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Joseph Henry Letters

An inventory of his letters at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: KM
Date: Apr 1989

Biographical History

Joseph Henry (1797-1878) was an American physicist and mathematician famous for his work with electricity and magnetism. He was also the first director of the Smithsonian Institution.

Joseph Henry was born December 17, 1797 in Albany, New York to William and Ann (Alexander) Henry. He attended the Albany Academy between 1818 and 1822. This was the start of a successful career in physics and mathematics. Four years after leaving the Albany Academy, Henry returned as an instructor. In 1832 he was hired as a physics instructor at the College of New Jersey (presently Princeton University). This was followed by his appointment to director of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.

Henry is known for his work with electricity and magnetism. His research was an important forerunner to the invention of the telegraph. As a result of his work on electromagnetic induction, the unit of inductance, the "henry," was named after him.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Joseph Henry Letters are a collection of five outgoing items written between 1863 and 1877 by an American physicist and the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. The two earliest letters in the collection are responses to requests for the Institution's publications, one of which is to James A. Dix, editor of the Boston Journal, in which Henry thanks him for his support of the Smithsonian's policies. There are also three letters to botanist Charles E. Bessey in which Henry describes the climate of the Rocky Mountain region, makes arrangements to relay a package to Bessey at the Iowa Agricultural College, and states the policy of the Smithsonian Institution with regard to the exchange of scientific information (24 Aug 1876):

...the Smithsonian System of Exchange was established principally for the transmission of publications of a scientific character and not for specimens of natural history. However, we sometimes allow the sending of the latter in limited quantity and if your parcel does not exceed one cubic foot in bulk we will take charge of it and send it to its destination; it must, of course, be placed in our hands free of expense to us for transportation to Washington.

Arrangement of the Collection

The collection contains one series, Correspondence, which is arranged alphabetically.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Bessey, Charles E. (Charles Edwin), 1845-1915.
Dix, James A..
Henry, Joseph, 1797-1878.
Townsend, Washington, 1813-1895.

Corporate Bodies

Smithsonian Institution.


Physicists, United States.
Scientists, Correspondence.

Genres and Forms

Letters (correspondence)



Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Joseph Henry Letters
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

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