Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday (1791–1867) was born into a poor family near London. He received little formal education and, aged 14, was apprenticed to a local book binder and book seller. He was a very driven young man and spent his spare time trying to educate himself by reading many of the books in the book shop where he worked and attending scientific lectures. As he approached the end of his apprenticeship, aged 21, he attended a series of four lectures given by the charismatic lecturer Humphrey Davy at the recently formed Royal Institution (RI). Faraday was so impressed that he carefully wrote up the lectures and bound his notes into a 300 page volume which he eventually sent to Davy with a note begging for even the most menial job at the RI – there were no openings.

Then, in February 1813, William Payne, the alcohol loving laboratory assistant at the RI, was dismissed after assaulting an instrument maker. Davy offered Faraday the job and he became Davy’s bottle washer. The wage was a guinea a week – less than he had been earning as a book binder. The list of his duties specified that he was expected to, “attend and assist the lecturers and professors in preparing for and during lecturers. Where any instrument or apparatus may be required, at attend to their carefully removal from the model room and laboratory to the lecture-room, and to clean and replace them after being used, reporting to the managers such accidents as shall require repair, a constant diary being kept by him for that purpose.”

Michael Faraday in his late thirties
Michael Faraday in his late thirties. Painted by H.W. Pickersgill (1782-1875), Engraved by John Cochran (1821-1865)

It shows how much Faraday impressed Davy that within six months Davy asked Faraday to accompany him and his wife on a scientific tour of Europe – a trip was to double as the couple’s honeymoon! His official role was that of scientific assistant; however, it says something for Faraday’s status that when Davy’s valet refused to come along at the last minute Faraday was forced to step in to his place. So, while Davy might have respected Faraday as a scientific assistant he was treated, at least by Davy’s wife, exactly like a servant during the entire trip.

Faraday had never ventured more than 20km from home before and now he was traveling all across Europe meeting some of the most important scientists in the world. It was a formative experience and, on returning to London in 1815, he was promoted to superintendent of the apparatus and assistant in the laboratory and Mineralogical Collection with a big pay increase to boot. From this position he slowly build a reputation as a reliable chemist. It has also been suggested that at this time he did most of the work on developing a miners’ safety lamp – the lamp that famously bears Davy’s name!

Michael Faraday (1868)
Michael Faraday (1868) by Thomas Phillips oil on canvas

Everything changed for Faraday in 1821 when he was asked to  write an account of Danish scientists Han Christian Oersted’s work on the magnetic effect associated with an electric current. In typical Faraday style he not only wrote a detailed account of the work but also repeated all of the experiments, extending them and making his first big discoveries in electromagnetism. The paper he published got him elected to Fellow of the Royal Society. It was an election that Davy, who had become a bit of a snob in his old age, opposed as Faraday was not a gentleman.

Faraday’s career went from strength to strength. He made great discoveries in chemistry and physics, advised government and private enterprise, and became a celebrated lecturer starting the now famous Christmas lecturers.

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Ernest Rutherford said of Faraday, “When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and of industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time.”

Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution
Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution (ca. 1856).

Further reading

A lot of this information was taken from John Gribbin’s ‘Science: A History’ I also used the inevitable Wikipedia entry on Faraday for images and the Rutherford quote. The quote from Faraday’s list of duties was quoted in Morus 1998 (p.17)

Images:

Morus, I. R. 1998, Frankenstein’s children: Electricity, Exhibition and Experiment in early Nineteen-century London. Princeton University Press.

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