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One of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, the English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday was born on September 22, 1791, at Newington, a country village in Surrey, England. Michael was born into a family with four children; his father James Faraday was a blacksmith who suffered from poor health. James Faraday was originally from the north of England, but moved to Surrey (now South London) in 1791 to find work. His mother’s name was Margaret, and she served as a servant before she married and had children.
The family was poor and didn’t always have enough food or clothing because his father was unable to find steady work due to poor health. The Faraday family was part of the Sandemanians, a Christian sect and offshoot of the Church of Scotland. Faraday’s faith greatly influenced him and sustained him throughout his life. Because his family was poor Michael received little formal education; in what schooling he did receive, he only learned the basic skills of reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Apprenticeship and Early Scientific Explorations
As a young lad of 13 he was able get a job with a local bookstore as a delivery boy. The owner of the shop, George Ribeau, recognized the potential in Michael and took him on as an apprentice bookbinder—a seven-year contract at the time. Ribeau was a Frenchman with progressive views who took an interest in the young men that worked for him. Faraday spent his free time reading books on different subjects, including the Encyclopedia Britannica. In later years, Faraday wrote of that time in his youth, “I was a very lively, imaginative person. I could believe in the Arabian Nights as easily as in the Encyclopedia. But facts were important to me and saved me. I could trust a fact but always cross-examined an assertion.” Michael was especially interested in science topics and took interest in the books brought in for rebinding. From his readings, he tried to construct an electrostatic generator with pieces of lumber and old bottles. He built a crude battery, known as a voltaic pile, and with equipment he constructed himself Faraday performed simple experiments.
Thanks to tickets given to him by a customer, Faraday attended lectures by Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London in 1812. Faraday was thoroughly absorbed in the lectures and took extensive notes and started aspiring for a career in chemistry. After the lectures, he wrote Davy and asked to be accepted as an assistant. His letter of application came with a 300-page book of notes that he took during Sir Humphry’s lectures. The request was turned down by the prominent chemist—one of the greatest practitioners at that time. A year later, on March 1, 1813, Faraday was able to gain employment at the Royal Institution as a chemical assistant based on a recommendation from Davy. There he helped senior scientists in performing their experiments by preparing the tools and materials they needed as well as assisting with lectures. Faraday enjoyed the benefits of a steady job with good pay and was allowed to live in a room in the attic of the Royal Institution.
After realizing the potential of young Faraday, Davy took him in as his secretary. In 1815, after traveling to Belgium, France, Italy, and Switzerland with Humphry Davy and his wife, he returned to his post at the Royal Institution at a higher salary. The European trip was an exciting time for Faraday. For 18 months, he visited new countries and met renowned scientists. In Milan, Italy, he had an audience with Alessandro Volta, and with André-Marie Ampère in Paris, France. Nevertheless, since he was from a lower-class family, the Davys treated him as a personal servant, which did not sit well with Faraday. His value as an assistant was not overlooked though, as Davy acknowledged Faraday’s involvement in his experiments in his published papers.
Working at the Royal Institution
During the time Faraday spent with Sir Humphry Davy as a chemical assistant, he expanded his knowledge and skills and learned as much as he could. He absorbed knowledge like a sponge and attained mastery of laboratory techniques, methods of chemical analysis, and scientific theory.
When he was 24 years old, Michael Faraday gave his very first lecture to the City Philosophical Society on the properties of matter. In the same year, he presented an analysis of calcium hydroxide, which was published in the Quarterly Journal of Science.
The 1820s were an important period in Michael Faraday’s career, when he embarked on studies about electricity and magnetism. He published his paper on electromagnetic rotation where he expounded on the principles of building an electrical motor. Faraday was promoted to the position of Superintendent of House and Laboratory in 1821. Three years later, in 1824, he was finally given public recognition for his scientific prowess by his acceptance into the Royal Society. He was 32 years old at the time. One year later, he was appointed the Director of the Laboratory of the Royal Institution.
In 1826, Faraday initiated the Friday Evening Discourses and Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution; both are traditions that continue to this day. Michael Faraday established himself as the top scientific lecturer of his time. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he was able to instill in those who heard his lectures a love of science. Faraday eventually became a Professor of Chemistry, a position awarded to him in 1833. The Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, an honor granted to him when he was 41 years old, was the post he held until his death. In 1848, he declined the offer of the Royal Society to serve as its President. The offer was repeated, but Faraday declined just the same
Faraday was a deeply religious man and a member of the Sect of Sandemanians formed in Scotland by John Glas and now almost extinct. Faraday married Sarah Barnard, another faithful from the Sandemanian church, in June 1821. After getting married, Faraday served two terms as deacon in the church. Faraday and his wife lived at the Royal Institution during his tenure there.
Scientific Achievements in Chemistry
Faraday’s earliest works delved into chemistry, where made the discovery of benzene (bicarburet of hydrogen) and other organic compounds. He prepared a manual on practical chemistry. He was also successful in liquefying chlorine, a type of gas initially believed to be impossible to liquefy. The liquefaction of gases supported the concept of molecular aggregation.
Faraday devised equipment that served as the ancestor of the Bunsen burner, which is extensively used today in laboratory work. He also discovered the nature of the relationship between chemical bonding and electricity. He was the first person to achieve synthesis of compounds made from chlorine and carbon in the laboratory. Faraday is credited with the first report of metallic nanoparticles, which according to some heralded the birth of nanoscience.
Significant Discoveries in Electricity and Magnetism
The first experiment Faraday conducted and recorded in detail involved the construction of a voltaic pile. He used disks of sheet zinc, seven halfpence, and paper dipped in salt water. Although his work in chemistry deserves recognition, his pioneering work in the field of electricity is unsurpassed by any scientist then or since.
In 1832, during experimentation with wires and magnets, he discovered that when a magnet was moved in and out of a coil, electrical current was induced in the coil of wire. From his observations, he deduced the laws governing the production of electric currents by powerful magnets. From his deductions he conceptualized the production of a continuous current, which led to the invention of the dynamo, a device capable of converting electric current into motion. This work would lead to the development of the electric motor, which is now part of modern life all over the world.
In 1832, Faraday attempted to find an answer to one of the most pressing questions of the day, the nature of the “electric fluid” that was produced by the voltaic battery, static electricity generator, and similarly, living things that generate electricity such as electric eels. Faraday conducted experiments to support his assumption that they were not fluids at all, and that said phenomena were manifestations of the same force. By performing experiments on electrochemical decomposition and reconciling the properties of static electricity along with electromagnetic and voltaic electricity, Faraday was able to devise a new theory of electrochemistry.
Faraday formulated two laws of electrochemistry:
- The first law of electrolysis: The amount of a substance deposited on each electrode of an electrolytic cell (in the form of ions) due to flow of current is directly proportional to the quantity of electricity (measured in coulombs) passed through it.
- The second law of electrolysis: The mass of the substances deposited when the same quantity of electricity is passed through several electrolytes are in the ratio of their chemical equivalent.
Michael Faraday Video Biography
Faraday pushed himself for years during the 1830s and by 1839 he was exhausted and suffered a nervous breakdown. For the next six years he did little creative science and it wasn’t until 1845 that he was able to continue his research. In 1855, his health began to decline, and he started to exhibit signs of senility. He continued to perform experiments, attempting to show the connection between electricity and gravity. Unable to prove the link between the two physical phenomena, the Royal Society refused to publish his negative finding. He eventually ceased conducting research and experimentation. In his later years, he was offered a knighthood by Queen Victoria, but he declined the distinction on religious grounds. The reigning monarch also offered him residence in Hampton Court in Middlesex, which he graciously accepted. This was where Faraday retired in 1858 with a small pension.
In 1861, the book form of The Chemical History of a Candle, a series of six lectures given by Faraday at the Royal Institution, was published. Michael Faraday made some of the greatest contributions in the fields of chemistry and electromagnetism. He died at his home on August 25, 1867, at Hampton Court, Surrey. Faraday refused to be buried in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton and was buried in the non-Anglican section of London’s Highgate Cemetery. However, a memorial plaque was placed at Westminster Abbey near the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton. By all accounts of those who knew him, Michael Faraday remained a humble and gracious man until his death.
Michael Faraday’s Legacy
Michael Faraday is considered one of the most important scientists of all time. The physicist Ernest Rutherford had no less than the highest praise for Faraday when he stated, "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 was self taught and did not understand the higher mathematics in papers written by André-Marie Ampère due to his lack of training in higher mathematics. Nonetheless, there was no one better at experimentation than Faraday. Scientists who came after him made use of his experimental observations to improve humankind’s understanding of the physical world. Faraday invented the dynamo, discovered magnetic optical rotation, the lines of magnetic force, and electromagnetic induction. He built the first electric motor, the first generator, and the first transformer. His discoveries helped in the development of many different types of modern machines that make life more convenient today.
Physicist Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetic field theory was based mostly on the theoretical and experimental foundations established by Michael Faraday. The concept of lines of force, which Faraday demonstrated with a series of experiments, was used by Maxwell in his modern field theory. Maxwell expertly put Faraday’s ideas into mathematical equations.
Michael Faraday’s experiments were described in three published volumes of Experimental Researches in Electricity, which were released in 1839, 1844, and 1855. Meanwhile, his work in the field of chemistry was collated in the volume, Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics, published in 1858.
Albert Einstein kept a photograph of Michael Faraday in his office, along with the likeness of Maxwell and Newton. According to Einstein, Faraday “had made the greatest change in our conception of reality.”
Forbes, Nancy and Basil Mahon. Faraday, Maxwell and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics. Prometheus Books. 2014.
Asimov, Isaac. Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology. 2nd Revised Edition. Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1982.
Hart, Michael H. The 100 A Ranking of the Most Influential Persons in History. A Citadel Press Book. 1996.
Mahon, Basil. The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell. John Wiley & Sons. Ltd. 2003.
© 2017 Doug West
S Maree on December 14, 2017:
Ah! Proof one needn't be a math genius to be a scientist! How wonderful that Faraday's difficulty with higher mathematics did not preclude him from renown in the scientific world!
I wish today's schools understood this!
majid rezaie from Iran on December 12, 2017:
greatest experimental physicist ever..the kind that found it from the heart! very good article