Joseph Henry

1797 - 1878
by David F. Coppedge

Question: Which of the following institutions is led by a born-again, Bible-believing Christian who prays for guidance and accepts the Biblical creation account as true?

 

  1. Smithsonian Institution
  2. American Association for the Advancement of Science
  3. Princeton University science department
  4. National Academy of Sciences

If it’s the 19th century, it is “all of the above.” These distinguished positions were held by one man: Joseph Henry. Remarkably, these honors are less important than the scientific contributions made by one of America’s foremost early scientists.

1. Smithsonian.  Joseph Henry was the first Secretary and Director of the Smithsonian in 1846. (James Smithson, a British scientist, had established in his will that his estate should go “to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”) By the time of the appointment, in his fifties, Henry was considered one of America’s leading scientists, and well deserving of the honor. His work helped build the reputation of the Smithsonian as a world class institution of science, history and art (for background, see the Smithsonian website, particularly the part about Joseph Henry).


During his tenure at the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry was an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln on the use of ironclad ships, served on numerous governmental advisory boards, began projects that led to the establishment of the U.S. Weather Bureau, and encouraged the building of Lick Observatory in California. He built a telegraphic network for monitoring weather around the country. He projected the sun’s disk onto a white screen and discovered that sunspots are cooler than their surroundings. He did much to put the Smithsonian on a strong footing and to promote the rapid dissemination of scientific knowledge. Today, the Smithsonian is the largest complex of museums in the world.

2. AAAS.  In 1848, Joseph Henry was a founding member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Though known today for its pro-Darwin advocacy and anti-creationism, the AAAS began with the opposite position. Several of the founding fathers, including Henry, Louis Agassiz, Benjamin Silliman and James Dwight Dana were Bible-believing Christians.

3. Princeton.  Joseph Henry was a distinguished professor at Princeton University from 1832 to 1846.

4. NAS.  Henry was an original member of the National Academy of Sciences and served as its second President from 1868 till his death in 1878.

Now that his credentials are beyond question, who was Joseph Henry, and what did he believe? Henry has been called the “American Faraday,” because like Michael, he was raised in poverty yet became a great scientist. Similarly scatterbrained as a boy, without a clue to the direction his life would take, Henry discovered the world of science by reading books. Like Faraday, he had a mind that could tackle a problem methodically and reduce ideas to their basic simplicity. Henry’s Smithsonian rivaled the prestige of Faraday’s Royal Institution. Even more coincidental, his discoveries overlapped those of his British counterpart. In fact, when Henry met Faraday in 1837, he taught him a thing or two about electricity. He did a demonstration of self-induction to Faraday and Wheatstone that led Faraday to clap his hands in delight and exclaim, “Hurrah for the Yankee experiment!” (Wilson, p. 63).

Henry’s electromagnet

Joseph Henry had a penchant for making important scientific discoveries for which others got the credit. He actually discovered electromagnetic induction before Faraday, but because Faraday published it first, history rewards him for discovering this most important principle that, according to the IEEE, “practically created electrical engineering.” Priority in discovery was a big thing to a scientist then, as it is now; finding out a European had beat him to the press was a deep disappointment to Henry, something he regretted the rest of his life. But he was such a perfectionist, and had been so busy with his teaching responsibilities at Princeton he had not had time to publish the discovery till the following summer vacation—too late. He almost gave up publishing his electromagnetic experiments at all. If it hadn’t been for Benjamin Silliman’s encouragement, history might have lost the record of the American scientist’s discoveries.

Added to that, he anticipated Samuel F. B. Morse by at least five years by creating the electromagnetic relay and constructing a telegraph with it. He even shared it with Morse and Wheatstone (inventor of the British telegraph), and they both used it, and got the credit for inventing the telegraph. As if that were not enough, he essentially discovered the transmission of radio waves half a century before Hertz did, and had made a statement before Maxwell that the propagation of electricity through space was identical to that of light. Because these discoveries were published late in obscure journals, he seemed doomed to be the overlooked winner watching others get the blue ribbons. If for nothing else, he is credited with the discovery of self-induction (the magnetic effect of a current on itself), and the unit of induction – the henry (plural, henries) – was named after him.

Original artwork by J. Beverly Greene commissioned for this biography. All rights reserved.

In spite of his prestigious appointments later in life, recognition for Henry’s fundamental contributions to electromagnetism was a long time in coming. Even today he is lesser known than his peers. Mitchell Wilson wrote that much of the knowledge that bridged Benjamin Franklin’s experiments and James Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory was gathered by one man—Joseph Henry, in the 15 years between 1829 to 1844. Why was he not recognized? To the Europeans, he was ignored because he was an American; to his fellow Americans, “his friends mistook his scientific idealism for lack of the American spirit.” Wilson continues, “Not until after he was dead and the contemporaries of his youth were gone did younger men realize that he had been a giant and that the considerable fame he had achieved during the latter half of his life had been for the least of his works.” The Smithsonian is trying to correct these oversights through its Joseph Henry Papers Project, where some of his writings are being published; they even cataloged items named after him, such as the Henry Mountains in Utah, the SS Henry Liberty ship and Cape Henry at the North Pole.

Joseph Henry was born into a Scots Presbyterian family of little means, and held strong religious beliefs, according to a book review printed in Nature 30 April 1998. As to his beliefs and character, some quotes found on the Smithsonian’s Joseph Henry Papers Project provide glimpses:

Statue of Joseph Henry at the Smithsonian.

— If we act conscientiously and faithfully, endeavouring before God to do our duty, the result in the long run cannot be otherwise than good.

— …he has not lived in vain who leaves behind him as his successor a child better educated morally, intellectually, and physically than himself.

— I am a sensitive man, perhaps nervously so, and though I have not been insensible to the value of true fame, and have striven to connect my name with the history of the science of this country, I have shrunk from notoriety and have neither coveted nor sought popular applause.

— God has created man in his own intellectual image, and graciously permitted him to study His modes of operation, and rewards his industry in this line by giving him powers and instruments which affect in the highest degree his material welfare.

— How short the space between the two cardinal points of an earthly career, the point of birth and that of death; and yet what a universe of wonders are presented to us in our rapid flight through this space.

Henry’s handwriting

— Let the fact be constantly before our minds not to lessen our interest in the affairs of this life but to render us less anxious as to the events of this world whether they turn out for our advantage or not or how long we may be permitted to remain on Earth. Let us put our trust more fully than ever in Him who will order all things for the best who put full reliance on Him.

— Let us labor like servants who are certainly and shortly to give an account of their stewardship diligently seeking to know our duty and faithfully and fearlessly strive to do it; constantly mindful of the fact that nothing but purity of heart is acceptable to God and that we are constantly in his presence and known to him are all our thoughts and intentions however they may be hid from our fellow men.

— The great object of the Bible is the revelation of moral, not physical truth, and that of Physical Science the discovery of physical law, not moral precepts.

— Again when we pass from the phenomena of life to those of mental and moral emotions, we enter a region of still more absolute mystery, in which our light becomes darkness and we are obliged to bow in profound humiliation, acknowledging that the highest flights of science can only reach the threshold of the temple of faith.

— Knowledge to be converted into wisdom must be made our own.

More than a thousand words could, this anecdote found by Henry Morris (Men of Science, Men of God, p. 49) speaks volumes about Joseph Henry, the man:

He was also a devout Christian, making it a regular practice to stop, to worship God, and then to pray for divine guidance at every important juncture of the experiment.


Mitchell Wilson, “Joseph Henry,” Scientific Genius and Creativity, Readings from Scientific American (W. H. Freeman and Co., New York, 1952, 1987), ch. 8.

Henry Morris, Jr., Men of Science, Men of God (Master Books, 1988), p. 49.

Henry Mountains, Utah. Photo by David Coppedge