Joseph Henry’s Electrical Experiments

Around the year 1830, Albany Academy professor of mathematics and natural philosophy, Joseph Henry, began conducting experiments with electromagnetism using the objects shown here. His experiment included a mile of insulated copper wire wrapped around the second floor of the original Albany Academy building (located across from the New York State Capitol in Lafayette Park). Through this wire the circuit from the battery attached at one end caused the magnet at the other end to ring the bell. His was the first successful experiment with the electromagnetic telegraph anywhere in the world, and it had international implications since it laid the groundwork for the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the electric motor, and even television and computers.

Henry was born in Albany in 1797 to a poor Scottish immigrant family. Not able to afford the tuition, he was only able to attend Albany Academy through a full-scholarship. Henry excelled in all his subjects to the extent that the Academy eventually offered him a position in 1826. Throughout his scientific career, Henry believed that scientific discoveries were public property for the benefit of every citizen and, as such, he never patented any of his inventions. Both Samuel F. B. Morse and Alexander Graham Bell took what they had learned from Henry and applied the knowledge to commercial inventions that transformed the world.

On December 3, 1846, Henry accepted a position with the newly founded Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, as its first Secretary, a position bestowed on him because of his recognition as one of the era’s leading scientists.


Magnifying Glass
Joseph Henry’s Electrical Apparatus
Copper, various metal
Courtesy of the New York State Museum, XX.466.1
Magnifying Glass
Albany Academy
Drawn by D. S. Peirce
Engraved by J. E. Gavit & Co., Albany, New York
c. 1850
Engraving and etching on paper
Albany Institute of History & Art, gift of Ledyard Cogwell,  Jr., 1944.68.63.2