/ The DC Traveler
Washington DC — By Jon Rochetti on August 24, 2009 at 5:25 am

Monument Monday – Joseph Henry, The Smithsonian’s First Director and Master American Scientist

Imagine Washington, DC without the multitude of Smithsonian Museums. So much of American and global history, and science and nature and can be found in the one of the many Smithsonian Institution’s museums.

Joseph Henry Joseph Henry (1797–1878) was considered the greatest American scientist since Ben Franklin. He was appointed as the Smithsonian Institution’s first director or “Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” and ran the upstart Institution from 1846 until his death in 1878 at the age of 80.

Henry has had a long list of things named after him besides his scientific discoveries, including Cape Henry and Henry Island near the North Pole, a species of hummingbird, a small fish, and Utah’s Henry Mountains. Evan a pair of towering stalagmites in the Giant’s Hall of Luray Caverns is named after the man.

Henry’s work in electricity and on electromagnetics and electromagnetic relays was the foundation of Samuel Morse’s telegraph.  His deep understanding of magnetism helped him create the first electromagnetic motor, the Direct Current (DC) motor in 1831.

Henry also discovered the property of self inductance and to honor his discovery, the measurement unit of inductance uses the name, the Henry (H) unit.

He also pioneered room acoustics and sound research, noting the echo of sounds off walls and that when the sound source and listener is close to the wall, the listener can’t hear the echo. The effect is  the result of the Henry Distance, which is about 30 feet (10m).

Joseph Henry Smithsonian Institution Statute Washington DCDuring his later years, Henry, as Director of the Smithsonian was highly sought after by inventors and scientists, assisting even Thomas Edison in the development of his telephone.

Signed into law in 1846, Congress passed an act establishing the Smithsonian Institution after British scientist James Smithson died in 1935  left his estate (about $10 million in today’s value) to the US government to create an “establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

By 1855, The Castle, the original Smithsonian Institution Building was completed. The building included a large lecture room, several exhibit galleries, laboratory space, a reading room, and a research library, along with an apartment for the Secretary of the Smithsonian.

Henry wanted the Smithsonian to be a national center for scientific research, but understood the need for public support. In 1855 he stated in the Smithsonian Annual Report:

“It is no part of the plan of the Institution to form a museum merely to attract the attention and gratify the curiosity of the casual visitor… but it is the design to form complete collections in certain branches, which may serve to facilitate the study and increase the knowledge of natural history and geology.”

And the Smithsonian quickly evolved into the nation’s depository (and museum) for historical and scientific collections, especially after Spenser F. Baird, the second Secretary took over and embraced the public museum concept.

Joseph Henry satatute - Smithsonian Institution Statute Washington DC

Today, the Smithsonian is the repository for a 136 million item collection displayed at 18 museums in Washington, DC plus additional museums in Chantilly, Virginia (Udvar-Hazy Air & Space Museum) along with the National Design and National Museum of the American Indian’s Heye Museum, both in New York City. 

Only a small fraction of the items in the collection are on display at any one time.  The Institute employs over 6,000 people.

Today the Smithsonian Institution includes the following museums in Washington, DC:

Images - From personal collection - ©2009, Jon Rochetti 

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