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Michael Faraday
One of the Greatest Discoverers of All Time
Dr Subodh Mahanti


Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency.

Michael Faraday

The more we study the work of Faraday with the perspective of time, the more we are impressed by his unrivalled genius as an experimenter and a natural philosopher. When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Michael Faraday - one of the greatest discoverers of all time.

Ernest Rutherford

Much has been written about Faraday and much more will be written and read not only because of the enormous significance of his discoveries and the profusion of historical material, but also because his life has a romantic ‘rags to riches’ quality and nearness to perfection which will forever be an inspiration to those whose love for science may seem to be unmatched by opportunity or formal education.

George Porter

He (Faraday) was by any sense and by any standard a good man; and yet his goodness was not of the kind that make others uncomfortable in his presence. His strong personal sense of duty did not take the gaiety out of his life…his virtues were those of action, not of mere abstention…

T. Martin, biographer of Michael Faraday

The story of Michael Faraday’s life is one of the most romantic stories in the annals of science. It will continue to inspire in countless ways. Faraday rose from a book- binder’s apprentice to become one of the greatest scientists of all time. He is acknowledged as one of the greatest thinkers of his time. He was a true pioneer of scientific discoveries. His discoveries have had a spectacular effect on successive scientific and technological developments.

Faraday’s contributions to human society have been outstanding. Physicists and chemists alike look back on Faraday as a worthy pioneer. However, he is best known for his contributions in physics to the understanding of electricity and magnetism. Among his many path- breaking discoveries were induced electricity (1831), electrostatic induction (1838), the relationship between electricity and magnetism (1838) and between electricity and gravity(1851), hydro-electricity (1843) and atmospheric magnetism (1851). Faraday became one of the greatest scientists of all time because of his interest in science, his strong motivation and his remarkable perseverance.

He was a great builder of instruments. Faraday was a great populariser of science. He initiated popular science lectures for children and general audiences at the Royal Institution. Faraday was one of the greatest lecturers of his time. His Christmas lectures for the children at the Royal Institution became legendary. These lectures, Faraday intended, to ‘amuse and entertain as well as educate, edify and above all, inspire.’

Faraday, the man, was as great as Faraday, the scientist. Throughout his life Faraday remained a kind and humble person. He was totally unconcerned with honours. While refusing for the second time the presidency of the Royal Society he commented to his successor at the Royal Institution and his biographer, John Tyndall (1820-93): “I must remain plain Faraday to the last; and let me tell you, that if I accepted the honour which the Royal Society desires to confer upon me, I would not answer for the integrity of my intellect for a single year”.

He was always eager to practise his science to the best of his ability. Faraday had refused to accept the offer of professorship from the University College of London. He had also refused a knighthood and the presidency of the Royal Society, not once but twice. Faraday had strong views on awards. He said : ’’I have always felt that there is something degrading in offering rewards for intellectual exertion, and that societies or academies, or even kings and emperors should mingle in the matter does not remove the degradation”.

Michael Faraday was born on September 22, 1791 at Newington, Surrey, England. His father James Faraday was a blacksmith who came from Yorkshire in the north of England. His mother Margarate Hastwell was the daughter of a farmer. Early in 1791 Faraday’s parents moved to Newington, which was then a village outside London, where Faraday’s father hoped that work would be more plentiful.

The Faradays were members of a sect known as the Sandemanian, which originated in the 1730s in a breakaway from the Scottish Presbyterians (having to do with Church of Calvinistic-protestant origin governed by presbyters or elders). The sect never had more than a few hundred followers. In that sense it was an obscure sect. Its members did not try to spread its message. They believed that those who belonged to their community would naturally find a way to them. The sect demanded total faith and total commitment. The members of the sect organised their daily lives through their literal interpretation of the Bible. The followers of this sect considered themselves as the true followers of the Church and consequently they believed that their salvation was assured. This kind of belief made it easier for them to make peace with the hardship of the present day world. They were not interested in worldly goods and wealth. Faraday’s religious belief gave him a strict moral code. Faraday was a devout member of the Sandemanian sect. Faraday’s scientific world view was deeply influenced by the message of the Bible. Here we quote Jim Baggott on Faraday’s religious belief and its influence on his work. Baggott wrote in New Scientist (1991): “Faraday found no conflict between his religious belief and his activities as a scientist and philosopher. He viewed his discoveries of nature’s laws as part of the continual process of ‘reading the book of nature’, no different in principle from the process of reading the Bible to discover God’s laws. A strong sense of the unity of God, and nature pervades Faraday’s life and work.”

Faraday attended a day school and he received only the most basic education - to read, write and count that is the traditional ‘three Rs’ of reading, (w)riting and (a)rithmatic. Given his family background nothing much could be expected. The Faradays were desperately poor. When Faraday was thirteen years old he had to find work to help the family finances. In 1804 he was employed running errands for George Riebau, a bookseller and bookbinder. Riebau’s shop was located in Blandford Street, close to where the Faradays lived. One of Faraday’s main duties as an errand boy was to deliver newspapers to those who used to read newspaper on loan basis and fetch them back to the shop. Riebau was a kind employer. After a year as an errand boy Faraday was taken on by Riebau as an apprentice bookbinder. Faraday learned the trade of book binding well as is evident that in later years he bound many volumes for himself and many of them are still in existence. For most of part of this apprenticeship Faraday lived on Riebau’s premises. Thanks to the magnanimity of Riebau, Faraday and also his two other fellow apprentices working at the time got the opportunities to develop their own interest. Faraday not only bound books but he also read them. Among the many books that he read during his apprenticeship, two books had great influence in shaping his future scientific career. This is evident from a letter that he wrote to his friend De La Rive. Faraday wrote :

“… I entered the shop of a bookseller and bookbinder at the age of thirteen, in the year 1804, remained there eight years, and during the chief part of my time bound books. Now it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy.

There were two that especially helped me, the “Encyclopaedia Britannica” from which I gained my first notions of electricity and Mrs. Marcet’s “Conversation on Chemistry”, which gave me foundation in that science.

Do not suppose that I was a very deep thinker, or was marked as a precocious person. I was a very lively imaginative person, and could believe in the “Arabian Nights” as easily as in the “Encyclopaedia”. But facts were important to me, and saved me. I could trust a fact, and always cross-examine an assertion. So when I questioned Mrs. Marcet’s book by such little experiments as I could find means to perform, and found it true to the facts as I could understand them, I felt that I had got hold of an anchor in chemical knowledge, and clung fast to it. Thence my deep veneration for Mrs. Marcet - first as one who had conferred great personal good and pleasure on me; and then as one able to convey the truth and principle of those boundless fields of knowledge which concern natural things to the young, untaught, and inquiring mind.”

During his period of apprenticeship with Riebau he came in contact with the City Philosophical Society, an organization established by a group of young men interested in self-improvement. The Society organised a series of evening lectures on natural philosophy (the modern day equivalent of science). Faraday became a member of this Society in 1812. Membership cost a shilling. Faraday’s subscription was paid by his brother Robert. For two years Faraday attended lectures on a variety of scientific topics. At the Society Faraday made new friends. Among them were Benjamin Abbott and Edward Magrath. With Abbott he carried on extensive correspondence as an exercise in improving his skill at written communication. Magrath helped him in his grammar, spelling and punctuation. Faraday’s interaction with Magrath continued for seven years.

Faraday prepared four bound volumes of his notes taken during the meetings of the Society. Faraday’s employer Riebau encouraged him in his attempt to study science. In fact Riebau used to show these volumes to his customers. One of Riebau’s young customers (some Mr. Dance) was so much impressed with the Faraday’s notes that he borrowed these volumes for the purpose of showing them to his father. Apparently the elder Dance was also impressed as evident by the fact that he sent tickets to Faraday to attend lectures given by Humphrey Davy at the Royal Institution. Faraday attended four lectures at the Royal Institution. He was fascinated by the lectures delivered by Davy. He took careful notes which he wrote up, with accompanying drawings of the experiments demonstrated by Davy and bound. Davy’s lectures reinforced Faraday’s interest in science.

He spent seven years serving his apprenticeship with Riebau. In a letter 1813 Riebau described how Faraday spent his days as apprentice : “After the regular hour of business, he was chiefly employed in drawing and copying from the Artist’s Repository, a work published in numbers which he took in weekly … Dr. Watts’ Improvements of the Mind was then read and frequently took in his pocket, when he went an early walk in the morning, visiting some other works of art or searching for some mineral or vegetable curiosity… His mind ever engaged besides attending to bookbinding which he executed in a proper manner.

His mode of living temperate, seldom drinking any other than pure water, and when done his day’s work, would set himself down in the workshop… if I had any curious book from my customers to bind with plates, he would copy such as he thought singular or clever…”

Faraday’s apprenticeship with Riebau ended on 7 October 1812, a couple of weeks after his 21st birthday. Faraday was desperately trying to get an employment where he could pursue his interest in science. It was not only difficult but looked impossible to change his profession of bookbinding to science. In any case he had no formal education. But Faraday was determined to pursue his interest in science. He wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, the then President of the Royal Society, asking him how he could become involved in scientific work. However, Banks did not bother to reply. In the meantime Faraday started working as a bookbinder for a Mr. De La Roche. Unlike his earlier employer Mr. De La Roche was a difficult master. Without being discouraged by not receiving a reply from Banks Faraday wrote to Humphrey Davy. He also sent him the notes he had taken at Davy’s lectures. Davy not only replied to Faraday but also arranged a meeting. However, nothing much happened. Davy advised Faraday to keep working as a bookbinder saying, “Science is a harsh mistress, and in a pecuniary point of view but poorly rewarding those who devote themselves to her service.”

But then in February 1813, an incident happened that turned a bookbinder’s apprentice into one of the greatest scientists of all time. One Mr. William Payne who was working as laboratory assistant at the Royal Institution got involved in a public brawl. As a result he was dismissed from his job at the Royal Institution. Davy sent for Faraday and offered him the job. Davy’s recommendation of Faraday was presented to the managers of the Royal Institution at a meeting on the 18th March 1813. The recommendation read as follows :

“Sir Humphrey Davy has the honour to inform the managers that he has found a person who is desirous to occupy the situation in the Institution lately filled by William Payne. His name is Michael Faraday. He is a youth of twenty-two of age. As far as Sir H. Davy has been to observe or ascertain, he appears well fitted for the situation. His habits seem good; his disposition active and cheerful, and his manner intelligent. He is willing to engage himself on the same terms as given to Mr. Payne at the time of quitting the institution.”

Faraday was offered the job at a guinea (a former English gold coin, last minted in 1813, equal to 21 shillings) a week with accommodation provided in two rooms at the top of the Royal Institution building. Faraday was yearning for such an offer and so he readily accepted the job though the salary was much less than he was earning as bookbinder. In October 1813 Davy planned to undertake a scientific tour of Europe and he invited Faraday to go along with him as his assistant and secretary. For going with Davy on foreign tour Faraday was required to resign his post at the Royal Institution. However, it was guaranteed that Faraday would get back his job on his return to England. Faraday agreed. Before this tour Faraday had never traveled more than 12 miles from the centre of London. During the tour which lasted for 18 months Faraday had also acted as Davy’s part-time valet and servant. Mrs. Davy who was a class-conscious woman and believed in keeping servants firmly in their place, treated Faraday badly. Inspite of inconveniences Faraday enjoyed his trip thoroughly. Faraday maintained a journal in which he recorded his experiences. He got the opportunity to meet the key figures of science including Count Alessandro Volta (1745-1827), Andre Marie Ampere (1775-1836), Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778-1850), Dominique Francois Arago (1786-1853), Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Georges Leopold Chretien Frederic Dagobert Cuvier (1769-1832). While travelling from laboratory to laboratory across Europe, Faraday got the opportunity to perform experiments and attend lectures and in this process he received the education he had never had. By all means the trip had profound influence on Faraday. To quote Faraday’s biographer T. Martin : “These eighteen months abroad had taken the place, in Faraday’s life, of the years spent at university by other men. He gained a working knowledge of French and Italian; he had added considerably to his scientific attainments, and had met and talked with many of the leading foreign men of science; but, above all, the tour had been what was most valuable to him at that time, a broadening influence.”

On his return to London, in 1815, Faraday was re-engaged at the Royal Institution as an assistant. His duties mainly involved with chemical experiments in the laboratory. He also began lecturing on chemistry topics at the Philosophical Society. He published his first paper in 1816 on caustic lime from Tuscany. It was sent to Davy by the Duchess of Montrose. The paper was published in ‘The Quarterly Journal of Science’ of the Royal Institution - the precursor of the Proceedings of the Royal Society. As his chemical capabilities increased, he was given more responsibility. In 1825 he replaced the seriously ailing Davy in his duties directing the laboratory at the Royal Institution. In 1833 he was appointed to the Fullerian Professorship of Chemistry – a special Chair created for him.

Faraday made numerous discoveries both in chemistry and physics. His research work was of highly technical nature. To understand his discoveries satisfactorily one would require a detailed knowledge of chemistry and physics. Among the most important discoveries of Faraday were discovery of benzene, magneto-electric induction, laws of electro-chemical decomposition, the magnetization of light and diamagnetism. Commenting on the achieve-ments of Faraday, John Tyndall said: “Taking him for all and all, I think it will be conceded that Michael Faraday was the greatest experimental philoso-pher the world has ever seen; and I will add the opinion, that progress of future research will tend, not to dim or diminish, but to enhance and glorify the labours of this mighty investigator.”

Faraday’s early career was notable for its chemical research. His only original book Chemical Manipulation appeared in 1827. He made new chemical compounds. In 1822 he made the first steel alloy. In 1823, Faraday was the first to liquefy a gas, chlorine. In 1825 he discovered benzene (C6H6) while examining the residue collecting in cylinders of illuminating gas. He called the new compound ‘bicarburet of hydrogen because he took its formula to be C2H. It was Faraday who synthesised the first chlorocarbons. Faraday was one of the best chemical analysts of his time.

Although Faraday began his scientific career as a chemist, he also became intrigued by the nature of electricity and magnetism which began to be recognized as different aspects of a single phenomenon at the beginning of the 1820s. His life’s major work was the series of Experimental Researches on Electricity published over 40 years in Philosophical Transactions in which he announced his many discoveries including electromagnetic induction (1831), the laws of electrolysis (1833), and the rotation of polarised light by magnet (1845).

In 1820 Hans Christian Oersted (1777-1851) had discovered the first link between electricity and magnetism. Oersted found that when a magnetic compass is held near a wire that carries an electric current the needle of the compass (which is a tiny bar magnet) is always deflected to a point at right angles to the wire. The experiment implied that an electric current produces a magnetic force that influences the compass needle.

When Faraday read of Oersted’s experiment he like other members of the scientific community became very excited and decided to investigate it on his own. In September 1821 Faraday demonstrated “electromagnetic rotation” by showing that a current-carrying wire could be made to rotate around a fixed magnet. This was the first primitive electric motor. Sixty years after of Faraday’s demonstration electric trains were running in Germany, UK and the USA.

Unfortunately this experiment triggered off a rift between Faraday and his mentor Davy that was never healed. Davy thought that Faraday had overheard a discussion between Davy and William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828). Faraday admitted that he may have gotten a start from the discussion between Davy and Wollaston but his apparatus was substantially different and the effect demonstrated by Faraday was completely different from the effect predicted by Wollaston. History has put its stamp on the originality of Faraday.

After discovering the electromagnetic rotation Faraday wanted to convert magnetism into electricity that is the reverse of what Oersted did–electricity was converted into magnetism. In 1831 Faraday demonstrated that when a magnet is moved past a wire, or pushed into the mount of coil of wire while the magnet is moving it creates an electric current in the wire. This discovery formed the basis of the electricity generator or dynamo, in which electricity is produced by rotating magnets that move swiftly past coils of wire. Faraday found that by combining mechanical motion with magnetism he could produce electric current. He detected the presence of electric current when he moved the coil of wire over the magnet but when he let the magnet just sit motionless inside the coil of wire there was no electric current. This was the principle of electromagnetic induction or the basic principle of electric generator or dynamo. Joseph Henry (1797-1878), an American physicist, had also come up with an excellent demonstration of this idea. However, he never published it. On the other hand, Faraday pursued his work with extraordinary single-mindedness and got the credit for its discovery. Henry had accepted Faraday’s originality.

It is said that the then British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) after seeing a demonstration of the dynamo effect asked Faraday what use the discovery was. Faraday replied, “I know not, but I wager that one day your government will tax it.” Faraday himself did not try to develop the practical applications of his discoveries. Rather he became deeply interested in understanding how electricity and magnetism are related to each other.

It was Faraday who showed that the various types of electricity – static, voltaic, animal and thermoelectric – were the same.

Faraday’s work on electrolysis had far reaching implication. In 1934, he formulated his famous laws of electrolysis which govern all that happen in electrochemical technology and industry.

Faraday’s pioneering research in electrochemistry created the necessity of coining some appropriate terms to describe his work. With the help of his friend Whewell Faraday coined a number of terms which are being commonly used till date: anode (from the Greek ana for ‘up’ and hodos for ‘road’, cathode (from the Greek, Kata for ‘down’), ion (for ‘wanderer’ in Greek) and consequently anion or cation. He also coined the terms `electrolyte’ and `electrode’.

It was Faraday who created the notion of a ‘field’ to describe electrical and magnetic forces. Since his childhood Faraday had a profound belief in the inter- connection and unity of natural forces and phenomena. Faraday said : “I have long held an opinion, almost amounting to conviction, in common I believe with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent, that they are convertible, as it were, one into another, and possess equivalents of power in their action’. He thought that his field theory and his findings on the interrelatedness of magnetism, electricity and motion contributed to his vision of unity of natural forces and phenomena. Faraday’s belief in the fundamental unity of nature was vindicated by subsequent works of James Prescott Joule (1818-89), Joseph John Thomson (1856-1940), Harmann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-94), Rudolf Julius Emmanuel Clausius (1822-88) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79).

In spite of the technical nature of his research work Faraday was remarkably gifted as an expounder of science to popular audience. Faraday introduced a series of Friday Evening Meetings under the aegis of the Royal Institution. These evening meetings grew into an institution in their own rights, the Friday Evening Discourses. These Discourses reported the latest developments in science to a general audience, who were required to pay a certain fee for attending the discourses. Faraday often turned out to be the speaker in those discourses. Between 1825 and 1862, when he retired, Faraday gave more than a hundred of the Friday lectures. The tradition continues to this day.

In 1826 Faraday started the famous lecture course at the Royal Institution — a series of six Christmas lectures for children. He gave 19 of these lectures courses. For most of these lectures only the notes exist except a couple of lecture courses namely “The Chemical History of a Candle” and “Lectures on Various Forces of Matter” were taken down in short hand and later published. They have become classics. Together, the Friday Evening Discourses and the Christmas lectures have introduced generation of people to the wonder of science. Faraday was not a born lecturer. He assiduously prepared to make himself one of the great lecturers of all time. Here we quote Faraday’s views on the art of lecturing.
“As practised by the Society, lecturing is capable of improving not only those who are lectured, but also the lecturer. He makes it, or he ought to make it, an opportunity for the exertion of his mental powers, that so by using he may strengthen them; and if he is truly in earnest, he will do as much good to himself as to his audience.

A lecturer should exert his utmost effort to gain completely the mind and attention of his audience, and irresistibly make them join in his ideas to the end of the subject. He should endeavour to raise their interest at the commencement of the lecture and by a series of imperceptible gradations, unnoticed by the company, keep it alive as long as the subject demands it..... A flame should be lighted at the commencement and kept alive with unremitting splendour to the end.

A lecturer should appear easy and collected, undaunted and unconcerned, his thoughts about him and his mind clear for the contemplation and description of his subject. His action should be slow, easy and natural, consisting principally in changes of the posture of the body, in order to avoid the air of stiffness or sameness that would be otherwise unavoidable.

The most prominent requisite to a lecturer, though perhaps not really the most important, is a good delivery; for though to all true philosophers science and nature will have charms innumerable in every dress, yet I am sorry to say that the generality of mankind cannot accompany us one short hour unless the path is strewed with flowers.

“Never to repeat a phrase”
“Never to go back to amend”

“If at a loss for a word, not to ch-ch-ch or eh-eh-eh, but to stop and wait for it. It soon comes, and the bad habits are broken, and fluency soon acquired.”

With respect to the action of the lecturer, it is requisite that he has some, though it does not here bear the importance that it does in other branches of oratory; for though I know of no other species of delivery that requires less motion, yet I would by no means have a lecturer glued to the table or screwed to the floor. He must by all means appear as a body distinct and separate from the things around him, and must have some motion apart from that which they possess.”

Throughout his life Faraday worked at the Royal Institution. Faraday felt indebted to the Institution. In fact without Faraday the Royal Institution would not have survived. He made every effort to earn money for the Institution’s survival. For his gratitude to the Institution he did not accept the offer from the University of London of the Chair of Chemistry in 1827. While declining the offer he wrote:

“I think it a matter of duty and gratitude on my part to do what I can for the good of the Royal Institution in the present attempt to establish it firmly. The Institution has been a source of knowledge and pleasure to me for the last fourteen years, and though it does not pay the salary for what I now strive to do for it. Yet I posses the kind feeling and good-will of its authorities and members, and all the privileges it can grant or I require ; and, moreover, I remember the protection it has afforded me during the past years of my scientific life…I have already (and to a great extent for the sake of the institution ) pledge myself to a very laborious and expensive series of experiments on glass.”

Only a man like Faraday can take such a stand in life. Faraday joined the Royal Institution in 1813. He gave his last Friday Evening Discourse, on 20 June 1862, and his last connection with the Royal Institution was severed in 1865. The Royal Institution was also his home since 1813 to 1862 when he moved to a house at Hampton Court given by Queen Victoria at the suggestion of Prince Albert. We are told that Faraday did not have the money to repair the house to make it habitable. On knowing this the Queen paid for the renovations as well.

Faraday died on 25 August 1867. Following his wishes he was buried quietly in Highgate cemetery. His grave is not far from that of Karl Marx. Faraday’s headstone bears the following non-descript inscription.

Born 22 September 1791
Died 25 August 1867.

On the occasion of the bicentennial anniversary (1991) of birth, Faraday was honoured in his home country with commemorative postage stamp and a special first-day cover. His portrait and signature replaced William Shakespeare on 20 pounds note. A special memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey.

We would like to end this article by quoting Faraday. “A philosopher (read scientist) should be a man willing to listen to every suggestion but determined to judge for himself. He should not be biased by appearances, have no favourite hypothesis, be of no school and in doctrine have no master. He should not be a respecter of persons, but of things. Truth should be his primary object. If to these qualities be added industry, he may indeed hope to walk within the veil of the temple of nature.”

Books on Faraday and his works

Agassi, Joseph, Faraday as a Natural Philosopher, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970.

Crookes, William, (Editor) A Course of Six Lectures on the Chemical History of a Candle: (Vigyan Prasar has brought out a reprint of this book. It is priced as Rs. 35/-).

Gooding, David & James Frank A.J.L. (editors), Faraday Rediscovered: Essays on the Life and Work of Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Stockton Press, London ,1985.

Jones, Bence, The Life and Letters of Faraday(2 Volumes) Longmans, Green, London, 1870.

Randell, Wilfrid L., Michael Faraday, Parsons, London, 1924.

Tyndall, J., Faraday as a Discoverer(4th Edition), Longmans, Green, London, 1868.

Williams, Pearce L., The Origins of Field Theory, Random House, New York, 1966.

Williams,Pearce L., Michael Faraday, Basic Books, New York, 1967.