Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/November 1880/Henry and Faraday


By Professor ALFRED M. MAYER.

MOST reluctantly do I here desist from citing further the works of Henry. It is impossible to crowd into one brief hour the thoughts which were his occupation during more than half a century. I have at least endeavored to exhibit before you the more important of the labors of his life. What shall we think of them? Surely they are on as high a plane as those of any of his contemporaries, and show as much originality as theirs in their conception—as much skill in their execution. Yet it has been said that Henry was not a man of genius. As I have not been able to find that the philosophers, who have the special charge of giving from time to time definitions of genius, have been able to come to any satisfactory conclusion among themselves, I will leave their company, and, with your liberty, take my definition from a book which, if we accredit Thackeray, is one of the very best, if not the best, novel ever writ in English. After listening to this I will allow you to form your own opinions as to whether Henry did or did not possess genius: "By genius I would understand that power, or rather those powers of the mind which are capable of penetrating into all things within our reach and knowledge, and of distinguishing their essential differences. These are no other than invention and judgment; and they are both called by the collective name of genius, as they are of those gifts of nature which we bring with us into the world. Concerning each of which, many seem to have fallen into very great errors; for by invention, I believe, is generally understood a creative faculty, which would indeed prove most romance writers to have the highest pretensions to it; whereas by invention is meant no more (and so the word signifies) than discovery or finding out; or, to explain it at large, a quick and sagacious penetration into the true essence of all the objects of our contemplation. This, I think, can rarely exist without the concomitancy of judgment, for how we can be said to have discovered the true essence of two things, without discerning their difference, seems to me hard to conceive. Now, this last is the undisputed province of judgment; and yet some few men of wit have agreed with all the dull fellows in the world in representing these two to have been seldom or never the property of one and the same person."

My own judgment, if of any value, would rank the ability of Henry—I do not say his achievements—a little below that of Faraday. Indeed, their lives and their manners of working were strangely alike. Each started in life with moral and benevolent habits, well developed and healthy bodies, quick and accurate perceptions, calm judgment and self-reliance, tempered with modesty and good manners—a good ground, surely, in which to plant the germs of the scientific life. Faraday was an apprentice to a bookbinder. Henry served in the same capacity under a silversmith. Each, endowed with a lively imagination, was in his younger days fond of romance and the drama; and, by a singular similarity of accidents, each had had his attention turned to science by a book which chance threw in his way. This work, in the case of Faraday, was Mrs. Marcet's "Conversations on Chemistry," and the book which influenced Henry's career was Gregory's "Lectures on Experimental Philosophy, Astronomy, and Chemistry." Of Mrs. Marcet's book Faraday thus writes:

My dear Friend: Your subject interested me deeply every way; for Mrs. Marcet was a good friend to me, as she must have been to many of the human race. I entered the shop of a bookseller and bookbinder at the age of thirteen, in the year 1804, remaining there eight years, and during the chief part of the time bound books. Now, it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy. There were two that especially helped me, the "Encyclopædia Britannica," from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs. Marcet's "Conversations on Chemistry," which gave me my foundation in that science.

Do not suppose that I was a very deep thinker, or was marked as a precocious person. I was a lively, imaginative person, and could believe in the "Arabian Nights" as easily as in the "Encyclopædia." But facts were important to me and saved me. I could trust a fact, and always cross-examined an assertion. So, when I questioned Mrs. Marcet's book, by such little experiments as I could find means to perform, and found it true to the facts as I could understand them, I felt that I had got hold of an anchor in chemical knowledge, and clung fast to it. Thence my deep veneration for Mrs. Marcet—first as one who had conferred great personal good and pleasure on me; and then as one able to convey the truth and principle of those boundless fields of knowledge which concern natural things to the young, untaught, and inquiring mind.

You may imagine my delight when I came to know Mrs. Marcet personally; how often I cast my thoughts backward, delighting to connect the past and present; how often, when sending a paper to her as a thank-offering, I thought of my first instructress, and such thoughts will remain with me.

Henry wrote on the inside of the cover of Gregory's work the following words:

This book, although by no means a profound work, has, under Providence, exerted a remarkable influence on my life. It accidentally fell into my hands when I was about sixteen years old, and was the first book I ever read with attention. It opened to me a new world of thought and enjoyment; invested things before almost unnoticed with the highest interest; fixed my mind on the study of nature, and caused me to resolve at the time of reading it that I would immediately commence to devote my life to the acquisition of knowledge. J. H.

Each of these philosophers worked with simple instruments mostly constructed by his own hands, and by methods so direct that he appeared to have an almost intuitive perception into the workings of nature; and each gave great care to the composition of his writings, sending his discoveries into the world clothed in simple and elegant English.

Finally, each loved science more than money, and his Creator more than either.

There was sympathy between these men, and Henry loved to dwell on the hours that he and Bache had spent in Faraday's society. I shall never forget Henry's account of his visit to King's College, London, where Faraday, Wheatstone, Daniell and he had met to try and evolve the electric spark from the thermopile. Each in turn attempted it and failed. Then came Henry's turn. He succeeded; calling in the aid of his discovery of the effect of a long inter-polar wire wrapped around a piece of soft iron. Faraday became as wild as a boy, and, jumping up, shouted, "Hurrah for the Yankee experiment!"

And Faraday and Wheatstone reciprocated the high estimation in which Henry held them. During a visit to England, not long before Wheatstone's death, he told me that Faraday and he had, after Henry's classical investigation of the induced currents of different orders, written a joint letter to the council of the Royal Society, urging that the Copley medal, "that laurel-wreath of science," should be bestowed on Henry: On further consultation with members of the council, it was decided to defer the honor till it would come with greater éclat, when Henry had continued further his researches in electricity. Henry's removal to Washington interrupted these investigations. Wheatstone promised to give me this letter, to convey to Henry as an evidence of the high appreciation which Faraday and he had for his genius; but Wheatstone's untimely death prevented this. Both Faraday and Henry gave much thought to the philosophy of education, and in the main their ideas agreed. I may, in this connection, be excused for reading abstracts from a letter from Henry soon after he had received the news that I had given my son his name. In this letter he gives this information, which may be news to the most of you:

I did not object to Henry as a first name; although I have been sorry that my grandfather, in coming from Scotland to this country, substituted it for Hendrie, a much less common, and, therefore, distinctive name.

He then proceeds:

I hope that both his body and his mind will be so developed by proper training and instruction that he may become an efficient, wise, and good man. I say efficient and wise, because these two characteristics are not always united in the same person. Indeed, most of the inefficiency of the world is due to their separation: wisdom may know what ought to be done, but it requires the aid of efficiency to accomplish the desired object. I hope that in the education of your son due attention may not only be given to the proper development of both these faculties, but also that they will be cultivated in the order of nature: that is, doing before thinking; art before science. By inverting this order much injury is frequently done to a child, especially in the case of the only son of a widowed mother, in which a precocious boy becomes an insignificant man. On examination in such a case, it will be generally found that the boy has never been drilled into expertness in the art of language, of arithmetic, or of spelling, of attention, perseverance, and order, or, in other words, of the habits of an active and efficient life.

Henry was a man of extensive reading, and often surprised his friends by the extent and accuracy of his information, and by the original manner in which he brought his knowledge before them. Not only was he well versed in those subjects in which one might naturally suppose him proficient, but in departments of knowledge entirely distinct from that in which he gained his reputation as an original thinker. Although without a musical ear, he had a nice feeling for the movement of a poem, and was fond of drawing from his retentive memory poetic quotations apt to the occasion. He was a diligent student of mental philosophy, and also took a lively interest in the progress of biological science, especially in following the recent generalizations of Darwin, while the astonishing development of modern research in tracking the history of prehistoric man had for him a peculiar fascination. Yet, with all his learning, reputation, and influence, Henry was as modest as he was pure.

One day, on opening Henry's copy of Young's "Lectures on Natural Philosophy—"a book which he had studied more than any other work of science—I read on the fly-leaf, written by his own hand, these words:

"In Nature's infinite book of secrecy
A little I can read."—Shakespeare.

And did he not read a little "in Nature's infinite book of secrecy"? and did he not read that little carefully and well? May we all read our little in that book as modestly and as reverently as did Joseph Henry!

  1. Extract from "Henry as a Discoverer," a paper read by Professor Mayer at the recent Boston meeting of the American Scientific Association.