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

Joseph Henry
First Smithsonian Secretary, 1846-1878

"A new impulse will thus be given to investigation in every department of science; and learned men will know that through you they will be able to make their discoveries available to their brethren throughout the civilized world."
óLetter from Francis Wayland to Secretary
Joseph Henry, December 19, 1848

Joseph Henry
Joseph Henry


Perhaps the country's best known physicist and a well-respected figure in European as well as American scientific circles, Joseph Henry (1797-1878) became the Smithsonian's first Secretary, or chief executive, in 1846. Henry's vision for the Smithsonian centered around his interpretation of Smithson's will as a call for a scientific research establishment.

Many Americans viewed the Regents' selection of Joseph Henry from the long list of candidates as a triumph of merit over political favoritism. Respected not only as one of the young country's few major scientists, Henry also had a reputation for personal integrity. Supported by fellow scientist and Smithsonian Regent Alexander Dallas Bache, Henry strove to develop the Smithsonian into the nation's first major research institute for science.

During Secretary Henry's tenure, the Smithsonian gained widespread acclaim not only as the country's foremost scientific research institute but also as a facilitator of international scientific dialogue. Congressionally-mandated programs for the public kept Americans informed about Smithsonian activities.

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