He was the son of Joseph Harrison and Mary Crawford. He married Sarah Poulterer, by whom he had at least five children: William Henry (b. 1837, married Mary Rebecca Orne); Annie (b. 1839, married Llewellyn Fite Barry); Alice ('Alicia') McNeill (b. 1845, married William Harrison Eisenbrey); Marie Olga (b. 1847, married Thaddeus Norris); Theodore Leland (b. 1849, married Sarah Brooks Stovell); Clara Elizabeth (b. 1855, married Frederick Clark Durant). The oldest two and the youngest were born in Philadelphia, PA, the others in St Petersburg, Russia.
Joseph was a self-taught engineer, who started his career as an apprentice to steam engine builders in 1825. Ten years later he became the foreman of Garrett, Eastwick and Co., manufacturers of locomotive engines, and in 1835 he became a partner. The firm was re-organized under the name Harrison, Winans and Eastwick. Harrison built the Gowan and Marx locomotive, which attracted attention from Russia.
In 1843 he went to Russia with his partners to take charge of the mechanical department, contracted to equip the railroad with locomotives and other rolling stock in 5 years, and established the Alexandroffsky Mechanical Works. The project made all the partners millionaires.
On his return to the USA in 1852, Harrison commissioned the architect Samuel Sloan to build a mansion in the expensive Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia. The house included a wing as a gallery for his art collection, which included famous works such as Gilbert Stuart's Vaughan Portrait of George Washington, and Benjamin West's depiction of William Penn's Treaty with the Indians. Harrison's wife disposed much of his collection after his death. Harrison was a professional connection of George Washington Whistler (AMW's husband).
Who Was Who in America, Chicago, 1963, p. 237; Nicholas B. Wainwright, 'Joseph Harrison, Jr., A Forgotten Art Collector,' Antiques, October 1972, vol. 102, pp. 660-668; Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 March 1874; http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.com/~harrisonrep/HarrList (accessed 2005).