Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution

Joseph Henry
Portrait of Professor Joseph Henry.

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Joseph Henry (born December 17, 1797 in Albany, New York) was a physicist known for his pioneering work in electromagnetism, his support and promotion of scientific advancement in America, and for his role as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which he helped shape into an academic and research center.

Fast Facts: Joseph Henry

  • Born: December 17, 1797 in Albany, New York
  • Died: May 13, 1878 in Washington, D.C.
  • Known For: Physicist who made pioneering contributions to the understanding and applications of electromagnetism. He served as the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, helping cement its reputation as a research organization.
  • Parents’ Names: William Henry, Ann Alexander
  • Spouse: Harriet Alexander
  • Children: William, Helen, Marie, Caroline, and two children who died in infancy

Early Life

Henry was born December 17, 1797 in Albany, New York to William Henry, a day laborer, and Ann Alexander. Henry was sent to live with his maternal grandmother when he was a boy, and attended school in a town roughly 40 miles from Albany. A few years later, Henry’s father died.

When Henry was 13, he moved back to Albany to live with his mother. Motivated to become a performer, he joined an association for theatrical performances. One day, however, Henry read a popular science book called Lectures of Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy and Chemistry, whose probing questions inspired him to pursue further education, first attending night school and then Albany Academy, a college preparatory school. Afterwards, he tutored the family of a general and studied chemistry and physiology in his free time with goal of becoming a doctor. However, Henry became an engineer in 1826, then a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Albany Academy. He would stay there from 1826 to 1832.

Pioneer of Electromagnetism

At Albany Academy, Henry began to study the relationship between electricity and magnetism, a theory that was still undeveloped. However, his teaching commitments, isolation from scientific centers, and lack of resources for performing experiments delayed Henry’s research and prevented him from hearing quickly about new scientific developments. Nevertheless, during his time at Albany, Henry made a number of contributions to electromagnetism, including building one of the first motors that use electromagnets, discovering electromagnetic induction–in which an electric field is generated by a magnetic field–independently of the British scientist Michael Faraday, who is often credited with the discovery, and constructing a telegraph that operated with electromagnets.

In 1832, Henry became the chair of natural philosophy at the College of New Jersey—later known as Princeton University—, where he continued to develop his ideas on electromagnetism. In 1837, he was awarded a year-long leave of absence with full salary and he traveled to Europe, where he toured the continent's main scientific centers and established his reputation as an international scientist. During his travels, he also met and networked with Michael Faraday.

Statue of Joseph Henry
Statue of Joseph Henry, the first Smithsonian secretary who served from 1846 to 1878, outside the Smithsonian Castle July 29, 2013 in Washington, DC. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Smithsonian and Beyond

In 1846, Henry was made the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which had been established earlier that year. Though Henry was initially reluctant to fulfill the post because he felt that it would take away much time from his research, Henry accepted the position and would remain as secretary for 31 years.

Henry played an integral role in the formation of the Institution, proposing a plan to make the Smithsonian Institution increase the “diffusion of knowledge among men” by facilitating original research through grants, widely circulated reports, and providing ways of publishing reports—thus establishing its reputation as an academic institution and fulfilling its founder’s original wishes.

During this time, telegraph lines were being built throughout the country. Henry recognized that they could be used to warn people in different parts of the country of incoming weather conditions. To this end, Henry set up a network, consisting of 600 volunteer observers, that could provide and receive weather reports over many different places in a large area. This would later evolve into the National Weather Service.

Henry also encouraged Alexander Graham Bell to invent the telephone. Bell had visited the Smithsonian Institute to learn more about electricity and magnetism from Henry. Bell said that he wanted to invent a device that could transmit the human voice from one end of the device to another, but that he did not know enough about electromagnetism to execute his idea. Henry simply responded, “Get it.” These two words are believed to have motivated Bell to invent the telephone.

From 1861 to 1865, Henry also served as one of then-President Abraham Lincoln’s science advisors, handling the budget and developing ways to conserve resources during the war.

Personal Life

On May 3, 1820, Henry married Harriet Alexander, a first cousin. They had six children together. Two children died in infancy, while their son, William Alexander Henry, died in 1862. They also had three daughters: Helen, Mary, and Caroline.

Henry died in Washington, D.C., on May 13, 1878. He was 80 years old. After Henry died, the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, arranged for Henry’s wife to have free phone service as a token of appreciation for Henry’s encouragement.


Henry is known for his work in electromagnetism and for his role as the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. At the Smithsonian, Henry proposed and executed a plan that would encourage original scientific research and its dissemination to a wide range of audiences.

In electromagnetism, Henry made a number of achievements, which include:

  • Building the first apparatus that used electricity to work. Henry developed a device that could separate ores for an iron factory.
  • Building one of the first electromagnetic motors. Contrasting previous motors that relied on a rotating motion to work, this apparatus consisted of an electromagnet that oscillated on a pole. Though Henry’s invention was more of a thought experiment than something that could be used for practical applications, it helped pave the way for electric motors to be developed.
  • Helping invent the telegraph. One of Henry’s inventions, a high-intensity battery, was used by Samuel Morse as he developed the telegraph, which later enabled the widespread use of electricity.
  • Discovering electromagnetic induction—a phenomenon in which a magnet can induce electricity—independently of Michael Faraday. The SI unit of inductance, the henry, is named after Joseph Henry.


  • “Henry & Bell.” Joseph Henry Project, Princeton University, 2 Dec. 2018,
  • Magie, W. F. “Joseph Henry.” Reviews of Modern Physics, vol. 3, Oct. 1931, pp. 465–495.,
  • Rittner, Don. A To Z of Scientists in Weather and Climate. Facts on File (J), 2003.
  • Whelan, M., et al. “Joseph Henry.” Edison Tech Center Engineering Hall of Fame, Edison Tech Center,
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Lim, Alane. "Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Lim, Alane. (2020, August 28). Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved from Lim, Alane. "Joseph Henry, First Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).