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Faraday – the blacksmith’s son whose discoveries revolutionised the nineteenth century

Posted in Discoveries, Historical articles, History, Science on Friday, 17 January 2014

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This edited article about science first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 516 published on 4 December 1971.

Michael Faraday, picture, image, illustration

Michael Faraday

In a few shabby rooms over an old coach house in Jacob’s Wells Mews, near Manchester Square, London, the Faraday family settled to a quiet evening. James Faraday, the blacksmith, weary from a day’s hard work at his anvil relaxed by the fireside. Margaret, his wife, busied herself in the kitchen. Robert, the older boy, was joking with his sister Margaret.

Michael Faraday, then aged thirteen, was absorbed in a book.

The year was 1812. Christmas had just passed. It had been a Christmas without luxuries or presents, for the family was so poor that at one time they had sought poor relief.

But they were a happy and united family. Poor James Faraday strove manfully to maintain his wife and three children, and all worshipped regularly at the Sandemanian Church – the Sandemanians were a little-known Christian sect whose members kept strictly to Biblical teaching, who considered it sinful to accumulate money, and who acknowledged no priests but simply “elders.”

To help the family survive, Michael worked for a bookbinder, a French refugee called de la Roche who had a quick temper but was actually a good-hearted man who admired the boy’s intelligence and industry. It just puzzled and annoyed him that Michael should be so obsessed with science, and wasted so much of his time at lectures. Bookbinding was an interesting and profitable trade – scientists were amongst the worst-paid people in the country.

Then, that evening as the winter winds howled outside, young Michael detected other sounds – the rhythmic clip-clop of horses’ hoofs and the rattle of carriage wheels on the cobbles of the courtyard. He opened the window and looked out. A splendid carriage was stopping at their door!

A liveried footman got out with a letter addressed to Michael Faraday. Michael opened it with trembling hands.

It was from Sir Humphry Davy, the famous scientist and lecturer at the Royal Institution. It read: “I am far from displeased with the proof you have given me of your confidence, which displays great zeal, power of memory and attention . . . I will see you at any time you wish.”

Michael could hardly believe his eyes. Here he was, a child of almost no formal education, invited to meet the great man himself!

But Michael, although he had learned only the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic at day school, had tried hard to improve himself. He had attended lectures in natural philosophy given by a Mr. Tatum in his house off Fleet Street, his brother Robert providing the shilling that each lecture cost. Before going to work for de la Roche, he had been apprenticed to a kindly bookseller and bookbinder, Mr. Riebau, who encouraged him in study and gave him time off to attend lectures.

Also living over the shop, there was a French artist who, in appreciation of Michael cleaning his room and blacking his boots, taught the boy perspective drawing. And there was a Mr. Dance, a customer in Riebau’s shop and a member of the Royal Institution, who had given Michael tickets for the last series of lectures by Sir Humphry Davy.

At those lectures Michael, sitting up in the gallery, had listened with rapt attention, scribbling furiously in his notebook and drawing with facility the apparatus which Sir Humphry used to illustrate his points.

At home, Faraday had expanded on these notes, illustrated his 360-page thesis with neat drawings, bound them in leather as well as any professional bookbinder, and sent them to Sir Humphry.

And that was why the famous scientist had written Michael that kindly and sensible letter. He could recognise the makings of a good scientist and scholar.

When he eventually met the boy, he was impressed even more. He learned that Michael read every book that he had bound.

Sir Humphry now engaged Michael as his assistant, at twenty-five shillings a week, and soon they were working together in his laboratory in Albemarle Street on the dangerous experiments with chlorine in which Sir Humphry had already injured himself four times in explosions.

Young Michael shared the excitement and the risk. Several times he hurt himself and on one occasion was nearly blinded when pieces of glass were blown into his eyes.

Towards the end of 1831, Sir Humphry went on a grand tour of the Continent, visiting museums, academies and learned institutions of every kind, and meeting famous experimenters and scientists. He took Michael with him, and apparatus to continue experiments during their travels.

It was for Michael a fascinating journey. They journeyed through France, Italy and Switzerland. In Florence, they inspected Galileo’s first telescope. They stood together on the edge of the crater of the volcano Vesuvius and were half choked by fumes and nearly burned alive by showers of molten rock.

The two men returned to London and resumed their experiments, and Michael Faraday’s salary was increased to thirty shillings a week, out of which he supported his mother and paid for the boarding school education of his sister. In 1821, he married Miss Sarah Barnard, a member of the Sandemanian church, and in due course was given living accommodation in the Royal Institution.

Faraday was an incessant experimenter, forever tinkering with electricity, and it was this tinkering that brought him to his greatest discovery. In 1831 (he was now 40 and earning £2 a week, plus rooms, coal and candles) he demonstrated before another scientific body, the Royal Society, that a continuous flow of electricity could be produced by magnetism, i.e. that an electrical force is set up in a conducting wire when it is moved at right-angles to a magnetic field. In effect, he had discovered the principle of the dynamo, by which most of the world’s electricity is now produced.

This was the crowning result of twenty-five years of continuous research. It revolutionised the world, opening up immense new possibilities of development – radar, the cinema, television, space travel, computers, electric trains, domestic lighting and cooking, electrically-driven machinery are just a few of the advances we owe indirectly to the modest, hardworking man who cared nothing at all about money and wished only to pursue truth and make it available to everyone.

Disdain for money was part of Michael Faraday’s religion, but he had also learned from his hero, Sir Humphry Davy, that an experimenter should regard himself as a public servant. For example, when Sir Humphry invented the Davy lamp, which saved thousands of lives in coal mines by limiting the possibility of explosions, he refused to patent it, so that all who wished could manufacture it.

Like Davy, Faraday loved lecturing, and his audiences loved his simple language and straightforward, often humorous way of proving his point. In 1826, he started courses in science for juveniles, remembering his own boyish enthusiasm.

Apart from electricity, Faraday’s experiments covered an astonishing range. He published over 450 accounts of his researches.

As scientific adviser to Trinity House, which was responsible for the upkeep of lighthouses around Britain, he visited and inspected lighthouses in the remotest places, and did much to improve the conditions of those who lived and worked in them.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday was still a poor man, so Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria and a great patron of the sciences, placed at Faraday’s disposal a house at Hampton Court.

Gradually his health failed. He died at Hampton Court on 25th August, 1867.

We are perpetually in debt to the errand-boy genius, but perhaps his best epitaph was spoken by Sir Humphry Davy. When he was asked what he considered his greatest discovery, in a flash he answered: “Michael Faraday.”

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