- 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
Yet Morse, plagued by law suits and perhaps embittered by the scientific community’s recognition of Henry as the first builder of an electromagnetic telegraph as well as the discoverer of the scientific principles behind it, turned on Henry. He is supposed to have told his assistant, Alfred Vail (whom many credit with working out the details of Morse code), that Henry’s claims to discoveries of importance to the telegraph were “jackdaw dreams.” And in 1855 Morse wrote a vitriolic attack on Henry which he euphemistically entitled a “Defence Against the Injurious Deductions Drawn from the Deposition of Professor Henry.” (Henry’s deposition had dispassionately and objectively appraised the contributions to the telegraph made by European inventors.) “I shall show,” Morse said, “that I am not indebted to him [Henry] for any discovery in science bearing upon the telegraph.” The facts clearly contradict Morse’s contention, and one authority on the history of the telegraph has suggested that Morse was, for a time at least, mentally unbalanced.
Henry’s response was characteristic. Rather than answer the attack himself he asked the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian to look into the matter. The Regents’ report, issued in 1857, called the “Defence” a “disingenuous piece of sophisticated argument, such as an unscrupulous advocate might employ to pervert the truth …” That ended the controversy so far as Henry was concerned, though a bitterness lingered for years, and he refused to attend memorial services held after Morse’s death in 1872.
Henry’s later years were quiet. As with most scientists, his great intuitions and insights ended as he aged, though his capacity for work and organization remained undiminished. He played an important part in organizing the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During the Civil War, despite the fact that Jefferson Davis had been a close personal friend, Henry became a scientific adviser and confidant of Lincoln’s. Tragically for his biographers, most of Henry’s correspondence and papers were incinerated in a fire that destroyed part of the Smithsonian in 1865. Henry, at first despondent, later thought that this adversity might work to his “spiritual advantage.”
In April of 1878, in his last address before the National Academy of Sciences, Henry wished his colleagues “a rich harvest of scientific results in the ensuing year.” Less than a month later he was dead from Bright’s disease, then incurable. He was eighty years old. The news of the death of the dean of American science was spread over the world by telegraph.
The significance of Henry’s work has been obscured, but it is undeniable. Most of today’s electrical world depends, in one way or another, on his discoveries. He was, as Samuel Cox indicated in his memorial address before Congress, the man behind a technological revolution then taking place and still continuing: “Morse was but the inventor of a machine, Henry the philosophic discoverer of the principle! … Blot out Morse and his machine, and Professor Henry’s instrument, the telegraph, would go on.”