Notable Britons in History

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday was born on the 22nd September 1791, in Newington Butts, near London. His father, James, a blacksmith originated from Clapham, Yorkshire but moved to the city after marrying Faraday's mother, Margaret Hastwell, in 1786.

Faraday apparently received no formal education. Instead, he worked as an errand boy for a bookbinder called Riebau. In 1804, aged 13, he was promoted to apprentice where he remained for 8 years. He found new work with another bookbinder called De La Roche. Throughout this time the books he worked with inspired an interest in science. An interest that was to initiate a life changing series of events.

In 1812, after being given tickets by a satisfied customer, Faraday attended the last 4 lectures given by the chemist, Humphry Davy, at the Royal Institution. At each lecture Faraday took copious amounts of notes, which he later wrote up, bound and presented to Davy. At the same time, he also applied for a job - asking Davy to help him quit a trade that he thought “vicious and selfish”. On the 24th December 1812, Davy’s carriage rolled up outside Faraday's home in Weymouth Street, London. A surprised Faraday was given a note asking him to appear at the Royal Institution, which he did. Later, he was taken on as Davy's assistant for 25 s/week.

After a year of hard graft, Faraday was invited to accompany Davy and his wife on a European tour. Since the Napoleonic Wars were still in progress this required seeking a special dispensation from Napoleon. Pro-science, Napoleon agreed. In the autumn of 1813, travelling as Davy's amanuensis, Faraday set off on a trip that was to last 18 months.

Though Davy's wife frequently treated Faraday like a servant, the trip proved to be an invaluable experience for the rising physicist. Travelling through France, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium, he met a large number of influential scientists, many of whom were to provide an important educational role in his life. It was also in Paris that Davy, with Faraday's help, discovered iodine from burnt seaweed.

On their return in 1815, Faraday was re-engaged as 'Assistant and Superintendent of the Apparatus of the Laboratory and Mineral Collection.' He spent years assisting lecturers and lecturing himself. In addition, he regularly helped Davy, working with him on inventions such as the safe mining lamp. In 1821 he became 'Superintendent of the house and laboratory.' The same year he published his work on electromagnetic rotations (electric motors). Unfortunately, however, Faraday was accused of failing to acknowledge Davy, though some say he deserved no recognition. He was also accused of stealing the idea from the chemist, William Hyde Wollaston. Again, many would argue that although Wollaston may have conceived ideas about motors he certainly did nothing with them. The overall effect was to sour Faraday’s relationship with Davy.

In 1823 Faraday, with instruction from Davy, liquefied chlorine - thus proving that a gas was transformable to the liquid state. Despite this achievement, however, Faraday’s 1824 application for fellow of Royal Institution caused a fuss due to the Wollaston story resurfacing.

At this stage there is also evidence to suggest that Davy may have been trying to slow down Faraday’s rise as a scientist. In 1825, for instance, Davy set him onto optical glass experiments, which progressed for 6 years with no great results. It was not until Davy's death, in 1829, that Faraday stopped these fruitless tasks and moved on to more worthwhile endeavours

In the 1830s he produced the most amazing quantity of work - mostly of an electric nature. He discovered electromagnetic induction, the battery (electropotentials), the electric arc (plasmas) and the Faraday cage (electrostatics). Faraday also instituted the Christmas lectures (1827) and the Friday Evening Discourses (1826). By 1841, however, his health began to deteriorate. He did less research, choosing to spend more time being an expert witness for trials, helping government bodies and lecturing.

In 1858 he moved to Hampton Court and a grace-and-favour cottage. Six years later, in 1864, he was offered the presidency of the Royal Institution. Faraday declined, much shocked that his contemporaries should have considered him. He was a humble man, who took no delight in taking centre stage. He died on the 25th August 1867, and is buried in Highgate cemetery.

In his day, Faraday was deeply religious. He belonged to a small sect called the Sandemanians. They were strict literalists and believed in the fellowship of man. Faraday donated a portion of his income to the congregation. He also spent time visiting and tending to the sick. Though Faraday served as an Elder, he was temporarily kicked out of the Church in 1844 because he failed to go to a Sabbath meeting. Instead, he visited Queen Victoria.

Faraday also had strong views regarding spiritualism. He was not an active crusader against the subject, however, prompted by many letters he did write to the Times and make comments in one lecture. In 1848 the Fox girls in Hydesville, New York started off the spiritualist movement with rappings and tappings on tables. By 1853 Faraday was being bombarded by enquiries and requests on spiritualist phenomenon. On 30th June, 1853, his letter to the editor of the Times said that it was all hokum. On 25th July, 1853 he wrote to another scientist complaining of the gullibility of the population. Then on 6th May, 1854 he attacked spiritualism in a lecture to the Royal Institution entitled Mental Education. Prince Albert also attended the lecture and, as another non-believer, embraced Faraday warmly after.

Two classic quotes are attributed to Faraday:

Whilst attempting to explain a discovery to either Gladstone (Chancellor) or Peel (Prime Minister) he was asked, 'But, after all, what use is it?' Faraday replied, 'Why sir, there is the probability that you will soon be able to tax it.'

When the Prime Minister asked of a new discovery, 'What good is it?', Faraday replied, 'What good is a new-born baby?'