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
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
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
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
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
“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
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,
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.