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Faraday – the errand boy who became a scientific genius

Posted in Historical articles, History, Inventions, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 27 November 2012

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This edited article about Michael Faraday originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 788 published on 19th February 1977.

Michael Faraday, picture, image, illustration

Michael Faraday and the world of electricity

It was New Year’s Eve – and a very special one, too. For it was the beginning of the nineteenth century. Despite the fact that a terrible war was being fought against Napoleon, Londoners were making merry, and there were parties and feasting to celebrate a new age.

But in a broken-down house in a London slum, a nine-year-old boy had nothing but some bread and vegetable soup to mark the occasion.

There wasn’t much of that, for his mother had other children to feed, and times were bad. The boy’s father had been unwell for a long time, and he often had to stay in bed instead of shoeing horses and mending pots and pans.

But young Michael Faraday did not grumble. The truth was that he had rarely known what it was like to have a good meal. He longed for the day when he could help his mother by having a job himself.

Michael had little schooling, for his parents could not afford even the few pence a week charged by the local ragged school. But his father used the times when he was ill to give his boy lessons in writing and arithmetic.

Most of all, Michael loved to read. He would often loiter around the booksellers’ shops near Charing Cross, hastily reading through the bargain books displayed outside. Most of the shopkeepers told the little ragged boy to be off.

But one, a man named Riebau, let Michael read to his heart’s content.

Noticing the boy was there day after day, he asked him about himself. Michael explained about his father’s ill-health and the family poverty.

“Soon I hope to get a job and help my mother,” he said, trying to look bigger and older than he was.

Riebau stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Well, young fellow,” he said at last. “I could do with an errand boy who really knows London.”

“I know every street and alley for miles around,” Michael said instantly.

“All right,” said Riebau. “If your father agrees, you may start on Monday. I will pay you three shillings a week.”

Michael was too excited to say much. He rushed off to tell his parents the news. Three shillings would be almost a fortune to his mother.

So, at the age of twelve years of age, Michael Faraday ran round the streets of London delivering books.

The shop often put special bindings on books for customers who sent in their own manuscripts and magazines to be bound.

Michael used to read these papers when there were no errands to run, and the kindly Riebau decided that the boy ought to have a trade, and he began to teach him the art of bookbinding.

His apprenticeship lasted for eight years.

Some of the papers Michael bound together were scientific. He could not understand them, and he badgered the owners with questions. One of them, impressed and amused by the young man’s curiousity, gave him a ticket to a lecture by Sir Humphry Davy.

“Go and listen to him,” the customer told Michael. “He is probably the greatest scientist in England.”

This was true. Davy, known to us as the inventor of the safety lamp used in coal mines, was skilled in every kind of science. His lectures on electricity and chemistry drew great crowds of important people.

Young Michael sat enthralled among famous politicians, writers and business men. He made notes of everything Davy said and sketched all his experiments. That night, before he went to bed, he carefully wrote out his notes and made finished drawings of his rough sketches.

One or two things didn’t seem right. Next day, when delivering some books nearby, Michael put some folded sheets of paper through Sir Humphry Davy’s letterbox.

The great scientist was surprised to see his remarks set down word for word, and his experiments illustrated by beautiful drawings.

“This gentleman who signs himself Mr. Faraday, must be an American or a colonial,” said Davy to his secretary. “He is obviously of great scientific knowledge. If he were English I would know him. Send him a message to come and see me tomorrow afternoon.”

So it was that Davy, seated expectantly in his study, was flabbergasted when a shabby youth timidly knocked and entered.

Davy probed and questioned until he knew everything about Michael and his ambitions.

“Well, young man,” Davy said at last. “You are wasted at the booksellers. When you are a little older I’ll find you a place in my laboratory. Meanwhile, I hope you’ll regard me as your friend. Come here as often as you like.”

When Faraday joined Davy’s laboratory staff he became the scientist’s personal assistant – in fact much of Davy’s work went much farther than it would have done because of Faraday’s assistance.

To help with his education, Davy took Michael abroad with him. Lady Davy, not recognizing the young man as a genius, behaved very snobbishly to him and insisted that he should take his meals with the servants. This worried young Faraday not at all, for he was so intrigued by all he saw and heard in the world of science that the rest was mere detail.

By the age of thirty Faraday was a great scientist, able to earn a fortune in working out business firms’ manufacturing problems, and teaching at London University.

But he cast aside all thoughts of riches in order to learn more science.

The results were slow: ten years of hope, failure, and renewed hope. But the end was a triumph from which we all benefit today. Faraday invented the electric motor; the transformer which alters the course of electric current; and the dynamo, which “makes” electricity.

The dynamo was the most difficult of all his tasks. His first model was very simple – just a piece of wire whirling round and round close to a magnet. He could show that current in the wire flowed first one way and then the other.

“What is the use of such knowledge?” asked a woman who watched the demonstration.

Faraday smiled gently. “I hope it will have some use,” he said. “It is just a baby of mine. And who can say what is the use of a new-born child?”

The world soon learned of the use to which Faraday’s brain child could be put. A new form of energy had been bestowed on mankind – the harnessed energy of electricity.

But for the dynamo, we should not have electric light, telephone, radio, television and everything which depends on electricity for its operation.

Faraday was a pioneer in the world of metal alloys; he improved the manufacture of glass. His work on mercury paved the way for photography; he made plans for the modernisation of mines and framed many of the laws of science to give us a basis for today’s teaching.

When Madame Curie discovered radium she was carrying out the prophecies which Faraday had made regarding the radiant properties of matter.

One thing Faraday never forgot – and that was his own good fortune as a penniless boy. To help other children enjoy the wonders of science, he started the Christmas lectures at the Royal Institution. Here he made the dry-as-dust scientific theories spring to life.

Continued by succeeding speakers, the lectures still flourish, delighting schoolboys and schoolgirls, and putting many of them on the road to a career in science.

In his old age Queen Victoria gave the man who harnessed electricity a home in Hampton Court Palace, where he ended his days.

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