The Papers of Joseph Henry (Volumes 1–12)
Reingold, Nathan, ed.; Pierson, Stuart, and Arthur P. Molella, asst. eds. with the assistance of James M. Hobbins and John R. Kerwood
The following includes a description of each volume:
• Volume 1, The Albany Years: December 1797-October 1832 (Washington, 1972: ISBN 0-87474-123-8) deals with the formative years of Henry’s career. It documents the influence of the Albany, New York, milieu on his scientific growth, and traces the origin and early development of the Albany Academy, where Henry studied and taught, and the Albany Institute, the forum for his early scientific work. A prominent theme of the volume is the proper application of science to technology. In 1831, Henry constructed an electromagnet for Benjamin Silliman of Yale to exhibit before his students. The magnet, which had a lifting power of 2,000 pounds, is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
• Volume 2, The Princeton Years: November 1832–December 1835 (Washington, 1975: ISBN 0-87474-164-5) concerns Henry’s adjustment to a small college town and his attempts to develop a first-rate facility for teaching and research in the physical sciences. It details his excursions to New York City and Philadelphia in search of scientific apparatus and scientific fellowship, and reveals the beginnings of his lifelong friendships with leading scientists in the latter city, where he became active in the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute.
The volume contains many selections from Henry’s “Record of Experiments” (the title of his laboratory notebooks), which together with his correspondence give insight into his pioneering work on electromagnetic self-induction and his construction of electromagnets and other equipment needed to pursue his researches. The entry containing this sketch (left) reads: “The current passed through a galvanic magnet no increased effect perceived in the spark–current passed in the opposite direction no increased effect.”
• Volume 3, The Princeton Years: January 1836–December 1837 (Washington, 1979: ISBN 0-87474-174-2) focuses on Henry’s travels to the principal scientific centers of Great Britain and France. During his stay, Henry attended lectures at technical societies, and toured lighthouses, harborworks, and railroad facilities. His diary entries contain appraisals of such European luminaries as J. L. Gay-Lussac, Mary Somerville, Charles Wheatstone, Charles Babbage, and Michael Faraday, and reveal his interest in the way European industry and commerce made use of scientific findings. He also comments on manners and morals, especially in London and Paris. His reactions to the European experience betray a tension between admiration for European advances and a competitive desire for Americans to catch up scientifically and technologically.
• Volume 4, The Princeton Years: January 1838–December 1840 (Washington, 1981: ISBN 0-87474-792-9) demonstrates Henry’s growing concern with the nation’s intellectual image abroad. After returning from Europe, he was increasingly sensitive to American shortcomings, particularly to the problem of scientific charlatanism. His opposition to the physician-inventor Henry Hall Sherwood, documented in the volume, epitomized this delicate issue. His fears of quackery, as well as of well-intentioned but misguided amateurism, colored his views of scientific organization and imparted a preference for hierarchical forms in which serious professionals like himself remained in control.
In his research, Henry progressed steadily in his understanding of electromagnetic induction, and his investigations provided the basis for portions of his series “Contributions to Electricity and Magnetism.” His laboratory notebooks of this period also reveal an interest in metallic capillarity, electroacoustics, and optics. The entry containing the sketch at left reads: “Put helix of long wire wrapped around a glass rod into long gas pipe, which was magnetized.”
• Volume 5, The Princeton Years: January 1841–December 1843 (Washington, 1985: ISBN 0-87474-793-7) provides a detailed picture of Henry’s daily life as a college professor and leader of the American scientific community: teaching, experimenting, presenting his results to his peers, and lecturing to the public. In addition to continuing his research on electromagnetism, he investigated such phenomena as thermoelectricity, capillarity, phosphorescence, and optical polarization. Applying his knowledge to practical problems, he advised Samuel F. B. Morse during the development of the Morse telegraph, and responded to inquiries about the best forms of lightning rods. The sketch to the left from an entry in “Record of Experiments” headed “Induction from a thunder cloud,” reads “I connected by soldering a copper wire (bell size) to the tin roof of our house and passed the lower extremity into the water of the well.”
The volume also details Henry’s role in the choice of Alexander Dallas Bache as head of the U.S. Coast Survey.
• Volume 6, The Princeton Years: January 1844–December 1846 (Washington, 1992: ISBN 1-56098-112-1) further develops the theme of Henry as a consultant on technological problems of his day. He provided expert advice on the acoustics of public buildings, the protection of buildings from lightning, the electromagnetic telegraph, and Colt’s submarine battery. He also chaired the Franklin Institute committee that investigated the causes of the explosion of Robert Stockton’s experimental gun, the “Peacemaker.”
The volume contains the final major installments of Henry’s personal scientific research, and includes a student’s perspective on Henry’s teaching through the diary of John R. Buhler. The volume also documents the campaign led by Alexander Dallas Bache to elect Henry as the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.
• Volume 7, The Smithsonian Years: January 1847–December 1849 (Washington, 1996: ISBN 1-56098-533-X) documents the beginning of the most influential period of Henry’s life, his thirty-one years as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. During these years, Henry strove to ensure that James Smithson’s bequest was used to support original scientific research and publication, rather than to create a national museum or library—notions then advocated by many prominent Americans. Henry’s diary entries and letters attest to his continuing effort to acquire support from the Smithsonian regents, Congress, scientists, and the American public for his program and his vision of a place for science in a democracy. The volume illuminates the challenges Henry faced in implementing his program without national precedents, adequate resources, or an experienced staff.
• Volume 8, The Smithsonian Years: January 1850–December 1853 (Washington, 1998: ISBN 1-56098-891-6) reveals a difficult period in Henry’s life. During these years, he suffered constant personal and financial woes, clashed with subordinates, and faced significant public criticism of his leadership. When Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois attacked the Smithsonian for its preoccupation with research of “no practical bearing,” such as studies of “sea weeds and such trash,” Henry mounted a vigorous and eloquent defense of basic research. To ensure the Smithsonian’s adherence to what Henry saw as its central mission, he remained at the institution despite the criticism and despite offers of prestigious positions at the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Virginia, and the College of New Jersey at Princeton.
The volume records several milestones in the Smithsonian’s history. The first was Henry’s hiring of assistant secretary Spencer Baird, who energetically expanded the institution’s collections of animal, plant, mineral, and fossil specimens. Also during this period, Henry established a system with institutions abroad for the exchange of publications in the biological and physical sciences, ethnology, archaeology, and paleontology. The international exchange program became a fundamental Smithsonian enterprise for more than a century. In addition, Henry began to campaign to place scientific research, publishing, and a meteorological observation network ahead of museum and library collections in terms of funding priorities.
In 1854 the Smithsonian faced a crisis that threatened to tear the eight-year-old institution apart when Secretary Joseph Henry and Assistant Secretary Charles C. Jewett publicly clashed over its future direction. Before their dispute was settled, battles had been fought at regents’ meetings, in newspapers and literary journals in New York, Boston, and Washington, and in the halls of Congress. As the controversy took on national dimensions, it became entangled in partisan politics and broader issues of the decade, particularly the ever-deepening sectional conflict and the problem of cultural elitism in a democracy. Volume 9 of The Papers of Joseph Henry documents this struggle to define the purpose of the Smithsonian Institution, one that would recur periodically throughout the institution’s history.
In this final volume of The Papers of Joseph Henry, Henry emerges as the unrivaled leader of American science and the nation’s foremost proponent of funding for basic scientific research.
Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution since its founding in 1846, Henry guides its recovery from the Civil War while reshaping it by reducing or eliminating programs that he felt detracted from the institution’s core mission of original scientific research. To free up funds for research and publication, he convinces Congress to let the institution transfer a portion of its library to the Library of Congress, its herbarium to the Department of Agriculture, and its art gallery to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Henry also mounts strong arguments for divesting the Smithsonian of custody of the National Museum, which represented not just a financial burden to the Smithsonian but also a threat to its independence. The decision to send collections from the centennial exhibition in Philadelphia to the Smithsonian, however, made it virtually impossible for Henry to press the case.
During this period, Henry also guides the fortunes of the fledgling National Academy of Sciences, becoming president of the academy in 1868 and sustaining it during a time of few resources and tepid support from the scientific community. During his ten years as president, he carves out a role for the academy as adviser to the government on scientific and technological matters. He tries to make it an influential voice in the development of a national science policy, while at the same time maintaining the academy’s independence and preventing it from relying on federal appropriations.
On a broader front, Henry takes a leading role among scientists in encouraging Gilded Age men of wealth to endow original research as well as education. He exerts influence on the leaders of such emerging institutions as the Peabody Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of California. To further his goal, he arranges to bring British scientist John Tyndall to America for a multicity lecture tour Henry conceived for the purpose of advocating “the importance of abstract science in its relation to the advance of civilization and the importance of making provision for original research.”
Nearing his mid-seventies, Henry agrees out of a sense of duty to chair the Light-House Board, an agency whose operating budget reached nearly $2 million in the 1870s. The first civilian chair of the board, he struggles to harmonize the competing interests of the naval officers and army engineers serving with him. Remaining at the same time chair of the board’s committee on experiments, he conducts experiments on lamp fuels and fog signals to reduce costs to government and to make navigation safer, in the process pioneering the field of atmospheric acoustics.
The volume concludes with Henry’s death in 1878, bringing to a close an eleven-volume documentary edition that traces Joseph Henry’s rise from humble origins in upstate New York to a position of such prominence in the nation’s capital that, as General William Tecumseh Sherman remarked, the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court “ceased their labors” to attend his funeral and “pay a just respect to his memory.”
A cumulative index, volume 12, was published in 2008. 320 pp.
Reviews and Acclaim for the Papers of Joseph Henry:
“ . . . As with all the previous volumes, the editorial work on these final two has been exemplary. The wealth of detailed information contained in the footnotes is truly phenomenal. Every reference, however obscure, has been checked and clarified. Reading the Henry Papers is the best way of finding out about American science in the nineteenth century . . . ” —Annals of Science
“ . . . As the Henry Papers project comes to an end, it is good to consider what has been accomplished. It has, of course, produced eleven volumes of exemplary scholarship, set a very high standard for all those who would undertake such work, and made a substantial body of research material, collected from archives and libraries around the world, available at the Smithsonian . . . The production of the edition spanned the divide between print-microform and the delivery of documentation on the internet. What these monumental volumes prove, however, is that print still matters, for they offer the welcome opportunity to sit and read (or browse) and to access documents by subject through the very thorough indexing (the separate cumulative index ‘volume 12’ will greatly facilitate such usage) . . . it is also imperative that historians interested in nineteenth century science and culture peruse the volumes, both for the documents and for the fine annotations that offer invaluable ancillary information and commentary on a vast array of topics.” —Isis, 99(3)
“It is now thirty-two years since the first volume of Henry’s papers was published. In the intervening years they have become a key resource for understanding the development of science not only in the United States but also elsewhere and particularly in Britain because of the close contacts Henry maintained there. The volumes have traced Henry’s active career in teaching and scientific research (especially in electricity) from his beginnings in Albany through to his time at Princeton. Then in 1846 Henry abandoned both teaching and research to become an administrator when he was appointed the first secretary of the newly established Smithsonian Institution. The early battles that Henry had to fight in order to shape the Smithsonian into the sort of institution he wanted and to determine the place it would occupy in American scientific and intellectual life were recounted in the previous two volumes. This ninth volume, which covers the middle four years of the 1850s, also charts another sustained period of struggle for Henry as he sought to maintain the Smithsonian in his chosen form- Towards the end of the period covered by this volume Henry became an advisor to the Dudley observatory in Albany, which was to result in considerable unhappiness. That, the editors promise, will be covered in the next and penultimate volume.” —BJHS, 2005 (March)
“The years covered by this volume coincide with Joseph Henry’s tenth anniversary as secretary of the Smithsonian (1846), and the selected documents demonstrate how completely the man and the institution were one during these formative years . . . The great battle, and Henry’s victory, came in this period as he vanquished the advocates of the Smithsonian as a library, in favor of what were called 'active operations' . . . The published volume is a research source in itself, but it is more. It is pleasurable reading, while demonstrating with special poignancy the importance of ongoing access to original documents—inevitably they touch upon the mundane as well as the transcendent and remind us that history really happened.” —Isis
“ . . . Volume nine continues the editors’ exemplary job of applying modern, intelligible standards of documentary editing to correspondence that brings a small but crucial slice of Washingtoniana to life.” —Washington History, 15(1)
“A superb primary source and reference to one man’s unique relationship to the Smithsonian Institution, quite literally in his own words, and featuring extensive annotation to place references into context for the modern-day reader. The Papers of Joseph Henry, Volume 9 continues to be an invaluable contribution to the history of science in general, and a testament to the work and contributions of the consummate 19th century American scientist Joseph Henry in particular.” —The Midwest Book Review