Over twenty years before he became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian, Joseph Henry was a professor at the Albany Academy. And Herman Melville was one of his students. In fact, Melville, who frequently struggled in school, won a book award for finishing first in Henry’s class. This encounter could not have happened in a more fortunate moment: In 1831 Henry built the most powerful magnet ever constructed, designed the first prototype of a telegraph machine, and was part of a groundbreaking weather data project, which became the Smithsonian’s first major initiative. This essay questions a biographical tendency to minimize Melville’s remarkable education in mathematics and science, which received mention until 1952 when it was written out of Melville’s history. But it reaches beyond recovery and to the discovery of new material about Melville’s education in Joseph Henry’s papers. In this essay, I offer a descriptive account of Melville’s education, argue against a critical belief that “Melville had no more instruction in science” “than the average boy of his times,” and suggest that this new reading forces us to confront a Melville for our time: an author influenced by and interested in both mathematics and science.


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