The scientist Joseph Henry was born in Albany, New York, on December 17, 1797 to Ann Alexander Henry and William Henry, both of whom had emigrated from Scotland in 1775. His father died when Joseph Henry was still a boy. He worked in a general store and was apprenticed to a watchmaker. At the age of sixteen, he read Popular Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry which greatly encouraged his interest in science. He attended Albany Academy from 1819 to 1822, and in 1826 he was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy there. On May 3, 1830 he married Harriet Alexander.
It was during the years at Albany Academy that Joseph Henry began his important research with electromagnetism. In 1831 he published papers on electromagnetism and the electric motor in Silliman's Journal. He also demonstrated a prototype telegraph. He was the first to wind insulated wires around an iron core to create an electromagnet. During experiments with these magnets, he discovered self-inductance and found that it depends on the configuration of the circuit. He used this knowledge to create non-inductive electromagnets. Similar work was being done at the same time by Michael Faraday in England, but because Henry was slow to publish his findings, Faraday is better known.
Despite his lack of a college degree, in 1832 Joseph Henry was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at The College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton University) for 1000 USD per annum plus a house. He taught physics, chemistry, geology, mineralogy, astronomy, and architecture. Henry and his brother-in-law Stephen Alexander, an astronomer, worked together to observe sunspots while Henry also continued his own research on magnets. By means of long wires strung between his laboratory in Philosophical Hall and his home on campus, Henry developed a signal system using the first magnetic relay which he used to order lunch! S. F. B. Morse used a similar construction in his first telegraph in 1835. Later in his career, Henry studied phosphorescence, sound, capillary action, and ballistics.
After James Smithson's bequest which led to the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846, Joseph Henry was invited to become the first Secretary of the institution, a job he held until his death. In the first two years, he helped establish the Smithsonian meteorological observer network and first weather forecasting system, which later evolved into the U. S. Weather Service.
Aside from his duties to the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry was President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from 1849 to 1850. He served in many capacities, including Chairman, on the U. S. Lighthouse Board from 1852 to 1878. He was a charter member of the National Academy of Sciences and its second President (1868-1878). He also helped to found the Philosophical Society of Washington in 1871 and was its first President. When he died on May 13, 1878, in Washington, D.C., he was one of the best known American scientists of his time. The President of the United States, the Supreme Court justices, cabinet members, and many members of Congress attended his funeral.
After his death, Joseph Henry was remembered in many ways. A statue of him by William Wetmore Story was placed outside the Smithsonian Castle in 1883 (the dedication ceremony drew 5000 spectators and John Philip Sousa conducted the Marine Band in "The Transit of Venus March" which had been composed for the occasion). An endowed chair of physics had been created at Princeton in his honor in 1872, but all of the laboratories of Jadwin and Palmer Halls and the Elementary Particles Laboratory were designated the Joseph Henry Laboratories in 1970. His campus house, built to his own design in 1837, is still called Joseph Henry House and has been relocated three times to make room for other buildings. One of the sixteen bronze portraits in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress "representative of human development and civilization" depicts Joseph Henry. Other items named for Henry include the U.S. Coast Survey schooner Joseph Henry (1854), Henry Island (1860), the electric fish (Isichthys henryi) described by Theodore Gill in 1862, a hummingbird (Heliodoxa jacula henryi) named by George N. Lawrence in 1866 , the Henry Mountains in southeastern Utah named by John Wesley Powell in 1869, the Smithsonian's Henry Medal, the unit of inductive current (1893), and the S.S. Joseph Henry, a Liberty Ship built in 1943. The Joseph Henry Press is an imprint of the National Academy of Sciences.
Some books by or about Joseph Henry:
Famous American Men of Science by J. G. Crowther (Norton, 1937)
Joseph Henry: His Life and Work by Thomas Coulson (Princeton, 1950)
Matthew Fontaine Maury and Joseph Henry, Scientists of the Civil War by Patricia Jahns (Prentice Hall, 1961)
Joseph Henry's Lectures on Natural Philosophy: Teaching and Research in Physics 1832-1847 by Charles Weiner (1965)
Joseph Henry: Father of American Electronics by Patricia Jahns (Prentice Hall, 1969)
A Scientist in American Life: Lectures and Essays of Joseph Henry by Joseph Henry (Smithsonian Press, 1981)
Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist by Albert E. Moyer (Smithsonian Press, 1997)
http://www.si.edu/archives/ihd/jhp including "Joseph Henry: Who Was He?" by Marc Rothenberg