No. 26, June 8, 1999

Editor: Soshichi Uchii


by Soshichi Uchii


Albert E. Moyer

Joseph Henry: The rise of an American scientist

Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997

Who is Joseph Henry?

For non-American readers, the name "Joseph Henry" is not quite familiar. Of course, if you know a rudimentary history of electromagnetic theory, you may surely know that Henry is one of the discoverers of electromagnetic induction (mutual induction and self-induction), together with Michael Faraday, and Henry's name is comemorated as the unit of inductance. But even here, most people refer to Henry only in passing, whereas they regard Faraday as a gigantic figure in the history of electromagnetic theory. Well, who is Henry, and what did he do? Moyer's book gives you an answer, in a cool but fair tone.

Henry and Faraday

To be honest, I myself was quite ignorant of Henry until quite recently; I came across Henry when I began to examine Faraday's life and work. As it happens sometimes in the history of science, important scientific discoveries are made by two or several persons almost at the same time; "Natural Selection", for example, by Wallace and Darwin, and I just wondered what was actually the case with Faraday and Henry. Soon, I have learned that Henry (1797-1878) was one of few American physicists in the middle of the 19th century, that his career was quite similar to Faraday's, in that both were largely self-taught with no experience of higher education, both experienced apprenticeship (Faraday for book-binder, Henry for silversmith), and both were strongly attracted by experimental works (chemistry and physics). Even their religious background has an affinity: Faraday, a Sandamanian (dissentor sect from Presbyterian) of Scotch origin, Henry, a Presbyterian of also Scotch origin. The two scientists met in 1837, when Henry visited England, Paris, and Scotland.

Henry's Early Career

Moyer's reconstruction of Henry's early life is quite detailed and illuminating (chapters 1-5). Henry's family was living in Albany, New York, but Henry's father was an alcoholic, and due to the family circumstances Henry was separated from the family when he was 8 or 9 years old, and he returned to Albany around 1814. He began his apprenticeship in the trade of silversmithing; by this time Henry had acquired a passion for the theater and acting, but Gregory's Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy reoriented his interests, and he began attending the Albany Academy (night courses). The Principal T. Romeyn Beck soon became Henry's mentor, and Beck hired Henry as a chemical assistant in 1823. Since Beck was a physician, Henry considered even a medical career sometimes.

However, due to another affliation, talented Henry was appointed in 1825 to engineer in charge of a survey crew for constructing a road in the southern part of New York State; and he did a very good job despite many difficulties. And Moyer sees an important clue for understanding Henry's behavior in this incident:

This high-minded desire to fulfill the expectations of others, and thereby merit their approval, probably reflected more than either the temperament with which Henry was born or values he assimilated from the general culture. ... Likely desiring personal affirmation as a child, he had found that he could obtain it by responsibly discharging what he perceived to be his obligations---a behavioral pattern that would resurface throughout his life and often result in overachievement. Thus, others' "approbation" for properly executing "duties"---not personal or material gain---had emerged as a primary reward for conducting the road survey. (Moyer 1997, 38)

In 1826, he was appointed to a professor at Albany Academy, and then in 1832 he moved to New Jersey College (now Princeton University). And the best known work of Henry in electromagnetism was done in these periods. And although his discoveries are of the first-rate importance, his publications were slow and moreover in local (i.e. Americal regional) periodicals. And that's one of the reasons why he was not given due recognition in the international scientific world (see Moyer 1997, 280-1).

Henry as a Scientific Administrator

I have already referred to a comparison of Faraday and Henry. However, despite their similarities and similar scientific achievements in their early careers, their later careers greatly diverge. Henry, after teaching at Albany Academy and at New Jersey College (now Princeton University), became the first Secretary (Director) of the Smithsonian Institution (founded by Englishman James Smithson's bequest, "for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men"; and these objectives are quite similar to those of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, founded by American expatriate Count Rumford) in 1846 and became quite influential on the American scientific administration; Henry resided in Washington D.C. over 30 years, and became the president of National Academy of Sciences in 1868. And when he died in 1878, a huge monumental funeral service was held, and a bronze statue of Henry was placed (1883) in front of the Smithsonian.

This makes a sharp contrast to Faraday's life. Faraday spent more than 50 years in the Royal Institution, and he was already an eminent scientist in 1820's; he also served as a civil scientist through the duties at the Royal Institution and under the govenmental agencies. But he never sought administrative positions, and refused even the presidency of the Royal Institution, presumably for religious reasons (Sandamanians should be aloof from politics and from mundane world). And when he died in 1867, his funeral was "conducted in a moderate sober and inexpensive way" as Faraday specified in his will, and his tombstone shows the same simplicity, only his name and the dates of his birth and death.

I mention this not as a ground for evaluating Henry, but as a ground for raising a question: whence this difference? In view of this question, Moyer's detailed descriptions and analyses of the circumstances which led to Henry's nomination to the Secretary of the Smithsonian (Chapter 17) are quite interesting.

Henry's Craving for Recognition

Henry was dissatisfied with his existing level of reward and recognition (in a letter to Charles Wheatstone); a quarrel with Samuel Morse (known as the "inventor" of electromagnetic telegraph, which became commercially successful) may have intensified this feeling, since Henry regarded the basic principles underlying Morse's invention were Henry's own discovery. But Henry had a good friend, Alexander Dallas Bache (once a professor at the University of Pnnsylvania, then the head of U.S. Coast Survey and a Smithsonian regent; he had family connections with politicians); and Bache was greatly responsible for Henry's nomination. Incidentally, Faraday wrote a recommendation for Henry's position, but he insisted that his letter remain private (Moyer 1997, 255-6).

Now, although Henry confided his personal complaints to a few friends, when he was nominated he maintained that he would accept the position out of duty to the nation and science; and this may not have been entirely a lie. Moyer's assessment is as follows:

Henry's seemingly inconsistent stances---grumbling in private about salary and recognition while sublimating in public his pride in achievement---partly reflect an expected contrast in his public and private voices. Throughout his career and in step with contemporary values, he had routinely couched his more public statements in elevated, even moralistic language. Conversly, he restricted his more self-revealing comments to intimate colleagues and family members. Altruism and self-concern were each part of Henry's nature. (Moyer 1997, 262)

But for us, contemporary readers, what is important is not so much the purity or credibility of his avowed motivations as his accomplishments as a scientific administrator, and his influence on the American image of science and scientists: the results produced from his motivations which may be impure. Henry's secretarial duties were time-consuming and frustrating in many ways. But he managed "to buttress the nation's lagging scientific enterprise by providing Smithsonian support to the most deserving American researchers" and the "success that Henry achieved in the campaign---including the institution's 'financial prosperity and wide reputation'---reflected his successes in administering the diverse Smithsonian enterprise" (Moyer 1997, 269).

Aside from this general success of Henry's administration, we have to mention only a few sample activities sponsored by the Smithonian: large-scale geophysical inquiries such as collecting meteorological data for revealing continental weather patterns, which prepared the ground for scientific weather report; organizing a network for the exchange of scholarly publications, both domestic and international.

Henry's Conception of Science

As a final remark, let me briefly touch upon Henry's view of science and scientists. Henry was annoyed by "charlatans" (often including entrepreneurs) or "third and fourth rate men" in scientific organizations such as British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) as he saw in 1837. He was firmly convinced of the usefulness of science, and therefore he was not against applied science; he himself invented many useful devices such as electromagnetic telegraph or electric motor. However, he insisted on the importance of basic science, and this view was reflected in the policy of the Smithonian; among the two objectives, "increase and diffusion of knowledge", the emphasis was laid on the increase of scientific knowledge, and that was Henry's point of insisting the importance of basic science. And his policy was firm and consistent (see "Advocate of Basic Research"). He thought that people were misled by commercial success of such inventions as telegraph, and that they glorified technical inventions too much while disregarding the underlying science. He shared with Faraday the view that there is more to science than its technical applications or its usefulness: determination of truth (Moyer 1997, 214).

This view may be underlying when he uses the metaphor of the "republic of science" (again, Faraday appeals to the same metaphor). In a scientific community, all practioners work as equals, provided that they are honest; thus in this republic, power should lie in the hands not of all laborers but of the honest laborers (Moyer 1997, 228).

In view of the wide difference between Faraday's and Henry's later careers as well as between their personal tendencies and values (including their attitude to reward and recognition, and to science politics), it is quite interesting to notice that their views on science and scientists are in good accord. And it may be instructive to ponder why.

It may be interesting to compare Henry to Faraday; see Newsletter 25.

See also Joseph Henry Papers Project.

Last modified Nov. 30, 2008. (c) Soshichi Uchii