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The American Experience

People & Events

Joseph Henry Lays the Groundwork for the Telephone

John Henry Though Joseph Henry earned his fame as the first director of the Smithsonian Institute, he was in many ways the telephone's first and best advocate. Alexander Graham Bell himself said as much when he declared, on the great scientist's death, "But for Henry, I never would have gone ahead with the telephone."

Born in 1797 in Albany, New York, Henry seemed destined for a life on the stage at first. He started his own theatrical company, for which wrote, directed, acted, and created stage effects -- all before he had turned 16. Then one day, while he was bedridden with an illness, a book by George Gregory converted him to science. He enrolled in the Albany Academy, and did so well that soon he was teaching mathematics there.

In 1828 Henry began investigating electromagnetism, which led him in 1831 to the invention of the electrical generator -- only a few weeks before Michael Faraday announced the same achievement in London. Henry failed to publish his findings immediately, however, and so the honors went to Faraday. In 1836 Henry made much the same mistake when he neglected to announce that he had caused a bell to ring from a distance without the use of wires -- the first evidence of radio waves.

Henry's career as an inventor did not get better with time. Twice he assisted Samuel F.B. Morse in the construction of his telegraph. Morse repaid the favor by claiming that Henry had not helped him at all.

Fate came to the rescue in 1846, when Henry was offered a position as director of the newly formed Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Worn out by the competitive stresses of applied science, he gladly accepted. Just before assuming his new post, however, he heard about a mechanical talking machine on exhibit in Philadelphia and decided to pay a visit to its inventor, Joseph Faber.

A native German with failing eyesight and a dour demeanor, Faber dutifully demonstrated his Euphonia to Henry. It was staggering -- a machine that created a hoarse whispered speech in any language with the use of a bellows, a keyboard, a series of levers and springs, and an artificial head complete with moving jaw and tongue.

In a letter to a friend, Henry described the Euphonia favorably (the machine spoke English better than the inventor did!) and put forward a few provisional ideas about its use. Perhaps, he thought, a larger version could be installed on the roof of a firehouse, where it could bellow out the location of fires. Even better, why not attach telegraph wires between two identical machines and, by converting the action from one machine into an electrical signal, cause the second machine to speak? Though he didn't use the term himself, Henry was in effect describing an extremely complicated telephone.

At the Smithsonian, Henry became engrossed in pure science, and as the years went by, he presided over its organization with an increasingly conservative hand. Thus, in 1875, when Faber's son-in-law came to Henry asking for a loan to promote the Euphonia, the scientist briskly turned him away. The device, once the object of Henry's fascination, ended up instead on display in a small theater in Paris, where it was largely forgotten.

What would have happened, one wonders, if Henry had looked upon the Euphonia with his original fondness? Would a generation of Americans have struggled to tap out messages on this intricate machine, dreaming in vain of a simpler way? As it is, we will never know, because Alexander Graham Bell visited Henry in that same year, and history followed a different course.

The aging scientist listened sagely as Bell talked nervously. Of course, Henry -- as a pioneer in telegraphy, electricity, and talking machines -- knew something about the subject. Rather than making strident claims like most of the people who came knocking on his door, Bell actually expressed doubts about his project. Henry was willing to hear more.

When Bell described what he achieved so far, Henry's icy composure fell away, and he promised to publish the findings. Bell shyly confessed that he had little knowledge of electricity. To which Henry replied, "Get it!"

Henry's involvement did not stop at that first meeting. When Bell and Thomas A. Watson exhibited their telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, Henry saw to it that the invention received the Certificate of Merit. Even at the edge of death in 1878, he remained a fan: he had a telephone installed by his bed, where among the last sounds he heard were the voices of friends coming through the receiver.

As for the Euphonia, Faber's son-in-law completed the circle several years later by approaching *Bell* for a loan. The inventor of the telephone, perhaps remembering Henry's generosity at a critical moment, gave the man $500 and sent him on his way.

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written by David Lindsay, author of "Madness in the Making: The Triumphant Rise and Untimely Fall of America's Show Inventors"