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Sunday, 18 January 2015

Michael Faraday


Michael Faraday was born on September 22, 1791 in Newington Butts, which is now part of the London Borough of Southwark, but which was then a suburban part of Surrey.

His father, James Faraday, had moved his wife and two children to London during the winter of 1790 from Outhgill in Westmorland, where he had been an apprentice to the village blacksmith.

Michael had a poor, poverty stricken upbringing. His childhood was spent playing in the London alleys around his father’s blacksmith shop.

In 1801, when Michael was 10, things were so difficult that he often had to survive for a whole week on a single loaf of bread.

Michael's education was rudimentary, only the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic which he received as a member of his parents' fundamentalist Sandemanian protestant denomination. His parents couldn't afford to pay for any more.


At the age of fourteen Faraday became the apprentice to a radical Huguenot bookbinder George Riebau, in Blandford Street, London.

When Faraday picked up a copy of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which had been brought in to be rebound, an article on electricity captivated him. From then on he sought to devote himself to science.

Faraday changed career after attending a series of four Humphry Davy evening lectures at the Royal Institute. Faraday subsequently sent Davy a three-hundred-page book based on notes that he had taken during these lectures. He was eager to leave his bookbinding job as his new employer, Henry de la Roche, was hot-tempered. Davy said he would keep Faraday in mind but should stick to his current book-binding job.

After Davy damaged his eyesight in an accident with nitrogen trichloride, he employed Faraday as a secretary. When John Payne of the Royal Society was sacked for fighting, Davy recommended Faraday for the job of Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution, which he started on March 1, 1813.

Despite becoming a pioneer of electromagnetism and electrochemistry, Davy's snobbish wife refused to let him eat with her husband, insisting he sat with the servants instead.

Faraday delivered chemistry lectures for the City Philosophical Society from 1816 to 1818 in order to refine the quality of his public speaking.

Faraday had a real concern to make science accessible to the masses. He initiated the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures for young people in 1827 which continue to this day.

Faraday was famous for his public speaking. He would plant friends in his lectures to give signals when he spoke too fast, too slow or too long.

In 1833 became the first and foremost Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a lifetime position.

In 1835 Faraday was given a pension of £300 per year for life.


Faraday's first recorded experiment was the construction of a voltaic pile with seven halfpenny coins, stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water. With this pile he decomposed sulphate of magnesia.

In 1823, Michael Faraday liquefied chlorine for the first time,and demonstrated that what was then known as "solid chlorine" had a structure of chlorine hydrate.

While the bladders of animals had been used as balloons for centuries, Faraday developed the first small lighter than air balloon. He used them in his experiments with hydrogen at London's Royal Institute. This led to the toy balloon industry.

As a chemist, Michael Faraday first isolated and identified benzene in 1825 from the oily residue derived from the production of illuminating gas, giving it the name bicarburet of hydrogen.

Faraday discovered the fundamentals of electromagnetic induction. After ten years of experiments, he discovered on August 29, 1831, that moving an iron ring through five cells of copper wire caused an electric current to flow through the wire.

On December 26, 1831 Faraday produced the homopolar generator, the first electric producing generator.

Faraday disk, the first homopolar generator

Faraday's inventions of electromagnetic rotary devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became viable for use in technology. Today’s mass operation of everything from our lights to industrial machines is possible because of Faraday's work.

Faraday discovered in 1836 that if electricity strikes a metal object, it will only pass through the outside of the object. The inside is unaffected by the electricity. This is what keeps the people inside safe when lightning strikes a car or a plane. This is now called Faraday Cage.

Faraday was an excellent experimentalist who conveyed his ideas in clear and simple language; his mathematical abilities, however, did not extend as far as trigonometry or any but the simplest algebra.

Faraday consulted classics scholar and scientist William Whewell (1794-1866) when he invented the terms "anode", "cathode" and ion" to describe phenomena in electrolysis using Latin or Greek words.

The Farad, a unit of electrical capacity is named after Michael Faraday.

Michael Faraday has been credited with inventing the test tube. Until his time, wine glasses were often used for storage by chemists.


Michael Faraday married Sarah Barnard (1800-79), the daughter of a Sandemanian elder and silversmith on June 12, 1821.

Michael and Sarah Faraday

Sarah was a fellow member of the Sandemanian sect. They were devoted to each other but had no children.

In a class-based society, Faraday was not considered a gentleman. Humphry Davy's wife, Jane Apreece refused to treat him as an equal and, when on a continental tour, made the son of a blacksmith sit with the servants.

Faraday's sponsor and mentor was John 'Mad Jack' Fuller, who created the Fullerian Professorship of Chemistry at the Royal Institution.

He had one laboratory assistant, Sergeant Anderson, a soldier who remained with Faraday for the remainder of his working life. The quiet Anderson was well suited to Faraday's needs.


The dark-haired Faraday was clean shaven with prominent sideburns.

Michael Faraday by Thomas Phillips oil on canvas, 1841-1842 

Faraday was a loner. No great socialiser, he preferred to spend his time at his laboratory or at home with his wife.

Faraday had a bad memory, especially after suffering a nervous breakdown. He was so anxious about his lapses that he kept meticulous records of all he heard and did.


Faraday was deeply religious and was is a member of the small fundamentalist Sandemanian denomination, an offshoot of the Church of Scotland. His faith influenced his scientific thinking.

Faraday believed that he was able to read the Bible without the help of a priest and that scientists should read God’s creation through experiment. The most marked portion of his Bible was the Book of Job, with its emphasis on human frailty.

Faraday, attended the London Meeting House in Paul’s Alley, Barbican, and in 1840 he was appointed an elder of his Sandemanian Church.

Faraday was once briefly excluded from his denomination for failing to attend worship one Sunday without adequate reason. His ‘feeble’ excuse was that he had an appointment dining with Queen Victoria. Faraday had to undergo considerable penance before he was allowed to rejoin them.

Faraday was asked by the British government if it was possible to prepare poison gas in battlefield against Russia during the Crimean War. He agreed it was feasible but refused unequivocally to direct the project.

He refused a knighthood, believing that it was against the word of the Bible to pursue worldly reward. He stated that he preferred to remain "plain Mr. Faraday to the last."


The Sandemanian denomination Faraday belonged to required that money could not be saved but distributed amongst the needy especially members of his sect. After a 1841 nervous breakdown his lack of savings became a concern.

Due to his lack of savings, accommodation became a problem for Faraday, until Queen Victoria gave him a house in Hampton Court  .

The laboratory where Faraday worked at the Royal Institution in Albermarle Street, London, has been restored to the way it was in 1845. It is now a museum.


Whilst working with Davy, Faraday suffered damage to his eyes in a nitrogen chloride explosion. He spent the remainder of his life suffering chronic chemical poisoning.

Michael Faraday, ca. 1861

At the age of 50 Faraday suffered a severe nervous breakdown that put him out of action for four years. His memory was never the same again. He spent several months in Switzerland recovering from his breakdown..

Michael Faraday died peacefully in his study at his house at Hampton Court on August 25, 1867, aged 75. As he lay dying, journalists asked him questions regarding his speculations on death. The devout scientist replied: “I know nothing about speculations, I’m resting on certainties.” He then quoted 2 Timothy 1 v12, “That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him for that day.”

Sources The History of Scientific DiscoveryCollins Biographical Dictionary of Scientists

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