Joseph Henry was not initially impressed with Abraham Lincoln upon making his obligatory visit to the new president soon after Lincoln had settled into “that big white house.” Henry’s conversation with Lincoln was uncomfortable and brief. Was Lincoln the uneducated, uncultured boor rumors made him out to be, one who could never understand the high intellectual ambitions of the Smithsonian Institution? Was the open dislike of Henry’s family for the man who General McClellan would later call an uncouth “gorilla,” justified?
As the war rolled on Henry became the first, albeit informal, presidential science adviser. Despite his first impression, Henry discovered that Lincoln showed “a comprehensive grasp of every subject on which he has conversed.” He was impressed with the many books that Lincoln had read, and even more impressed that he “remembers their contents better than I do.” What’s more, Henry could see that Lincoln was self-deprecating about his level of knowledge. One time, Henry recalled, “I desired to induce him to understand, and look favorably upon, a change which I wish to make in the policy of the Light-House Board in a matter requiring some scientific knowledge. He professed his ignorance, or rather, he ridiculed his knowledge of it, and yet he discussed it as intelligently” as any knowledgeable scientist.
[Adapted from my forthcoming book]
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.