- Historic Sites
Professor Henry And His Philosophical Toys
The first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution might have earned a fortune if he had chosen to commercialize his inventions. But American science would have suffered
December 1963 | Volume 15, Issue 1
James Smithson, bastard son of the Duke of North-umberland, was a man who kept one eye on posterity. After leaving his fortune to what would one day be called the Smithsonian Institution, he wrote: “My name shall live in the memory of man when the titles of the Xorthumbcrlands and the Percys are extinct and forgotten.”
A debatable prophecy, perhaps. But the name of Smithson has certainly eclipsed that of Joseph Henry, Rrst secretary of the Smithsonian, who set the Institution on a course of research and publication that has made it known and respected the world over, and who, with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin, can be called the foremost among America’s early scientists.
Today the statue of Toseph Henry which stands 150 feet northwest of the old Smithsonian’s Victorian turrets is little noticed by the throngs of Washington tourists on their way to the Museum of History and Technology. A visiting schoolboy could tell you that Samuel F. B. Morse invented the telegraph, and perhaps even that the Englishman Michael Faraday discovered electrical induction. That is what his textbook would report, at any rate. But the fact is that Henry built the world’s first electromagnetic telegraph, and that he deserves at least equal credit with Faraday for the momentous discovery of induction.
Henry was not always unknown or unappreciated. When he died in May of 1878, his funeral was attended by President Hayes, the Cabinet, and the justices of the Supreme Court. The following January, by joint resolution of Congress, memorial services were held in the House of Representatives. Congressman Samuel S. Cox reminded his colleagues that “No quest for the Holy Grail was ever made with more chivalric, vigilant and reverent pursuit … [His] experiments made the lightning his familiar, his demon, his servitor.” Five years later ten thousand people, including hundreds of Washington dignitaries, attended the unveiling of Henry’s statue. The Marine band played John Philip Sonsa’s “Transit of Venus,” then the Hallelujah Chorus from The Messiah . The throng bowed their heads during the prayer—“that his example may be followed as his serene lame excites the emulation of multitudes of the interpreters of nature.” Xoah Porter, president of Yale University, rose to speak a long eulogy, and ended, in a voice touched with emotion, by quoting Wordsworth’s sonnet on Milton: “Thy soul was like a star …”KewAmericanscientists, before or since, have won such affectionate and reverent acclaim from their contemporaries.
Henry’s work more than deserved such recognition. Why then was his fame so transitory? For one thing, he often tailed to publish the results of his experiments, and in the jealous world of science precedence of discovery is usually accorded to the man who lirst goes on record in a scientific journal. For another, Henry failed to promote or capitalize on his own discoveries. Like Franklin, he never patented any of the inventions that evolved from his research; he believed it incompatible “with the dignity of science to confine benefits which might be derived from it to the exclusive use of any individual.”
More importantly, perhaps, Henry was simply not in step with the age in which he lived and worked. Virtue, he felt, was its own reward. He mistrusted money, associating riches with damnation. He might very well have felt more at home in a socialistic stale than in the booming, competitive economy of nineteenth-century America. Although his name will always survive in lower case as the henry, a unit of electrical inductance, more aggressive men like Fulton, Morse, and Edison, whose dreams of fame and tori une had so much in common with the spirit of the times, made their imprint more strongly. And indeed, Americans have always honored inventors before scientists.
Henry remained aloof from the main stream of capitalism and self-interest all his life. He consistently refused an increase in salary during his thirty-two years at the Smithsonian, and he once turned down an excellent job because, had he accepted, it might have been supposed that he was influenced by pecuniary reasons. Many have blamed this lack of ambition on a rigid Calvinistic upbringing. Henry’s parents and grandparents, of Scottish Puritan stock (the name was Hendrie before it was Americani/ed), arrived in New York on June 16, 1775, the day before the Battle of !Junker Hill. They then moved to Albany, where a number of other Scots had settled. Joseph Henry was probably—no certain record survives—born in 1797.
The boy apparently had no special aptitude lor school, but at an early age he did discover the joys of leading, a favorite book being The Fool of Quality , by Henry Brooke. This moralistic romance, which had gained the approval of John Wesley himself, doubtless helped to confirm his austere Calvinistic: outlook on life. At the age of fourteen he was apprenticed to a watchmaker and silversmith, a training which had proved useful to many ingenious Americans before him, among them David Rittenhouse, Paid Revere, and John Fitch. But unlike these inventors and entrepreneurs, Henry showed little aptitude, and no interest, in the profession of Yankee linkerer. In fact, at a time when most boys of his own age were fascinated by mechanics, Henry decided to become an actor.