Michael Faraday: The Scientist’s Scientist


Portrait of Michael Faraday, by Thomas Phillips, 1842. If I were to guess, I’d say the apparatus on the left is a battery.

Michael Faraday, as I hope to convince you by the end of this blog post, was not only the most famous scientist of the Victorian Era, but quite possibly the scientist most responsible for the technological advances that have been achieved since.  And considering his humble origins, possibly the least likely to have done so.

After reading the paragraph above, it should come as no surprise that Michael Faraday is my favorite scientist.  As an electrochemist, my work owes much–no, everything!–to the discoveries that he made. And so, it was probably inevitable that Faraday would have a cameo appearance in my steampunk adventure novels.  Little did I know when I started writing that he would end up being one of the main characters in the book that I just launched, The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday.  While writing in the steampunk genre allows one to bend the truth a bit (as far as I know Faraday did not keep a secret lab notebook), I have endeavoured to depict Faraday for the most part truthfully.  His life is sufficiently interesting that it needs little embellishment from me.

Talking with people who wandered through the Authors’ Alley at Clockwork Alchemy (San Jose’s steampunk con), I discovered that people either had never heard of Faraday (or had heard only of the Faraday cage) , or were well-versed in his scientific work. Electrical engineers, physicists, and chemists all can have run across him somewhere in their education. It has been reported that Albert Einstein had portraits of three scientists hanging in his office:  Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell, and Michael Faraday.  Surely good company.

But considering his origins, it is a wonder that Michael Faraday would amount to very much at all. Faraday was born in 1791 on the outskirts of London, the son of a blacksmith. The family was poor (Strike one), and Faraday had little formal education (Strike two). In addition, the family belonged to the dissenting Sandemanian church, i.e., not Church of England (Strike three).

With these three strikes against him, the young Faraday would most assuredly not be destined for an education at Oxford or Cambridge; but at best might receive some training in a trade. Faraday’s great good fortune, however, was to be apprenticed to a book binder, giving him the opportunity to read the many books that passed through the shop.  He was particularly influenced by two: “The Improvement of the Mind” by Isaac Watts which was a sort-of self-help manual of the day, and “Conversations on Chemistry”, a layman’s treatise on chemistry. His curiosity whetted for science, he then studied the 127 page entry on electricity in the Encyclopedia Britannica. His master was indulgent enough to allow the young Faraday to set up a bench in a corner where he could perform scientific experiments.


Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, London, 1838. Painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd.

While his interest in science grew, he was nearing the end of his time as apprentice to M. Ribeau, Bookbinder.  Faraday despaired that he would ever be able to bridge the gap between a working class bookbinder and the independently wealthy Gentlemen Scientists who spent their days discovering the truth of Nature’s laws.  At about this time, a customer of the shop, learning of his interest in science, gave him the great gift of tickets to several lectures at the Royal Institution by Sir Humphry Davy, the greatest chemist of the day. Faraday attended and took meticulous notes which he later bound into a book.  He used the book as a sort of portfolio when he inquired for a position at the

faraday-davy lecture-006

Cover of Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures, transcribed and bound by Michael Faraday

Royal Institution.  As it happens, Davy’s previous assistant had just been sacked for brawling with the Institution’s instrument maker.  In need of an assistant, and impressed with Faraday’s bound notes of his lectures, Davy hired him at 25 shillings a week, plus lodging in the attic of the Institution.  Faraday’s only requests were a laboratory apron and permission to use the laboratory for his own experiments. Michael Faraday would remain for the rest of his professional life at the Royal Institution. He became Director in 1825, but never stopped making discoveries in his laboratory in the basement until his retirement in 1858.




Michael Faraday in his basement laboratory at the Royal Institution, ca. 1850s. Watercolor by Harriet Moore.

While Faraday may have readied himself for intense work in the laboratory, Davy had a different idea: an extended trip through Europe. Desiring a valet and assistant during the trip, he offered the job to Faraday.  Faraday weighed  the indignity of serving as Sir Humphry’s valet against the opportunity of traveling through Europe and meeting the Continent’s greatest scientists. Predictably, Faraday chose Science, and suffered Lady Davy’s snobbery in silence, including riding on the roof of the Davys’ carriage with the coachman when even her maid was allowed to ride inside.

The trip lasted over a year and a half and was only curtailed by the outbreak of plague in Greece, and Napoleon’s escape from Elba. Faraday’s European journey gave him a widened and more mature outlook on the world, even as he continued to model his life according to the precepts described in “The Improvement of the Mind”. Upon his return to the Royal Institution, Faraday was given a raise and a new title, “Assistant and Superintendent of the Apparatus and Mineralogical Collection”.  His duties were much more in line with a junior scientist than the glorified glassware washer position before his European sojourn.

While Faraday continued to assist Davy in his experiments, he developed his own scientific interests, mostly centered around electricity, chemistry, and the combination of the two: electrochemistry.

When Faraday and Davy had visited Alessandro Volta during Davy’s European Grand Tour, only 15 years had passed since his invention of the first battery–the voltaic pile.  The work by Andre-Marie  Ampere and Hans Christian Oersted demonstrated that electricity and magnetism were related–somehow. Expanding upon these concepts, Faraday built a simple electric motor, or at least a laboratory apparatus that could convert electricity to rotational motion, thus demonstrating the principle.  Later experiments expanded the understanding of induction–how an electric current can generate a magnetic force, and vice versa. Faraday’s experiments allowed him to prove his idea of “fields”–electrical and magnetic lines of force that can act at a distance to affect matter and transmit force.  While Faraday could envision these phenomena in his mind, and describe them fully and clearly through words, he could not understand, much less devise, the mathematics behind them, never having learned higher maths.  Faraday had to wait until James Clerk Maxwell did so in the mid-1850s.  At the time, Faraday wrote to the younger Maxwell, “I was at first almost frightened when I saw such mathematical force made to bear upon the subject, and then wondered to see that the subject stood it so well.”

Lord Williams Photography Workshop

Faraday’s induction ring with which he investigated electrical induction. Source:Royal Institution.

The importance of Faraday’s discoveries in electromagnetism cannot be overstated.  Before Faraday, electricity was created either by generating a static charge or by batteries–the voltaic pile. While battery technology had advanced to the point where long-distance telegraph systems were powered by them, Faraday’s discovery that a changing magnetic field could create an electrical current, and vice versa, a changing electric current could create a magnetic field, ushered in the modern age of electricity–generators, motors, transformers. Without Faraday there could be no Edison, no Tesla, no Bell.

Besides his work in electromagnetism, Faraday’s work in chemistry was also ground-breaking.  He discovered several new compounds of chlorine, and isolated benzene from whale oil.  He investigated new types of glass, originally for lighthouse lenses, but later those same glass compositions would prove the key to connecting electromagnetism with the properties of light.  Faraday is most often remembered for his work in electrochemistry, which flipped Volta’s pile on its head.  Instead of a chemical reaction being harnessed to create electricity, Faraday subjected chemicals to electricity, causing new types of chemical reactions to occur.  As part of these studies, Faraday popularized the terms of “electrode” and “ion”, amongst others.  When Faraday needed a means of collecting the gases that were often the results of his electrochemical reactions, he devised the first latex balloon.

Faraday married Sarah Barnard in 1821  They had no children, but various nieces lived with them from time to time.  (I co-opted one of Faraday’s nieces, Jane Barnard, as Faraday’s daughter in my novel, but otherwise depict the Faradays’ home life as it was.) Sarah was a loving and devoted wife to Faraday, and was a source of great comfort when the pressures of work overtook him. Living, as it were, above the store, it was difficult to escape from the demands of running the Institution, but Faraday spent most of his private time with his family and socialized little except for scientific gatherings.


The Faradays’ flat upstairs at the Royal Institution. Watercolor by Harriet Moore.


Besides his scientific research, Faraday gladly made himself available to the government as an advisor in all manner of subjects, ranging from mine explosions to the prevention of corrosion of ships hulls to means of ridding the Thames of London’s sewerage.  The most famous of his public service efforts, though, were the Christmas Lectures–popular talks at the Royal Institution on various scientific topics designed specifically for young people.  Faraday presented nineteen of these talks during his 33-years as head of the Royal Institution. His most famous was “The Chemical History of a Candle” in which Faraday explained the chemistry of wax, the nature of flame, and the reactions of combustion.  So popular was this lecture that no less a personage than Charles Dickens himself was interested in publishing them. The Christmas Lectures continue at the Royal Institution to this day.


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

As Faraday’s fame increased, so did his work pace which had a deleterious effect on his health. He was prone to headaches and bouts of forgetfulness, even as early as his 40s, and for several years in his 50s, he severely curtailed his work. By the time he was reaching his 60s, he felt at times debilitated, and unable to work because of an inability to concentrate.  I find it ironically sad that this man whose brain  could discover and explain the secrets of the universe without benefit of mathematics would be torn down by the failure of the same organ. Faraday eventually was forced to dramatically reduce his laboratory work.  By the early 1860s, he had retired to an apartment in Hampton Court Palace, a so-called Grace and Favour house awarded by Prince Albert.


Photograph of Michael Faraday, ca. 1861.

It is telling that Faraday generally declined honors as his religion taught that it was against the word of the Bible to accumulate riches and pursue worldly reward.  He did accept an honorary degree from Oxford, but declined twice the presidency of the Royal Society.  He also declined a knighthood, stating that he preferred  to remain “plain Mr Faraday to the end”. Similarly, when he died in 1867, he was, according to his wishes, not interred in the Anglican Westminster Abbey, but was buried in a simple grave in the Dissenter’s section of Highgate Cemetery.  Nevertheless, a memorial plaque was later placed near Isaac Newton’s tomb in Westminster Abbey in his honor.

Two of my favorite quotes from Faraday illustrate, I think, the man, and his scientific and philosophical outlook. The first, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature.” demonstrates Faraday’s great love of scientific discovery.  The second, “But still try, for who knows what is possible.” is a notation in one of his laboratory notebooks near the end of his career, reminding himself that only through careful experimentation can an hypothesis be tested, and found true or false.

I hope I have provided an inkling into the scientific advances and personality of Michael Faraday, a scientist that should be admired and emulated, I believe by all scientists as a brilliant experimentalist, who was described by Hermann von Helmholtz that “…a few wires and some old bits of wood and iron seem to serve him for the greatest discoveries.” Likewise, Michael Faraday should be recognized by all people as the blacksmith’s son who, through hard work and brilliant intellect, elucidated the principles that underpin many of the technological advances that have occurred in the last 150 years.


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