James Clarke Welling.

Notes on the life and character of Joseph Henry online

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October 26, 1878.



:r 'ion & Co.










October 26, 1878.

Second ]Bc3.'toxi.











JOSEPH HEXRY was born in Albany, X. Y., on the 17th of
December, 1799. His grandparents on both his father's and
mother's side emigrated from Scotland, and landed in this country
on the 16th of June, 1775, the day before the battle of Bunker's
Hill. At the age of seven or earlier, for what reason is unknown,
he went to live with his maternal grand mother/ who resided at
Galway, in the county of Saratoga, X. V., and his father having
died soon afterward, he continued to dwell for years under her roof.
At Galway he attended the district school, of which one Israel
Phelps was the master, and having there learned" the rudiments
of an English education, he was placed at the early age of ten in
a store kept in the village by a Mr. Broderick. Receiving from
his employer every token of kindness, and, indeed, of paternal
interest in his welfare, the boy-clerk, already remarkable for his
handsome visage, his slender figure, his delicate complexion, and
his vivacious temper, became a great favorite with his comrades,
who, according to the customs of the village store, were wont to
saunter about the door in summer, and to gather round the stove
in winter, for the interchange of such trivial gossip as pertains to
village life. Though released at this time for the half of each day
from the duty of waiting in the store that he might attend the
sessions of the common school in the afternoon, it does not appear
that he had as yet evinced any taste for books, notwithstanding the

*Kead before the "Philosophical Society of Washington," October 26, 1878.
nlJ,-tin of the Phil. foe. W. vol. ii. p. 203.)




fact, as lie afterwards recalled, that his young brain was even then
troubled at times with the " malady of thought/' as he lost himself
in the mazes of revery or speculation about God and creation
"those obstinate questionings of sense and outward things/' which
the philosophical poet of England has described as the natural
misgivings of a "creature moving about in worlds not realized."
"Delight and liberty/ 7 as was natural to a bright boy in the full
flush of his animal spirits, still remained the simple creed of his
childhood, until one day his pet rabbit escaped from its warren
and ran into an opening in the foundation of the village church.
Finding the hole sufficiently large to admit of pushing his person
through it, he followed on all fours in eager pursuit of the fugitive,
when his eyes were attracted in a certain direction by a glimmer
of light, and groping his way toward it, beneath the church, he
discovered that it proceeded from a crevice which led into the vesti-
bule of the building, and which opened immediately behind a
book-case that had been placed in the vestibule, as the depository of
the village library. Working his way to the front of the book-case,
he found himself in the presence of all the literature stored on its
shelves, and on his taking down the first book which struck his eye,
it proved to be Brooke's Fool of Quality, a work of fiction in
which views of practical life and traits of mystical piety are artfully
blended, insomuch that even John Wesley was inclined to except
it from the auto-da-fe which, after the manner of the curate and
barber in the story of Don Quixote, he would have gladly per-
formed upon the less edifying products of the novel-writing imagi-
nation. Poring over the pages of this fascinating volume, young
Henry forgot the rabbit in quest of which he had crept beneath
the church. It was the first book he had ever read with zest,
because it was the first book he had ever read at the impulse of his
"own sweet will." Mrs. Browning has told us that we get no
good from a book by being ungenerous with it, by calculating
profits "'so much help by so much reading."

- "It is rather when
We gloriously forget ourselves, and plunge
Soul-forward, headlong, into a hook's profound,
Impassioned for its beauty and salt of truth'
"Pis then we get the right good from a book."


Such was the "soul-forward, headlong plunge" which the boyish
Henry now first took in the waters of romance, rendered only the
sweeter to him, it may be, because, without affront to innocence,
they took the flavor of "stolen waters" from the stealth with which
they were imbibed. From that time forth he made frequent visits
to this library, by the same tortuous and underground passage,
reading by preference only works of fiction, the contents of which
he retailed to listening comrades around the stove by night, until,
in the end, his patron, who shared in his taste for such "light
reading," procured for him the right of access to the library in the
regular way, and no longer by the narrow fissure in the rear of the

At the age of fifteen he left the store of Mr. Broderick in
Gal way, and, returning to the place of his birth, entered a watch-
maker's establishment in Albany, but finding nothing congenial to
his taste in the new pursuit, he soon abandoned it. At this time he
had formed a strong predilection for the stage. Two or three years
before, while living at Galway, he had seen a play for the first time,
on the occasion of a casual visit to Albany, and the impression it
made upon his mind was as vivid as that left by the perusal of his
first novel. He described and re-enacted its scenes for the wonder-
ment of the Galway youth, and now that he was living in Albany
he could give full vent to his new inclination. His spare money
was all spent in theatrical amusements, until at length he won his
way behind the scenes, and procured admission to the green room,
where he learned how to put a play on the boards and how to pro-
duce the illusion of stage effects. In the skill with which he learned
thus early to handle the apparatus of the stage we may discern,
perhaps, the first faint prelude of the skill to which he subsequently
attained in handling the levers and screws with which, according to
Goethe, the experimental philosopher seeks to extort from nature the
revelation of her mysteries.

Invited at this period of his life to join a private theatrical
association in Albany, known by the name of "The Rostrum," the
young enthusiast soon distinguished himself among his fellow-mem-
bers of riper years by the ingenuity of his dramatic combinations
and the felicity of his scenic effects, insomuch that he was made


President of the Society. Meanwhile, the watchmaker had left-
Albany, and young Henry, no longer having the fear of the
silversmith's file and crucible before his eyes, was left free to follow
the lead of his dramatic tastes and aspirations. He dramatized a
tale, and prepared a comedy; both of which were acted by the
association. Indeed, so much was he absorbed in this new vocation
that our amateur Roscius seemed, according to all outward appear-
ance, in a fair way of making a place for himself among the
" periwig-pated fellows who tear a passion to tatters" on the stage;
or, at the best, of taking rank with the great dramatic artists who,
standing in front of the garish foot-lights, "hold the mirror up
to nature 7 ' in a sense far different from that of the experimental
philosopher, standing in the clear beams of that lumen siccum which
Bacon has praised as the light that is best of all for the eyes of
the mind. But in the midst of these disguises, under which the
unique and original genius of Henry has thus far seemed to be
masquerading, we have now come to the time when his mind under-
went a great transfiguration, which revealed its native brightness,
and a transfiguration as sudden as it was great.

Minds richly endowed, if started at first in a wrong direction,
may sometimes have, it would seem, an intellectual conversion as
marked as that moral conversion which is often visible in the lives
of great saints. It certainly was so in the case of Henry. Over-
taken in the sixteenth year of his age by a slight accident, which
detained him for a season within doors, he chanced, in search of
mentat diversion, to cast his eyes upon a book which a Scotch gentle-
man, boarding with his mother, had left upon the table in his
chamber. It was Dr. Gregory's Lectures on Experimental Phi-
losophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry. It commences with an address
to the young reader, in which the author stimulates him to deeper
inquiry concerning the familiar objects around him. " You throw
a stone," he says, "or shoot an arrow upwards into the air; why
does it not go forward in the air, and in the direction you give it ?
What force is it that presses it down to the earth ? Why does
flame or smoke always mount upward ? 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 it is done by reflection of light. But


what is reflection of light?" etc., etc. These queries certainly are
very far from representing the prudens qucestio of Bacon in even
its most elementary form, but they opened to the mind of young
Henry an entirely " new world of thought and enjoyment." His
attention was enchained by this book as it had not been enchained by
the fiction of Brooke or by the phantasmagoria of the drama.*
The book did for him what the spirits did for Faust when they
opened his eyes to see the sign of the macrocosm, and summoned
him "to unveil the powers of nature lying all around him." Not
more effectual was the call which came to St. Augustine, when, as
he lay beneath the shadow of the fig-tree, weeping in the bitterness
of a contrite soul, he seemed to hear a voice that said to him : " Tolle,
lege; tolle, lege" and at the sound of which he turned away forever
from the Ten Predicaments of Aristotle, and all the books of the
rhetoricians, to follow what seemed to him the "lively oracles of
God." Xo sooner had Henry recovered from his sickness, than,
obedient to the new vision of life and duty which had dawned upon
him, he summoned his comrades of "the Rostrum" to meet him in
conference, formally resigned the office of President, and, in a vale-
dictory address, announced to his associates that, subordinating the
pleasures of literature to the acquisition of serious knowledge, he
had determined henceforth to consecrate his life to arduous and
solid studies.

There are doubtless those w r ho, in the retrospect of Professor
Henry's youth, as contrasted with the rich flower and fruitage of his
riper years, will please themselves with curious speculations on what
" might have been," if his rabbit had never slipped its inclosure, if
there had been no crack in the wall behind the book-case, or if
Gregory's Lectures had never fallen in his way at the critical

*He soon became so much interested in this book that its owner gave it to him,
and in token of the epoch it had marked in his life, Professor Henry ever after-
wards preserved it among the choicest memorials of his boyhood. In the fly-leaf
of the book the following memorandum is found, written in the year 1837: This
book, although by no means a profound work, has, under Providence, exerted a
remarkable influence on my life. It accidently fell into my hands when I was about
sixteen years old, and was the first book that 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 of knowledge. J. H.


juncture of his life, much as the great mind of Pascal pleased
itself with musing how the fate of Europe might have been changed
if the Providential grain of sand in Cromwell's tissue had not
sent him to a premature grave; or how the whole face of the earth
would have been changed if the nose of Cleopatra had been a
little shorter than it was, and so had marred the beauty of face which
made her, like another Helen, the teterrima causa belli for a whole
generation. Such fanciful speculations are well calculated to import
into the philosophy of human life, and into the philosophy of human
history, a theory of causation which is as superficial as it is false.
As honest Horatio says to Hamlet in the play, when the latter
proposes to trace the noble dust of Alexander the Great, in imagi-
nation, until perchance it may be found stopping a bung-hole, one
feels like saying in the presence of such fine-spun speculations,
"Twere to consider too curiously to consider so." The strong
intellectual forces which are organic in a great mind, as the strong
moral and political forces which are organic in society, do not depend
for their evolution, or for their grand cyclical movements, on the
casual vicissitudes which ripple the surface of human life and affairs.
To argue in this wise is to mistake occasion for cause, and by con-
founding what is transient and incidental with what is permanent
and pervasive, is to make the noblest life, with its destined ends and
ways, the mere creature of accident, and is to convert human history,
with its great secular developments, into the fortuitous rattle and
chance combinations of the kaleidoscope. We may be sure that
Henry was too great a man to have lived and died without making
his mark on the age in which his lot was cast, whatever should have
been the time, place, or circumstance which was to disclose the color
and complexion of his destiny. The strong, clear mind, like the
crystal, takes its shape and pressure from the play of the constituent
forces within it, and is not the sport of casual influences that come
from without.

Armed, however, with his new enthusiasm, the nascent philoso-
pher hastened to join a night school in Albany, but soon exhausted
the lore of its master. Encountering next a peripatetic teacher of
ish grammar, he became, under the pedagogue's drill, so versed
in the arts of orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, that


IK- started out himself on a grammatical tour through the provincial
districts of New York, and returning from this first field of his
triumphs as a teacher, he entered the Albany Academy (then in
charge of Dr. T. Rorneyn Beck) as a pupil in its more advanced
studies. Meanwhile, in order to u pay his way" in the academy,
he sought employment as a teacher in a neighboring district school,
this being, as he afterwards was wont to say, the only office he had
ever sought in his life; and in this office he succeeded so well that
his salary was raised from $8 for the first month to the munificent
sum of 15 for the second month of his service! From pupil in
the academy and teacher of the district school, he was soon pro-
moted to the rank of assistant in the academy, and henceforward
had ample means for the further prosecution of his studies. Leav-
ing the academy, he next accepted the post of private tutor in the
family of the patroon in Albany, Mr. S. Van Rensselaer; and,
devoting his leisure hours to the study of the higher mathematics,
in conjunction with chemistry, physiology, and anatomy, he at this
time purposed to enter the medical profession, and had made some
advances in this direction, when he was called, in the year 1826, to
embark in a surveying expedition, set on foot under the auspices of
the State government of New York, for the purpose of laying out
a road through the southern tier of counties in that State. Starting
with his men at West Point, and going through the woods to Lake
Erie, he acquitted himself so well in this expedition that his friends
endeavored to procure for him a permanent appointment as captain
of an engineering corps, which it was proposed to create for the
prosecution of other internal improvement schemes, but the bill
projected for this purpose having fallen through, Mr. Henry
again accepted, though with some reluctance, a vacant chair which
was oifered him in the Albany Academy.

In connection with the duties of this chair, he ftow commenced
a series of original experiments in natural philosophy - the first
connected series which had been prosecuted in this country. Dr.
Hare, indeed, had already invented the compound blowpipe, as
Franklin before him, by his brilliant but desultory labors, had
given an immense impulse to the science of electricity; yet none
the less is it true that regular and systematic investigations, designed


to push forward the boundaries of knowledge abreast with the
scientific workers of Europe, had hardly been attempted at that :
time in the United States.

The achievements of Henry in this direction soon began to win
for him an increase of reputation as well as an increase of knowl-
edge; but in the midst of the fervors which had come to quicken
his genius, he was visited by the fancy (or was it a fact?) that a
few of the friends who had hitherto supported him in his high
ambition were now beginning to look a little less warmly on his
aspirations. Suffering from this source the mental depression
which was natural to a sensitive spirit, no less remarkable for its
modesty than for its merit, he found solace in the friendly words
of good cheer and hopefulness addressed to him by Mr. William
Dunlap.* While one day making, with Mr. Henry, a trip down
the Hudson River on board the same steamboat, Mr. Dunlap
observed in the young teacher's face the marks of sadness, and, on
learning its cause, he laid his hand affectionately on Henry's
shoulder, and closed some reassuring advice with the prophetic
words, "Albany will one day be proud of her son." The presage
was destined to be abundantly confirmed. Soon afterward came
the call to Princeton College, and, because of the wider career it
opened to him, the call was as grateful to Henry as its acceptance
was gratifying to the friends of that institution. And shortly
before this promotion a new happiness had come to crown his life
in his marriage to the excellent lady who still survives him.

He entered upon the duties of his new post in the month of
November, 1832, and bringing with him a budding reputation,
which soon blossomed into the highest scientific fame, he became
the pride and ornament of the Princeton Faculty. The prestige
of his magnets attracted students from all parts of the country;
but the magnetism of the man was better far than any work of
his cunning hand or fertile brain. It was in Princeton, as he
was afterward wont to say, that he spent the happiest days of
his life, and they were also among the most fruitful in scientific

*This Mr. Dunlap had been the manager of the Park Theatre in New York,
and combined \vith his dramatic vocation the pursuits of literature and the
painter's art. He wrote the " History of Arts and Designs in the United States," a
work which was esteemed a standard one at the date of its first publication in ls.54.


li-n. very. Leaving the record of his particular achievements at
this epoch to be told by Mr. Taylor, who is so well qualified to
do them justice, I beg leave only to refer to this period in the
career of Professor Henry as that in which it was my good for-
tune to come, for the first time, under the personal influence of the
great philosophical scholar, who, after being my teacher in science
during the days of my college novitiate at Princeton, continued
during the whole of his subsequent life to honor me with a friend-
ship which was as much my support in every emergency that called
for counsel and guidance as it was at all times my joy and the
'rown of my rejoicing.

In the year 1847, when Professor Henry was in the forty-eighth
year of his age, he was unanimously elected by the Regents of the
Smithsonian Institution as its Secretary, or Director. At that time
the institution existed only in name, under the organic act passed by
Congress for its incorporation, in order to give effect to the bequest
of James Smithson, Esq., of London, who by his last will and
testament had given the whole of his property to the United States
to found at Washington, under the name of the "Smithsonian Insti-
tution/' an establishment for "the increase and diffusion of knowl-
edge among men." It does not need to be said that Professor
Henry did not seek this appointment. It came to him unsolicited,
but it came to him from the Board of Regents not only by the free
choice of its members, but also at the suggestion and with the
approval of European men of science, like Sir David Brewster,
Faraday, and Arago, as also of American scientific men, like Bache
and Silliman and Hare. I well remember to have heard the late
George M. Dallas (a member of the constituent Board of Regents
by virtue of his office as Vice-President of the United States)
make the remark on a public occasion, immediately after the elec-
tion of Professor Henry as Director of the Smithsonian Institution,
that the Board had not had the slightest hesitation in tendering
the appointment to him "as being peerless among the recognized
heads of American science.' 7

At the invitation of the Regents he drew up an outline plan of
the Institution, and the plan was adopted by them on the 1 3th of


December, 1847. The members of this Society, living, as they do,
beneath the shadow of the great Institution to which Smithson
worthily gave his name and his estate, but of which Henry was at
once the organizing brain and the directing hand from the date of
its inception down to the day of his death, do not need that I should
sketch for them the theory on which it was projected by its first
Secretary, or that I should rehearse in detail the long chronicle of
the useful and multiform services which in pursuit of that theory it
has rendered to the cause of science and of human progress. And,
moreover, in doing so I should here again imprudently trench on the
province assigned to my learned colleague. But I may be allowed
to portray the method and spirit which he brought to the duties of
this exacting post, at least so far as to say that he proved himself
as great in administration as he was great in original research ; as
skilful in directing the scientific labors of others as he was skilful
in the conduct of his own. Seizing, as with an intuitive eye, the
peculiar genius of an institution which was appointed to " increase
knowledge" and to "diffuse 19 it "among men," he touched the
springs of scientific inquiry at a thousand points in the wide domain
of modern thought, and made the results of that inquiry accessible
to all with a catholicity as broad as the civilized world. And the
publications of the Smithsonian Institution, valuable as they are,
and replete as they are with contributions to human knowledge,
represent the least part of his manifold labors in connection with the
Institution. His correspondence was immense, covering the whole
field of existing knowledge, and ranging, in the persons addressed,
from the genuine scientific scholar in all parts of the world to the
last putative discoverer of perpetual motion, or the last embryo
mathematician who supposed himself to have squared the circle.

In accepting a post where he was called by virtue of his office to
promote the labors of other men rather than his own, Professor
Henry distinctly saw that he was renouncing for himself the paths
of scientific glory on which he had entered so auspiciously at Albany
and Princeton. He once said to me, in one of the self-revealing
moods in which he sometimes unbosomed himself to his intimate
friends, that in accepting the office of Smithsonian Secretary he was
conscious that he had "sacrificed future fame to present reputation."


He was in the habit of recalling that Newton had made no dis-
coveries after he was appointed Warden of the Mint in 1695,* and
the remark is historically accurate, unless we should incline with

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Online LibraryJames Clarke WellingNotes on the life and character of Joseph Henry → online text (page 1 of 3)