Joseph Henry Lld
On Thursday evening, January 16, 1879, a large company gathered in the
hall of the House of Representatives at Washington. They came to honor
the memory of one of our greatest in science, since Franklin,--Joseph
Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Addresses were made
by the Hon. Hannibal Hamlin, Professor Asa Gray, a most distinguished
scientist, the Hon. James A. Garfield, General W. T. Sherman, the Hon.
S. S. Cox, and others.
Not alone at the Capitol were memorial services held for Professor
Henry. Before the United States National Academy of Sciences, before the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, before the
Philosophical Society of Washington,--of all these he had been
president,--before the College of New Jersey at Princeton, where he was
Professor of Natural Philosophy for fourteen years, before the Albany
Institute, of which he was one of the original members, and before
various other societies in which he had been a leading spirit, heartfelt
testimony was given to America's loss in the death of a great scholar
and a good man.
Joseph Henry was born in Albany, N. Y., December 17, 1797, or 1799,
probably the latter date, this uncertainty arising from the illegibility
of the faded records in the old family Bible. His grandparents came from
Scotland, landing in this country June 16, 1775, the day before the
battle of Bunker Hill. The father, William Henry, of whom little is
known, died when his first son, Joseph, was nine years old. The boy had
gone two years previously to live with his maternal grandmother at
Galway, in the county of Saratoga, N. Y.
Joseph's mother is remembered as a lady of great refinement, delicate in
form and feature, and very beautiful in her youth. She was deeply
devotional, and probably to this fact is partially due Professor Henry's
earnest religious character through life.
At the district school of Galway, under Israel Phelps, Joseph exhibited
no special aptitude for books, though he showed an inquisitive mind. At
the age of ten, he was placed in a store kept by a Mr. Broderick, who
was very kind to him, allowing him to attend school in the afternoons.
His fondness for reading developed from a singular circumstance. Having
lost a pet rabbit, which had run into an opening in the foundation wall
of the village meeting-house, he crept through the hole on his hands and
knees, to find the runaway. Discovering a light through a crevice,
boy-like, he decided to investigate his surroundings. He soon reached
the vestibule of the building, and found there a book-case containing
the village library. The first book which attracted his attention was
Brooke's "Fool of Quality," a work of fiction. He began to read, and
soon forgot about his rabbit.
From this time he made frequent visits to the library, by the
underground passage, reading all the novels he could find. In the
evening, to the lads who gathered about the stove in the village store,
he rehearsed the wonderful things he had read. He was a handsome,
slender lad, of delicate complexion, vivacious manners, and a great
favorite. Mr. Broderick, the proprietor, enjoyed the stories, and
finally obtained proper access to the library for his young clerk.
When about thirteen or fourteen, Joseph was apprenticed to Mr. John F.
Doty of Albany, a watch-maker and silversmith. He found very little
pleasure in the trade, and was probably glad when, after two years, the
apprenticeship came to an end, through Mr. Doty leaving the business.
Of course he was out of work. He was very fond of the theatre, and,
having been behind the scenes, had learned how stage effects are
produced. He now joined a private theatrical company, called "The
Rostrum," and was soon made president of the society. He dramatized a
story, and wrote a comedy, both of which were acted. He seemed destined
to become an actor, probably not with the approval of his Scotch
Lives are sometimes changed by seemingly trivial events, yet nothing is
trivial that influences a human being. Garfield said, "To every man of
great original power there comes, in early youth, a moment of sudden
discovery--of self-recognition--when his own nature is revealed to
himself, when he catches for the first time a strain of that immortal
song to which his own spirit answers, and which becomes thenceforth and
forever the inspiration of his life.
"'Like noble music unto noble words.'"
That "moment of sudden discovery" came to Henry at sixteen. A slight
accident had confined him to his mother's house for a few days. A young
Scotch gentleman, Robert Boyle, who was boarding with her, had left upon
the table of his chamber an unostentatious book, "Lectures on
Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry: by G. Gregory, D.D.,
Vicar of Westham."
The book begins by asking several questions: "You throw a stone, or
shoot an arrow into the air; why does it not go forward in the line or
direction that you give it? Why does it stop at a certain distance, and
then return to you?... On the contrary, why does flame or smoke always
mount upward, though no force is used to send them in that direction?
And why should not the flame of a candle drop toward the floor when you
reverse it, or hold it downward, instead of turning up and ascending
into the air?... Again, you look into a clear well of water, and see
your own face and figure, as if painted there. Why is this? You are
told that it is done by reflection of light. But what is reflection of
Henry took up this book and began to read. Soon it seemed more
interesting than Brooke's "Fool of Quality" and all the romances. At the
very next meeting of the theatrical society, he resigned the presidency,
telling his companions that he should devote his life to solid studies.
Robert Boyle, seeing that the youth was interested in the book, gave it
to him. It was ever after preserved in Professor Henry's library, with
these words written on the fly-leaf: "This book, although by no means a
profound work, has, under Providence, exerted a remarkable influence
upon my life. It accidentally fell into my hands when I was about
sixteen years old, and was the first work I ever read with attention. It
opened to me a new world of thought and enjoyment; invested things
before almost unnoticed with the highest interest; fixed my mind on the
study of nature, and caused me to resolve, at the time of reading it,
that I would immediately commence to devote my life to the acquisition
This resolution was at once put in practice, by attending a
night-school, where he soon learned all that the master could teach. His
next attempt at education was to learn grammar of a travelling teacher,
and so skilled did he become that he made a grammatical tour of the
country districts, in imitation of his instructor, earning enough money
to enter the Albany Academy. When more money was needed, the
enterprising youth found a situation as head of a district school, at
eight dollars a month! He pleased his patrons so well that he received
fifteen dollars for the second month. Later, he became an assistant in
the academy, while still a pupil.
Says Orlando Meads, LL.D.: "When a boy in the Albany Academy in 1823 and
1824, it was my pleasure and privilege, when released from recitations,
to resort to the chemical laboratory and lecture room. There might be
found from day to day through the winter, earnestly engaged in
experiments upon steam and upon a small steam-engine, and in chemical
and other scientific investigations, two young men--both active members
of the 'Lyceum,' then very different in their external circumstances and
prospects in life, but of kindred tastes and sympathies; the one was
Richard Varick De Witt, the other was Joseph Henry, as yet unknown to
fame, but already giving promise of those rare qualities of mind and
character which have since raised him to the very first rank among the
experimental philosophers of his time.
"Chemistry at that time was exciting great interest, and Dr. Beck's
courses of chemical lectures, conducted every winter in the lecture room
of the academy, were attended not only by the students, but by all that
was most intelligent and fashionable in the city. Henry ... was then Dr.
Beck's chemical assistant, and already an admirable experimentalist,
and he availed himself to the utmost of the advantages thus afforded of
prosecuting his investigations in chemistry, electricity, and
galvanism." Dr. T. Romeyn Beck, the principal, had become interested in
the studious young man, and, when he left the academy, recommended him
to one of the trustees, General Stephen Van Rensselaer, as a private
tutor to his sons. Young Henry's services were engaged, and, as his
teaching required but about three hours each day, he devoted his leisure
to higher mathematics, in conjunction with chemistry, physiology, and
anatomy, as he had decided to become a physician. In his mathematical
studies he went so far as to read the Mecanique Analytique of La
His delicate constitution seemed unable to bear the continued strain of
study and teaching, and at twenty-six, through the friendship of an
influential judge, Henry received the appointment of engineer in the
survey of a road between the Hudson River and Lake Erie, a distance of
about three hundred miles. This gave him out-of-door life, which he
needed, and, though much of his work was done in winter, in deep snow,
making his way through dense forests, he entirely regained his health,
and gave such excellent satisfaction that he was asked to construct a
canal in Ohio, and assist in a mining enterprise in Mexico. Both of
these he refused, accepting the chair of Mathematics and Natural
Philosophy in the Albany Academy, at the urgent solicitation of his
friend, Dr. Beck.
Elected in the spring, and not entering upon his work till autumn, he
spent the intervening months in geological exploration in New York
State. Every hour was occupied. He had commenced solid study in earnest,
as he had told the members of the "Rostrum" he should do.
Having entered upon his profession, he taught mathematics seven hours
daily. But he found time to make experiments in natural philosophy. The
first paper which he brought before the Albany Institute was, "On the
Chemical and Mechanical Effects of Steam: with Experiments designed to
illustrate the Great Reduction of Temperature in Steam of High
Elasticity when suddenly expanded."
His next published scientific paper was, "On the Production of Cold by
the Rarefaction of Air: accompanied by Experiments." "One of these
experiments most strikingly illustrated the great reduction of
temperature which takes place on the sudden rarefaction of condensed
air. Half a pint of water was poured into a strong copper vessel of a
globular form, and having a capacity of five gallons; a tube of
one-fourth of an inch caliber, with a number of holes near the lower
end, and a stop-cock attached to the other extremity, was firmly screwed
into the neck of the vessel; the lower end of the tube dipped into the
water, but a number of holes were above the surface of the liquid, so
that a jet of air mingled with water might be thrown from the fountain.
"The apparatus was then charged with condensed air, by means of a
powerful condensing pump, until the pressure was estimated at nine
atmospheres. During the condensation, the vessel became sensibly warm.
After suffering the apparatus to cool down to the temperature of the
room, the stop-cock was opened: the air rushed out with great violence,
carrying with it a quantity of water, which was instantly converted into
snow. After a few seconds, the tube became filled with ice, which almost
entirely stopped the current of air. The neck of the vessel was then
partially unscrewed, so as to allow the condensed air to rush out around
the sides of the screw; in this state the temperature of the whole
interior atmosphere was so much reduced as to freeze the remaining water
in the vessel."
Other pamphlets followed this publication, but in 1831 a notable paper
in the "American Journal of Science and the Arts" brought Henry's name
to the front line of discoverers in electro-magnetism. Sturgeon made the
first electro-magnet; Henry made the electro-magnet what it is.
Says W. B. Taylor, in an address before the "Philosophical Society of
Washington:" "The electro-magnet figured and described by Sturgeon
consisted of a small bar or stout iron wire bent into a [Inverted
U-Symbol] or horse-shoe form, having a copper wire wound loosely
around it in eighteen turns, with the ends of the wire dipping into
mercury-cups connected with the respective poles of a battery having
one hundred and thirty square inches of active surface."
Henry improved upon this in 1828, but in March of 1829 he exhibited
before the Institute a somewhat larger magnet. "A round piece of iron
about one-quarter of an inch in diameter was bent into the usual form of
a horse-shoe, and, instead of loosely coiling around it a few feet of
wire as is usually described, it was tightly wound with thirty-five feet
of wire covered with silk, so as to form about four hundred turns; a
pair of small galvanic plates, which could be dipped into a tumbler of
diluted acid, was soldered to the ends of the wire, and the whole
mounted on a stand. With these small plates, the horse-shoe became much
more powerfully magnetic than another of the same size and wound in the
usual manner, by the application of a battery composed of twenty-eight
plates of copper and zinc each eight inches square."
"To Henry, therefore," says Mr. Taylor, "belongs the exclusive credit of
having first constructed the magnetic 'spool' or 'bobbin,' that form of
coil since universally employed for every application of
electro-magnetism, of induction, or of magneto-electrics. This was his
first great contribution to the science and to the art of galvanic
"But, in addition to this large gift to science, Henry has the
preeminent claim to popular gratitude of having first practically
worked out the differing functions of two entirely different kinds
of electro-magnet; the one surrounded with numerous coils of no great
length, designated by him the 'quantity' magnet, the other surrounded
with a continuous coil of very great length, designated by him the
'intensity' magnet.... Never should it be forgotten that he who first
exalted the 'quantity' magnet of Sturgeon from a power of twenty pounds
to a power of twenty hundred pounds was the absolute CREATOR of the
'intensity' magnet; and that the principles involved in this creation
constitute the indispensable basis of every form of the electro-magnetic
telegraph since invented."
Professor Silliman of Yale College said: "Henry has the honor of having
constructed by far the most powerful magnets that have ever been known;
and his last, weighing (armature and all) but 82-1/2 pounds, sustains
over a ton;--which is eight times more powerful than any magnet hitherto
known in Europe."
"In 1831," says Professor Henry, "I arranged around one of the upper
rooms of the Albany Academy a wire of more than a mile in length,
through which I was enabled to make signals by sounding a bell. The
mechanical arrangement for effecting this object was simply a steel bar,
permanently magnetized, of about ten inches in length, supported on a
pivot, and placed with its north end between the two arms of a
horse-shoe magnet. When the latter was excited by the current, the end
of the bar thus placed was attracted by one arm of the horse-shoe and
repelled by the other, and was thus caused to move in a horizontal plane
and its further end to strike a bell suitably adjusted." This was the
first "sounding" electro-magnetic telegraph. With this growing fame he
was not disposed to think too highly of himself. A friend, noticing a
look of sadness in the face of the young professor, said to
him,--"Albany will one day be proud of her son;" and so it proved.
A year before this, in May, 1830, Professor Henry had married, at
thirty-one, Harriet L. Alexander of Schenectady, N. Y., a cultivated and
In 1832, Princeton College needed a professor of natural philosophy.
Henry's friends heartily commended him for the position. Silliman
said,--"Henry has no superior among the scientific men of the country,"
and Professor Renwick of Columbia College, New York, said, "He has no
After six years at the Albany Academy, Henry removed to Princeton, where
for fourteen years he added constantly to his fame and usefulness by
original work. Of his discoveries in these fruitful years he gives the
following summary, at the request of a friend:--
"I arrived in Princeton in November, 1832, and, as soon as I became
fully settled in the chair which I occupied, I recommenced my
investigations, constructed a still more powerful electro-magnet than I
had made before,--one which would sustain over three thousand
pounds,--and with it illustrated to my class the manner in which a large
amount of power might, by means of a relay magnet, be called into
operation at the distance of many miles.... The electro-magnetic
telegraph was first invented by me, in Albany, in 1830.... At the time
of making my original experiments on electro-magnetism in Albany, I was
urged by a friend to take out a patent, both for its application to
machinery and to the telegraph; but this I declined, on the ground that
I did not then consider it compatible with the dignity of science to
confine the benefits which might be derived from it to the exclusive use
of any individual. In this perhaps I was too fastidious."
Professor Asa Gray well said, "For the telegraph and for
electro-magnetic machines, what was now wanted was not discovery, but
invention; not the ascertainment of principles, but the devising of
methods." Morse is not to be less honored because somebody discovered
the principle, which he and others utilized for the race, any more than
Edison, Bell, and others, because Faraday and Henry helped to make their
grand work possible.
"My next investigation, after being settled at Princeton," says
Professor Henry, "was in relation to electro-dynamic induction. Mr.
Faraday had discovered that when a current of galvanic electricity was
passed through a wire from a battery, a current in an opposite direction
was induced in a wire arranged parallel to this conductor. I discovered
that an induction of a similar kind took place in the primary conducting
wire itself, so that a current which, in its passage through a short
wire conductor, would neither produce sparks nor shocks would, if the
wire were sufficiently long, produce both those phenomena....
"A series of investigations was afterwards made, resulting in producing
inductive currents of different orders, having different directions,
made up of waves alternately in opposite directions....
"Another series of investigations, of a parallel character, was made in
regard to ordinary or frictional electricity. In the course of these it
was shown that electro-dynamic inductive action of ordinary electricity
was of a peculiar character, and that effects could be produced by it at
a remarkable distance. For example, if a shock were sent through a wire
on the outside of a building, electrical effects could be exhibited in a
parallel wire within the building."...
After this, investigations were made in atmospheric induction; induction
from thunder clouds; in regard to lightning rods; on substances capable
of exhibiting phosphorescence, such as the diamond, which, when exposed
to the direct rays of the sun, and then removed to a dark place, emits a
pale blue light; on a method of determining the velocity of projectiles;
on the heat of the spots on the sun as compared with the rest of his
disk; the detection of heat by the thermal telescope--"when the object
was a horse in a distant field, the radiant heat from the animal was
distinctly perceptible at a distance of at least several hundred yards;"
on the cohesion of liquids; on the tenacity of soapwater in films; on
the origin of mechanical power, and the nature of vital force.
"The mechanical power exerted by animals is due to the passage of
organized matter in the stomach, from an unstable to a stable
equilibrium; or, as it were, from the combustion of the food. It
therefore follows that animal power is referable to the same source as
that from the combustion of fuel--namely, developed power of the sun's
beams. But, according to this view, what is vitality? It is that
mysterious principle--not mechanical power--which determines the form
and arranges the atoms of organized matter, employing for this purpose
the power which is derived from the food....
"Suppose a vegetable organism impregnated with a germ (a potato, for
instance) is planted below the surface of the ground, in damp soil,
under a temperature sufficient for vegetation. If we examine it from
time to time, we find it sending down rootlets into the earth, and stems
and leaves upward into the air. After the leaves have been fully
expanded we shall find the tuber entirely exhausted, nothing but a skin
remaining. The same effect will take place if the potato be placed in a
warm cellar; it will continue to grow until all the starch and gluten
are exhausted, when it will cease to increase. If, however, we now place
it in the light, it will commence to grow again, and increase in size
and weight. If we weigh the potato previous to the experiment, and the
plant after it has ceased to grow in the dark, we shall find that the
weight of the latter is a little more than half of the original tuber.
The question then is, what has become of the material which filled the
sac of the potato? The answer is, one part has run down into carbonic
acid and water, and in this running down has evolved the power to build
up the other part into the new plant. After the leaves have been formed
and the plant exposed to the light of the sun, the developed power of
its rays decomposes the carbonic acid of the atmosphere, and thus
furnishes the pabulum and the power necessary to the further development
of the organization.
"The same is the case with wheat, and all other grains that are
germinated in the earth. Besides the germ of the future plant, there is
stored away, around the germ, the starch and gluten to furnish the power
necessary to its development, and also the food to build it up, until it
reaches the surface of the earth and can draw the sources of its future
growth from the power of the sunbeam. In the case of fungi and other
plants that grow in the dark, they derive the power and the pabulum from
surrounding vegetable matter in process of decay, or in that of evolving
"What then is the office of vitality? We say that it is analogous to
that of the engineer who directs the power of the steam-engine in the
execution of its work."
"If he had published in 1844, with some fulness, as he then wrought
them out," says Professor Gray, "his conception and his attractive
illustrations of the sources, transformation, and equivalence of
mechanical power, and given them fitting publicity, Henry's name would
have been prominent among the pioneers and founders of the modern
doctrine of the conservation of energy."
Henry always defined science as the "knowledge of natural law," and law
as the "will of God." He found all things, even the storms, under the
"control of laws--fixed, immutable, and eternal," and rejoiced in
believing that "a Supreme Intelligence who knows no change" governs all.
For him there was never any conflict between science and religion.
In February, 1837, Henry went to Europe, accompanied by Prof. Alexander
D. Bache, at the head of the United States Coast Survey for eighteen
years. He became the friend of Faraday; of Wheatstone, then Professor of
Experimental Philosophy in King's College, who was engaged in developing
his system of the needle telegraph; of Arago, Gay-Lussac, and other
noted men. "At King's College," says Prof. Alfred M. Mayer, "Faraday,
Wheatstone, Daniell, and Henry had met to try and evolve the electric
spark from the thermopile. Each in turn attempted it and failed. Then
came Henry's turn. He succeeded, calling in the aid of his discovery of
the effect of a long interpolar wire wrapped around a piece of soft
iron. Faraday became as wild as a boy, and, jumping up, shouted:
'Hurrah for the Yankee experiment!'" "It is not generally known or
appreciated," says Professor Mayer, "that Henry and Faraday
independently discovered the means of producing the electric current and
the electric spark from a magnet.... Henry cannot be placed on record as
the first discoverer of the magneto-electric current, but it can be
claimed that he stands alone as its second independent discoverer."
Both James D. Forbes of Edinburgh and Henry obtained the spark, but were
anticipated by Faraday.
Henry spoke before the various scientific societies. He was no longer
the apprentice to a watch-maker, or the leader of private theatricals,
but a distinguished scholar. By his own will and energy he had attained
to this enviable position.
Meantime a man of science, in England, had thought out a great project
for the benefit of his fellow-men. James Smithson, a wealthy English
chemist, a Fellow of the Royal Society, unmarried, died in 1829. He left
his property, over five hundred and forty thousand dollars, after the
death of his nephew, provided that he died childless, "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." The nephew died six years later, unmarried.
This was indeed a wonderful gift,--and from a stranger! Difficulties at
once presented themselves. How could the property be used "for the
increase and diffusion of knowledge among men"? "For ten years," says
Garfield, "Congress wrestled with those nine words of Smithson, and
could not handle them. Some political philosophers of that period held
that we had no constitutional authority to accept the gift at all, and
proposed to send it back to England. Every conceivable proposition was
John Quincy Adams desired a great astronomical observatory. One person
wished an agricultural school; another, a college for women; another,
that the funds should be devoted to meteorological observations all over
the Union. Finally, a board of regents was appointed, with power to
choose a suitable person as secretary.
He must be a learned man, a wise financier, with good judgment and
pleasant manners. Professor Henry fulfilled all the conditions. He was
admired for his learning; in finance he was wise, as thirty years have
proved, the institute with its endowment now being valued at one and a
half million dollars; his kindly manner made him accessible, willing to
listen to any one who hoped or believed he had discovered something in
the line of knowledge. A man who can be harsh or cold to an ignorant
person, or indeed to anybody, does not deserve to hold any public
position. With natural quickness of temper in early life, he had gained
remarkable self-control. Like Baron Cuvier, he had no tolerance for
sarcasm or "practical jokes." Henry was unanimously chosen, entering
upon his duties December 3, 1846. He had a definite plan of the work
which ought to be done, and "after due deliberation it received the
almost unanimous approval of the scientific world."
He believed that the money should be used in original scientific work;
by helping men to publish the results of such work; to aid in varied
explorations; to send scientific publications all over the world. The
institution is now the principal agent of scientific and literary
communication between the old world and the new. The number of foreign
institutions and correspondents receiving the Smithsonian publications
exceeds two thousand, scattered from New Zealand and India to Yokohama,
in Japan, and Cape Town, in Southern Africa. The weight of matter sent
abroad for ten years, ending 1877, was ninety-nine thousand pounds.
Among the first subjects taken up by the institution for investigation
was that of American archaeology, an attempt to ascertain the industrial,
social, and intellectual character of the earliest races on our
continent. The first publication of "Smithsonian Contributions" was a
work on the mounds and earthworks found in the Mississippi valley, a
most fascinating study.
The Smithsonian, "first in the world, organized a comprehensive system
of telegraphic meteorology, and has thus given first to Europe and Asia,
and now to the United States, that most beneficent national application
of modern science--the storm warnings."
So much of value has been gathered by government surveys and by
voluntary contribution that the institution has sent duplicates to
various societies of specimens in geology, mineralogy, botany, zooelogy,
and archaeology, while it has remaining, "boxed up, varieties of art and
nature" more than enough to twice fill the halls and galleries of the
The work of Professor Henry grew more and more onerous, but he seemed to
leave nothing undone. For many years he served gratuitously as chairman
of the Lighthouse Board. When a substitute was needed for sperm oil,
after almost numberless experiments, he showed that lard oil is the best
illuminant, thereby saving the country over one hundred thousand dollars
yearly, since 1865.
During the last twelve years of his life, he devoted much time to our
system of coast fog-signals, making "contributions to the science of
acoustics, unquestionably the most important of the century."
Observations were made, among other places, at Block Island and Point
Judith. The distance between these fog-horns is seventeen miles, and the
sound of one can be distinctly heard at the other when the air is quiet
and homogeneous; but if the wind blows from one towards the other, the
listener at the station from which the wind blows is unable to hear the
While at work in the Lighthouse Depot, in Staten Island, December, 1877,
Henry's right hand became in a paralytic condition. This foretold that
the end was near. He died at noon, May 13, 1878, asking, with his latest
breath, which way the wind came, as though still thinking how to save
human lives in a fog at sea. He was buried May 16, at Rock Creek
Cemetery, near Georgetown, D. C. He was ready when death came. Two weeks
before, he said to a friend: "I may die at any moment. I would like to
live long enough to complete some things I have undertaken, but I am
content to go. I have had a happy life, and I hope I have been able to
do some good."
Several times during his connection with the Smithsonian Institution he
was offered more lucrative positions, but he remained where he believed
he could be most useful. He was called to the professorship of chemistry
in the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania, with double
the salary of his secretaryship; but he declined. He was urged also to
take the presidency of the college at Princeton. John C. Calhoun desired
him to accept a professorship in the University of Virginia, as there
were so many difficulties in connection with the secretaryship. Henry
declined, saying that "his honor was committed to the institution."
Calhoun grasped his hand, exclaiming, "Professor Henry, you are a man
after my own heart."
He seemed to have no time to accumulate money. Fortunately, a fund of
forty thousand dollars has been raised by friends, the income of which
goes to his family during life, and afterwards to the National Academy
of Sciences, to be devoted to original research.
In character he was above reproach. He said, "I think that immorality
and great mental power exercised in the discovery of scientific truths
are incompatible with each other; and that more error is introduced from
defect in moral sense than from want of intellectual capacity."
He loved nature. "A life devoted exclusively to the study of a single
insect," he said, "is not spent in vain. No animal, however
insignificant, is isolated; it forms a part of the great system of
nature, and is governed by the same general laws which control the most
prominent beings of the organic world." In 1870, when gazing upon the
Aar glacier, from the Rhone valley, he exclaimed to his daughter, while
the tears coursed down his cheeks: "This is a place to die in. We should
go no further." A really great man is never afraid to show that he has a
He loved his home. Out from it, in his early married life, two children
went by death, and later, an only son in his early manhood. Three
daughters were left him. One of them records in her diary: "Had father
with us all the evening. I modelled his profile in clay, while he read
'Thomson's Seasons' to us. In the earlier part of the evening he seemed
restless and depressed, but the influence of the poet drove away the
cloud, and then an expression of almost childlike sweetness rested upon
his lips, singularly in contrast, yet beautifully in harmony, with, the
intellect of the brow above."
Again she writes: "We were all up until a late hour, reading poetry with
father and mother, father being the reader. He attempted 'Cowper's
Grave,' by Mrs. Browning, but was too tender-hearted to finish the
reading of it. We then laughed over the 'Address to the Mummy,' soared
to heaven with Shelley's 'Skylark,' roamed the forest with Bryant,
culled flowers from other poetical fields, and ended with 'Tam
O'Shanter.' I took for my task to recite a part of the latter from
memory, while father corrected, as if he were 'playing schoolmaster.'"
He was orderly and painstaking in his work, deciding with great caution.
Prof. Asa Gray tells a story of his boyhood which well illustrates this.
"It goes back to the time when he was first allowed to have a pair of
boots, and to choose for himself the style of them. He was living with
his grandmother, in the country, and the village Crispin could offer no
great choice of patterns; indeed, it was narrowed down to the
alternative of round toes or square. Daily the boy visited the shop and
pondered the alternatives, even while the manufacture was going on,
until, at length, the shoemaker, who could brook no more delay, took the
dilemma by both horns, and produced the most remarkable pair of boots
the wearer ever had; one boot round-toed, the other square-toed.... He
probably never again postponed decision till it was too late to choose."
A single incident illustrates the kindness of the man, who was always
called the "model of a Christian gentleman." "Early in the war, in the
autumn of 1861, a caller at the presidential mansion, very anxious to
see the chief magistrate of the nation, was informed that he could not
then be seen, being engaged in an important private consultation. The
caller, not to be repulsed, wrote on a piece of paper that he must see
Mr. Lincoln personally, on a matter of vital and pressing importance to
the public welfare. This, of course, secured his admission to the
presence of Mr. Lincoln, who was sitting with a middle-aged gentleman.
Observing the hesitancy of the visitor, the President told him he might
speak freely, as only a friend was present.
"Whereupon the visitor announced that for several evenings past he had
observed a light exhibited on the highest of the Smithsonian towers, for
a few minutes, about nine o'clock, with mysterious movements, which, he
felt satisfied, were designed as signals to the rebels encamped on
Munson's Hill, in Virginia. Having gravely listened to this information
with raised eyebrows, but a subdued twinkle of the eye, the President
turned to his companion, saying, 'What do you think of that, Professor
"Rising with a smile, the person addressed replied that, from the time
mentioned, he presumed the mysterious light shone from the lantern of
an attendant who was required at nine o'clock each evening to observe
and record the indications of the meteorological instruments placed on
the tower. The painful confusion of the officious informant at once
appealed to Henry's sensibility, and, quite unmindful of the President,
he approached the visitor, offering his hand, and with a courteous
regard counselled him never to be abashed at the issue of a
conscientious discharge of duty, and never to let the fear of ridicule
interfere with its faithful execution."
Henry had learned how to triumph over the misfortunes of life. In 1865,
the Smithsonian building was partially burned, with nearly one hundred
thousand letters, his notes of original research for thirty years, the
annual report in manuscript, ready for the press, a valuable library,
"A few years ago," he said, "such a calamity would have paralyzed me for
future efforts, but in my present view of life I take it as the
dispensation of a kind and wise Providence, and trust that it will work
to my spiritual advantage."
A bronze statue of Joseph Henry, by W. W. Story, costing fifteen
thousand dollars, was unveiled in the grounds of the Smithsonian
Institution, April 19, 1883. Ten thousand people were assembled to
witness the ceremonies. Noah Porter, ex-president of Yale College,
delivered the oration. There it will tell the story of a self-made
man--of whom Garfield said: "Remembering his great career as a man of
science, as a man who served his government with singular ability and
faithfulness, who was loved and venerated by every circle, who blessed
with the light of his friendship the worthiest and the best, whose life
added new lustre to the glory of the human race, we shall be most
fortunate if ever in the future we see his like again."
Prof. Joseph Henry was succeeded by Prof. Spencer F. Baird as secretary
of the Smithsonian Institution. He died August 19, 1887, and Prof. S. P.
Langley was called to the position, accepting the office November 18,
1887. The mantle of Henry has fallen upon a worthy successor; a scholar
who has given us, among other works, the "New Astronomy," whose beauty
of diction, breadth of knowledge, and exquisite illustrations are so
well remembered, as it appeared first in the pages of the Century