events are scheduled to take place in the Albany area. And with the cooperation of the U.S. Postal Service, the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum has designed a special commemorative postmark for the occasion.

Henry's fame rests on his pioneering work on the nature of electromagnetism. His discoveries in electromagnetic induction helped bring about the invention of the telegraph, the electric motor and the telephone. He was a maestro of the laboratory, skilled in improving apparatuses and devising experiments. A later generation of physicists honored him by naming a unit of electricity after him.

Joseph Henry became Secretary most reluctantly, unhappy to have to leave academia. He later wrote his son, "I did not accept the office on account of emolument or fame. . . . I accepted the office with the hope of doing good and because I was to use a political phrase the only available candidate."

He brought to Washington a mixture of fervor and pragmatism that served him well in his difficult job of creating an institution without precedent in this country. Reasonable compromise was the key to his success. The legislation establishing the Smithsonian was a compromise among several competing interests. Henry had to develop a program that fostered the "increase and diffusion of knowledge"--a program that satisfied both his interpretation of James Smithson's will and the demands of Congress. He had to find ways for the Smithsonian to serve the local community, the nation as a whole and the world.

Underpinning all of Henry's decisions was his determination to make the Smithsonian a patron of research in the fundamental principles of nature. Without basic research and researchers, he argued, there could be no technological advances, no proper public understanding of science. He drew these conclusions from his own experiences, especially from giving advice and support to Samuel F. B. Morse at crucial moments in the development of the telegraph (and later, while Secretary, to Alexander Graham Bell during the invention of the telephone) and from successfully integrating research into the teaching of science to liberal arts students. For research and its findings to have the greatest impact, Henry believed, they had to be available to a broad audience.

His paramount concern with research caused him to mount fierce opposition to the proposal to construct the Smithsonian's first edifice to house collections--the "Castle," as it came to be known. For many years, he maintained that funding "bricks and mortar" projects would deplete the Institution's resources, thereby threatening its ability to pursue original research. Eventually, however, Henry yielded on the controversial issue of a national museum when he realized that the proposal enjoyed strong support from the Board of Regents, Congress, local leaders and even his fellow scientists. Contemporaries acknowledged that "he could deal with men as well as with the forces of nature."

As the Secretary's adroitness for compromise developed, he successfully steered the Institution through many contentious and divisive issues during its nascent years, setting the course for the great complex of museums and research facilities we have today.

Joseph Henry understood that as research frontiers shifted and the needs of the nation and the world were transformed, the Smithsonian would have to take on new responsibilities. In commemorating his vision and work, we acknowledge the extraordinary impact an individual can have on the history of an institution and on a people.

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