Spectrum Logo
A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Smithsonian publishes biography by Moyer

Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 33 - June 18, 1998

Smithsonian Institution Press recently published Albert E. Moyer's new biography of Joseph Henry, prominent 19th-century American scientist and first director of the Smithsonian.
Issued to help commemorate the December 1997 bi-centennial of Henry's birth, Joseph Henry: The Rise of an American Scientist is an alternate selection of the Library of Science Book Club.
Moyer, professor and chair of the Department of History, also holds appointments as an adjunct member of the university's Center for Science and Technology Studies and as a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution. He wrote the new biography while working in the latter capacity with the Joseph Henry Papers Project at the Office of Smithsonian Institution Archives and while supported by three-year, simultaneous grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Science Foundation.
Reconstructing the crucial early phases of Henry's career--particularly his achievements in the study of electricity, magnetism, and telegraphy--Moyer traces how a boy of modest means in a nation of scant scientific resources attained international prominence in physics, or as the field was known, "natural philosophy." Moyer also presents a revisionist view of Henry's most enduring technical contribution--the discovery of electro-magnetic mutual induction--and explains how the parallel work of British researcher Michael Faraday depended on a powerful electro-magnet designed by Henry.
The book details Henry's progress from being an aspiring engineer leading a ragtag survey party in the back country of New York State to becoming a revered Princeton professor teaching a generation not only the concepts but also the moral and religious implications of natural philosophy. The book concludes with Henry's candidacy in 1846 for the secretaryship of the fledgling Smithsonian.
By describing the ways in which Henry influenced and was influenced by the young nation's scientific and cultural currents, this biography illuminates not only the character of nineteenth-century scientific investigation but also the place of science in American society.
Moyer has participated in a variety of bi-centennial remembrances. He presented papers in special Henry sessions at a joint meeting of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers in Washington, D.C., and at the annual meeting of the History of Science Society in San Diego. He also contributed an article titled "Reflections of a Biographer" as part of a Henry commemorative series issued by The Torch, the monthly newspaper for Smithsonian staff.
Moyer also traveled twice to Albany, the city of Henry's birth and formative years, for city-wide celebrations sponsored by the University at Albany, the Joseph Henry Elementary School (in nearby Galway), and the Albany Academy. These civic observances involved media coverage and interviews in Albany and Schenectady newspapers and on public television affiliate WMHT--an affiliate also producing a Henry documentary.
In a feature article on the "Forgotten Farther of Science" that appeared on the day of the bi-centennial, the Wall Street Journal also noted the new biography. In June, Moyer will travel to Beijing as a guest of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences to discuss the Henry biography at a Sino-American conference on humanistic factors in the development of modern science.