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Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was an English chemist and physicist born in a working class south London neighborhood on September 22, 1791.

Faraday was the first to produce an electric current from a magnetic field, and he discovered and named “diamagnetism”, a concept that describes why some substances like copper react opposite to the magnetic force when they encounter a magnetic field. He discovered the effect of magnetism on light, and was the inventor of the electric generator and the electric motor. He is also credited with providing the scientific foundation for much of James Maxwell’s groundbreaking work with electromagnetism.

Faraday’s father was a blacksmith who suffered from chronic health problems that often impeded his labor. As a result, Faraday’s family had little money and Faraday got only minimal formal schooling. In fact, he and his siblings sometimes had barely enough to eat. But Faraday had an active curiosity and determination to learn. While working in a London bookbindery as a teenager he was exposed to a wide range of books including textbooks and encyclopedias, and he read everything he could get his hands on. By doing extensive reading Faraday soon educated himself on a variety of scientific subjects, and his life as a scientist began.

In 1812, Faraday attended four lectures at the Royal Institution that were given by a renowned chemist named Humphrey Davy. Afterwards Faraday sent a letter to Davy, expressing a keen interest in the subjects covered in the lecture series and offering his services as an apprentice. A year later Davy accepted Faraday as his laboratory assistant. Davy also took Faraday with him on an extended tour of Europe, where Faraday met some of the most influential scientists of the day. Faraday returned to the Royal Institution in 1815 after 18 months of travel, and there he helped perform experiments with Davy and his colleagues.

Thanks to his association with Davy, the young Faraday gained a thorough scientific education. He soon began to do research and experiments with electricity, and he constructed two mechanisms to generate electromagnetic rotation, which is the force used to power electric motors. In 1821 he published an academic paper on electromagnetic rotation.

He also married Sarah Barnard that year and they settled down as he continued his work at the Institution. Although his time was mostly spent helping Davy, Faraday began to emerge on his own as a chemist and scientist of great importance. He began to give frequent lectures at the Royal Institution, and soon his reputation as a gifted lecturer was firmly and widely established. He published more research papers, including essays about optical illusion, the nature of gas condensation, and methods for isolating the chemical benzene, a chemical that he himself discovered. He is also credited with the discovery of other organic compounds, and he was the first scientist to liquefy a gas previously considered to exist only in a permanent gaseous state.

When his mentor Davy retired in 1827, Faraday took his place as the head of the chemistry department of the Royal Institute. Upon accepting the position he was able to focus on his own research, and Faraday’s most influential and celebrated work began in the 1830s, while he concentrated on experiments with electricity.

In 1831, he discovered electromagnetic induction, a breakthrough that ushered in an entirely new era of technology. With Faraday’s discovery it became possible to create such things as electrical generators and motors, and because of the practical nature of his discoveries, he was quickly awarded government grants and positions that enabled him to continue his work with electricity.

For the next eight years Faraday worked long hours in the laboratory, and the strain of his endeavor eventually took a serious toll on his health. By the end of the decade he was in such poor health that he had to take a break, and his research did not begin again in earnest until 1845. In 1846 he gave a lecture that presented important ideas about the nature of electricity, and these later inspired the historical work of James Maxwell related to electromagnetic field theory.

In the mid-1850s Faraday began to experience dementia or senility, and as he gradually lost the ability to take care of himself he was forced to retire from his scientific studies. Queen Victoria offered him Faraday knighthood, but he chose to decline it. He did, however, accept the Queen’s offer of free residence at Hampton Court, where he lived out the remainder of his years.

Michael Faraday died at Hampton Court on August 25, 1867, and is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London.

A Christmastime lecture tradition that Faraday established at the Royal Institution – about the subject of flames and candles – continues to entertain audiences even today. The unit of capacitance or “farad” is named after him, and Faraday’s portrait has appeared on British £20 currency notes.

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