Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionAn Institution Emerges

Who Was James Smithson?
Sccepting Smithson's Gift
All-American Compromise
The Smithsonian Building
An Institution Emerges
A National Collection
Smithson's Legacy

The Henry Years

Advocate for American Science

"The Smithsonian Institution is . . . opening new fields of philosophical research, increasing the amount of knowledge not only in the United States, but in all civilized nations, and commanding a name and respect every where; thus reflecting honor upon our country."
National Intelligencer, November 5, 1852

Whereas some Americans accused Secretary Henry of squandering Smithson's bequest on the risky and elitist venture of scientific research, many others hailed him as a visionary.
Letter from William Bacon to Secretary Joseph Henry
Letter from William Bacon
to Secretary Joseph Henry


"[The Smithsonian] must, it will become a fountain from which ten thousand streams will flow out in all directions to refresh and gladden the hearts of all who will partake its bounty."
—Letter from William Bacon, a farmer,
to Secretary Joseph Henry, June 4, 1849

Transcript Letter from William Bacon to
Secretary Joseph Henry

June 4, 1849

"Under [Secretary Henry's] auspices, we have a sufficient guaranty that charlatanism and pretension, in all forms, will be held aloof, while science and sound learning, with the true spirit of investigation, will be fostered to the utmost."
—Benjamin Silliman, Sr., professor at Yale College,
American Journal of Science and Arts, 1847

Programme of Organization
"Programme of Organization"

Secretary Henry expressed keen awareness of special difficulties faced by his fellow American scientists in exchanging scientific dialogue and publications with scientists elsewhere. He maintained that James Smithson's mandate called for an organization to promote original scientific research and to foster international scientific communication.

Transcript Henry's "Programme of Organization",
Washington, 1847
Henry electromagnet
Henry electromagnet


As a scientist, Joseph Henry was recognized for his discovery of principles essential to the development of the long-distance telegraph, the electric motor, and the transformer.

Guardian of the Smithson Bequest

Secretary Henry personally negotiated with a number of commercial enterprises—international couriers in particular—to donate their services to the Smithsonian. He maintained close oversight to ensure that agreements were met and costs contained.

Letter from Secretary Joseph Henry to B. Blanco
Letter from Secretary Joseph
Henry to B. Blanco


In this instance, Secretary Henry conveyed to B. Blanco his displeasure in having a shipping firm charge $192.50. He indicated that accepting the charge would have constituted "an improper expenditure of money left for a benevolent purpose."

Transcript Letter from Secretary
Joseph Henry to B. Blanco

December 17, 1850
James Green Portable Barometer
James Green
Portable Barometer


Forerunner of the U.S. Weather Bureau

Determined that the Smithsonian should become a center for scientific activity, Secretary Henry in 1848 established a national volunteer meteorological network in cooperation with the federal government and the telegraph industry. Scientists working in the Smithsonian Building used incoming data to track storms and to construct a daily weather map.

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