Joseph Henry Biography


Birthday: December 17, 1797 (Sagittarius)

Born In: Albany, New York, United States

Joseph Henry was an American scientist and developer best known for his works in the field of electromagnetism. Born and raised in a poor family, Joseph developed an interest in science in his late teen years. After his initial education, he enrolled at The Albany Academy in New York and got inspired to do work towards research in electromagnetics. While working in the field, he discovered the phenomenon of self-inductance. While Michael Faraday published his studies first, both he and Joseph are known as the pioneers of the electromagnetic field which practically shaped the modern world. While working as a professor at the College of New Jersey, he further indulged in inventions such as the telegraph and a motor that worked through the principles of electromagnetism. He was a highly revered scientist during his lifetime and was made the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Serving in his position, he helped several inventors to bring their ideas to fruition, such as Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone. Joseph also served as a close aid to President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 80


Spouse/Ex-: Hariet Henry

father: William Henry

mother: Ann Alexander Henry

children: Caroline, Helen Louisa, Mary Anna, William Alexander

Born Country: United States

American Men Male Scientists

Died on: May 13, 1878

place of death: Washington, D.C., United States

Notable Alumni: The Albany Academy

City: Albany, New York

U.S. State: New Yorkers

Founder/Co-Founder: National Institute for the Promotion of Science

discoveries/inventions: Electromechanical Relay

More Facts

education: The Albany Academy

Childhood & Early Life

Joseph Henry was born in Albany, New York, on December 17, 1797, into a financially poor family. His parents William Henry and Ann Alexander Henry were Scottish immigrants who had arrived in the United States just a few years prior to Joseph’s birth. His father worked as a laborer and earned very little. He died when Joseph was 8 years old and thus, the family was plunged into further poverty.

He was taken care of by his grandmother who lived in Galway, New York. There he continued his education. However, his family was so poor that he could not afford a good education in the beginning. He attended a local school in the neighborhood, which was later renamed Joseph Henry Elementary School in his honor.

In order to make the ends meet, Joseph began working early. Initially, he worked at a local general store and when he entered his teen years, he was working as an assistant to a watchmaker and silversmith.

Growing up in New York, he closely monitored the performing arts scene there which was always thriving. He visited a local theatre quite a lot and at one point in time, he made up his mind to make a career as a theatre actor. He also had an interest in science, which was further elevated when he got his hands on a book titled Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy. He was 16 years old then and he found the book to be extremely fascinating, thus plunging him into the world of science.

He enrolled at the Albany Academy, which was a preparatory independent college for boys. While the tuition fee was already quite low there, Joseph couldn’t afford it and studied at the college for a few years without paying a tuition fee. In order to make the ends meet, he also gave private tuition to youngsters. He wanted to become a doctor, but he ended up getting attracted to physics more.

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While studying at the academy, he began his scientific research. While he was just a student, he was liked by the teachers as he was one of the top students in his class. He worked at the university itself as a chemical assistant and a lecture preparer.

His teaching career officially kicked off in 1826 when a position opened up at the academy for the professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. John took the position and furthered his research on electromagnetism.

One of the main fields of his interest was terrestrial magnetism. It was the study of magnetic power produced by the earth’s core. This led him to further dig into magnetism in general.

Still at the Academy, he made his first major discovery in 1829, in which he replaced the iron core with a wire in the insulating process. Thus, he was able to wrap a bigger number of turns of the wire, thus producing a stronger magnet. Through this research, he was able to create a super-strong electromagnet, which supported more than 2000 pounds of weight. This particular electromagnet was made for Yale College and for its time, it was no less than a miracle.

One other field of his research was research on electromagnetic induction. It is known as a process of using electromagnetic power to produce electricity. To exhibit his discovery, he planned to build a large electromagnet. However, the resources at the Academy were not big enough to support his experiment, hence, he postponed the demonstration for some time.

However, around the same time, he also learned that a British scientist named Michael Faraday was conducting a similar experiment. Michael published his study first which made him known as the pioneer of proving the phenomenon of induction. However, not disheartened by this, Joseph carried on with his research on self-induction.

Another of his major contributions to the world of science was a telegraph machine, which he built in 1831. During his first experiment, he successfully ran the machine which operated over a distance of about 2.4 km.

In 1832, Joseph was appointed at the College of New Jersey as the first Chair of Natural History. The college is now known as Princeton University. Joseph ran a big laboratory on the campus and taught a wide variety of topics to his students, such as natural history, chemistry and architecture. At the university, he had a black assistant named Sam Henry, who became a close confidante of Joseph as he carried on with his scientific work.

He stated in an interview that at Princeton, he made several thousand inventions while he worked at the university. One of those inventions was the telegraph which he used for personal reasons as well. He would use the machine to relay messages between the university and his home located on the campus. However, Joseph never patented the device and never intended to earn from his invention hence, the official credit for developing the telegraph mechanism is generally attributed to Samuel Morse.

However, he was a curious mind and he did not stop experimenting and inventing using his immense knowledge in various fields of science. Some of his less popular inventions were in the sunspots, in the fields of acoustics and ballistics. In addition, he also discovered the principles on which the modern-day transformers are based.

One of the biggest achievements of his life was becoming the Secretary of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. It was an organization set up by the American government to facilitate research and invention in the country. He received seven out of twelve votes from the members. He was considered one of the greatest scientists in 19th century America, which must have helped the members make a decision about his employment.

It was a big position and hence, Joseph was regularly visited by top scientists and researchers from all over the country and the world. One big name among them was Alexander Graham Bell, known as the inventor of the first practical telephone in the world. He came to seek advice from Joseph on the same. Joseph advised him to perfect the invention before going for a patent. Thus, when Graham Bell successfully demonstrated his invention in 1876, Joseph played a crucial yet indirect role there.

He also served as President Abraham Lincoln’s chief technical advisor during the American Civil War.

He became a member of the United States Lighthouse Board in 1852. He stayed in the position until his death.

Personal Life & Death

Joseph Henry married Harriet Henry in 1830. She was his cousin. The couple went on to have four children.

Joseph passed away on May 13, 1878. He was 80 years old at the time of his demise.

Decades after his death, in 1915, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

See the events in life of Joseph Henry in Chronological Order

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