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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Michael Faraday

From Graces Guide


Michael Faraday, FRS (September 22, 1791 – August 25, 1867) was an English chemist and physicist (or natural philosopher, in the terminology of that time) who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. Brother of Robert Faraday

Faraday studied the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a DC electric current, and established the basis for the magnetic field concept in physics. He discovered electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis. He established that magnetism could affect rays of light and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. His inventions of electromagnetic rotary devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became viable for use in technology.

As a chemist, Faraday discovered benzene, investigated the clathrate hydrate of chlorine, invented an early form of the Bunsen burner and the system of oxidation numbers, and popularized terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion.

Although Faraday received little formal education and knew little of higher mathematics, such as calculus, he was one of the most influential scientists in history. Some historians of science refer to him as the best experimentalist in the history of science. The SI unit of capacitance, the farad, is named after him, as is the Faraday constant, the charge on a mole of electrons (about 96,485 coulombs). Faraday's law of induction states that a magnetic field changing in time creates a proportional electromotive force.

Faraday was the first and foremost Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, a position to which he was appointed for life.

Michael Faraday was born in Newington Butts, near present-day South London. His father, James, was a blacksmith and a member of the Sandemanian sect of Christianity. James Faraday had come to London in the 1780s from North-West England. The young Michael Faraday, one of four children, having only the most basic of school educations, had to largely educate himself.

At fourteen he became apprenticed to a local bookbinder and bookseller George Riebau and, during his seven-year apprenticeship, he read many books, including Isaac Watts' The Improvement of the Mind, the principles and suggestions contained therein he enthusiastically implemented. He developed an interest in science and specifically in electricity. In particular, he was inspired by the book Conversations in Chemistry by Jane Marcet.

At the age of twenty, in 1812, at the end of his apprenticeship, Faraday attended lectures by the eminent English chemist and physicist Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution and Royal Society, and John Tatum, founder of the City Philosophical Society. Many tickets for these lectures were given to Faraday by William Dance (one of the founders of the Royal Philharmonic Society). Afterwards, Faraday sent Davy a three hundred page book based on notes taken during the lectures. Davy's reply was immediate, kind, and favorable. When Davy damaged his eyesight in an accident with nitrogen trichloride, he decided to employ Faraday as a secretary. When John Payne, one of the Royal Institution's assistants, was fired, Sir Humphry Davy was asked to find a replacement. He appointed Faraday as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution on March 1.

In the class-based English society of the time, Faraday was not considered a gentleman. When Davy went on a long tour to the continent in 1813-5, his valet did not wish to go. Faraday was going as Davy's scientific assistant, and was asked to act as Davy's valet until a replacement could be found in Paris. Davy failed to find a replacement, and Faraday was forced to fill the role of valet as well as assistant throughout the trip. Davy's wife, Jane Apreece, refused to treat Faraday as an equal (making him travel outside the coach, eat with the servants, etc.) and generally made Faraday so miserable that he contemplated returning to England alone and giving up science altogether. The trip did, however, give him access to the European scientific elite and a host of stimulating ideas.

His sponsor and mentor was John 'Mad Jack' Fuller, who created the Fullerian Professorship of Chemistry at the Royal Institution.

Faraday was a devout Christian and a member of the small Sandemanian denomination, an offshoot of the Church of Scotland. He later served two terms as an elder in the group's church.

Faraday married Sarah Barnard (1800-1879) on June 2, 1821, although they would never have children. They met through attending the Sandemanian church.

He was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1824, appointed director of the laboratory in 1825; and in 1833 he was appointed Fullerian professor of chemistry in the institution for life, without the obligation to deliver lectures.

Faraday's earliest chemical work was as an assistant to Davy. He made a special study of chlorine, and discovered two new chlorides of carbon. He also made the first rough experiments on the diffusion of gases, a phenomenon first pointed out by John Dalton, the physical importance of which was more fully brought to light by Thomas Graham and Joseph Loschmidt. He succeeded in liquefying several gases; he investigated the alloys of steel, and produced several new kinds of glass intended for optical purposes. A specimen of one of these heavy glasses afterwards became historically important as the substance in which Faraday detected the rotation of the plane of polarisation of light when the glass was placed in a magnetic field, and also as the substance which was first repelled by the poles of the magnet. He also endeavoured, with some success, to make the general methods of chemistry, as distinguished from its results, the subject of special study and of popular exposition.

He invented an early form of what was to become the Bunsen burner, which is used almost universally in science laboratories as a convenient source of heat.

Faraday worked extensively in the field of chemistry, discovering chemical substances such as benzene (which he called bicarburet of hydrogen), inventing the system of oxidation numbers, and liquefying gases such as chlorine. In 1820 Faraday reported on the first syntheses of compounds made from carbon and chlorine, C2H6 and C2H4, and published his results the following year. Faraday also determined the composition of the chlorine clathrate hydrate, which had been discovered by Humphry Davy in 1810.

Faraday also discovered the laws of electrolysis and popularized terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion, terms largely created by William Whewell.

Faraday was the first to report what later came to be called metallic nanoparticles. In 1847 he discovered that the optical properties of gold colloids differed from those of the corresponding bulk metal. This was probably the first reported observation of the effects of quantum size, and might be considered to be the birth of nanoscience.

Faraday's greatest work was with electricity and magnetism. The first experiment which he recorded was the construction of a voltaic pile with seven halfpence pieces, stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water. With this pile he decomposed sulphate of magnesia (first letter to Abbott, July 12, 1812).

In 1821, soon after the Danish physicist and chemist, Hans Christian Ørsted discovered the phenomenon of electromagnetism, Davy and British scientist William Hyde Wollaston tried but failed to design an electric motor. Faraday, having discussed the problem with the two men, went on to build two devices to produce what he called electromagnetic rotation: a continuous circular motion from the circular magnetic force around a wire and a wire extending into a pool of mercury with a magnet placed inside would rotate around the magnet if supplied with current from a chemical battery. The latter device is known as a homopolar motor.

These experiments and inventions form the foundation of modern electromagnetic technology. Faraday published his results without acknowledging his debt to Wollaston and Davy, and the resulting controversy caused Faraday to withdraw from electromagnetic research for several years. At this stage, there is also evidence to suggest that Davy may have been trying to slow Faraday’s rise as a scientist (or natural philosopher as it was known then).

In 1825, for instance, Davy set him onto optical glass experiments, which progressed for six years with no great results. It was not until Davy's death, in 1829, that Faraday stopped these fruitless tasks and moved on to endeavors that were more worthwhile.

Two years later, in 1831, he began his great series of experiments in which he discovered electromagnetic induction. (Joseph Henry likely discovered self-induction a few months earlier and both may have been anticipated by the work of Francesco Zantedeschi in Italy in 1829 and 1830.

Faraday's breakthrough came when he wrapped two insulated coils of wire around a massive iron ring, bolted to a chair, and found that upon passing a current through one coil, a momentary current was induced in the other coil. This phenomenon is known as mutual induction. The iron ring-coil apparatus is still on display at the Royal Institution.

In subsequent experiments he found that if he moved a magnet through a loop of wire, an electric current flowed in the wire. The current also flowed if the loop was moved over a stationary magnet. His demonstrations established that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field. This relation was mathematically modelled by Faraday's law, which subsequently became one of the four Maxwell equations. These in turn have evolved into the generalization known today as field theory.

Faraday later used the principle to construct the electric dynamo, the ancestor of modern power generators.

1838 Michael Faraday became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

In 1839 he completed a series of experiments aimed at investigating the fundamental nature of electricity and research for Trinity House for the electric lighting of the lighthouses [2]. Faraday used "static", batteries, and "animal electricity" to produce the phenomena of electrostatic attraction, electrolysis, magnetism, etc. He concluded that, contrary to scientific opinion of the time, the divisions between the various "kinds" of electricity were illusory. Faraday instead proposed that only a single "electricity" exists, and the changing values of quantity and intensity (voltage and charge) would produce different groups of phenomena.[3]

Near the end of his career Faraday proposed that electromagnetic forces extended into the empty space around the conductor. This idea was rejected by his fellow scientists, and Faraday did not live to see this idea eventually accepted. Faraday's concept of lines of flux emanating from charged bodies and magnets provided a way to visualize electric and magnetic fields. That mental model was crucial to the successful development of electromechanical devices which dominated engineering and industry for the remainder of the 19th century.

In 1845 he discovered the phenomenon that he named diamagnetism, and what is now called the Faraday effect: The plane of polarization of linearly polarized light propagated through a material medium can be rotated by the application of an external magnetic field aligned in the propagation direction. He wrote in his notebook, "I have at last succeeded in illuminating a magnetic curve or line of force and in magnetising a ray of light". This established that magnetic force and light were related.

In his work on static electricity, Faraday demonstrated that the charge only resided on the exterior of a charged conductor, and exterior charge had no influence on anything enclosed within a conductor. This is because the exterior charges redistribute such that the interior fields due to them cancel. This shielding effect is used in what is now known as a Faraday cage.

Faraday was an excellent experimentalist who conveyed his ideas in clear and simple language. However, his mathematical abilities did not extend as far as trigonometry or any but the simplest algebra. It was James Clerk Maxwell who took the work of Faraday, and others, and consolidated it with a set of equations that lie at the base of all modern theories of electromagnetic phenomena.

Beyond his scientific research into areas such as chemistry, electricity, and magnetism at the Royal Institution, Faraday undertook numerous, and often time-consuming, service projects for private enterprise and the British government. This work included investigations of explosions in mines, being an expert witness in court, and the preparation of high-quality optical glass.

As a respected scientist in a nation with strong maritime interests, Faraday spent extensive amounts of time on projects such as the construction and operation of light houses and protecting the bottoms of ships from corrosion.

Faraday also was active in what would now be called environmental science, or engineering. He investigated industrial pollution at Swansea and was consulted on air pollution at the Royal Mint. In July of 1855, Faraday wrote a letter to The Times on the subject of the foul condition of the River Thames, which resulted in an oft-reprinted cartoon in Punch.

Faraday assisted with planning and judging of exhibits for the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. He also advised the National Gallery on the cleaning and protection of its art collection, and served on the National Gallery Site Commission in 1857.

Education was another area of service for Faraday. He lectured on the topic in 1854 at the Royal Institution, and in 1862 he appeared before a Public Schools Commission to give his views on education in Great Britain. Faraday also weighed in, negatively, on the public's fascination with table-turning, mesmerism, and seances, chastising both the public and the nation's educational system.

In June of 1832, the University of Oxford granted Faraday a Doctor of Civil Law degree (honorary). During his lifetime, Faraday rejected a knighthood and twice refused to become President of the Royal Society.

In 1848, as a result of representations by the Prince Consort, Michael Faraday was awarded a grace and favour house in Hampton Court, Surrey free of all expenses or upkeep. This was the Master Mason's House, later called Faraday House, and now No. 37 Hampton Court Road. In 1858 Faraday retired to live there.

Faraday died at his house at Hampton Court on August 25, 1867. He turned down burial in Westminster Abbey, but he has a memorial plaque there, near Isaac Newton's tomb. Faraday was interred in the Sandemanian plot in Highgate Cemetery.

Faraday gave a successful series of lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames at the Royal Institution, entitled The Chemical History of a Candle. This was one of the earlier Christmas lectures for young people, which are still given each year. Between 1827 and 1860, Faraday gave the Christmas lecture a record nineteen times.

Faraday refused to participate in the production of chemical weapons for the Crimean War citing ethical reasons.

1868. Shortly after Faraday's death his Royal Institution Apparatus was given by Mrs. Faraday to the porter of the Royal Institution. He accordingly sold them piece-meal, and even parts of the same apparatus, to different buyers, and thus broke up combinations that probably few men: besides Faraday himself really understood. [3]

Recollections by J. B. Dancer

To the Editor of the Manchester Courier.

Sir, —The late Dr. Faraday's kindly disposition, sincerity, and modesty are well known to those who had the privilege of coming into contact with that eminent chemist and electrician. The following illustrations of the above-named good qualities came under my own observation :—

The seventh annual meeting of the British Association was held Liverpool, under the presidency of the Earl of Burlington, in the year 1837. Dr. Faraday was president of the Chemical Section at that meeting. Dr. Robert Kane (now Sir Robert), the well-known chemist, read a paper on "Pyro-acetic Spirit" before the members one of the Chemical Section meetings; in this paper frequent use was made of the word atom when referring to the elementary constituents of the spirit. During the reading of the paper the late Professor Whewell, then master of Trinity, Cambridge, entered the section room, arm-in-arm with the late Sir William Rowen Hamilton, the accomplished linguist and eminent mathematician, then Astronomer Royal for Ireland. These gentlemen remained standing near one end of the lecture table. After listening for a short time to Dr. Kane, Professor Whewell somewhat abruptly interrupted the lecturer, and in his usual authoritative tone said that he and his friend, Sir William Hamilton, considered themselves the guardians of mathematical science, and in that capacity they objected to the employment of the word atom by chemists, it was strictly a mathematical expression. At this point there were audible murmurs of disapprobation from the audience. It was evident, from Dr. Kane's countenance, that he was somewhat disconcerted by this unexpected interruption. At this juncture Dr. Faraday left the chair and advanced to the end of the table, near to which Professor Whewell was standing. Leaning over the table he, with smiling countenance, addressed Professor Whewell. He said that chemists were obliged to employ language to express their ideas, and the word atom was one in common use amongst them. He thought, however, that the objection raised by Professor Whewell and his friend might be removed by the creation of another atom. Mathematicians might keep their own mathematical atom, and allow chemists to have a chemical atom of their own. Dr. Faraday's good humour and pleasing manner restored order in the assembly. Before retiring from the table, Dr. Faraday said — l have noticed a venerable gentleman standing amongst the audience apparently unable to obtain a seat —I allude to Dr. Thomson, the well-known chemist—it is to that gentleman I owe my present position. Whilst I was a bookbinder's apprentice I had an opportunity of reading Dr. Thomson's work on chemistry, which came to be bound, and that work first directed my attention to chemistry. I cannot resume my seat whilst I see that venerable gentleman standing. A way was made for Dr. Thomson to get on to the platform, where he was accommodated with a seat along with the vice-presidents of the section. Dr. Faraday then resumed the chair amid the plaudits of the assembly, and Dr. Kane proceeded with his paper.

'At that period, 1837, my leisure time was occupied in experimenting, with a view to improving Voltaire batteries. I was especially desirous to prevent the waste of metal which immediately commenced on immersing zinc plates in dilute acid. I was aware this local action was set up by the presence of minute quantities of cadmium, arsenic, iron, &c., which the commercial zinc contained. I also knew that pure zinc was not acted on under similar conditions. The question then was how could pure zinc be obtained sufficiently cheap to employ it for battery plates? To help me over this difficulty I determined to seek the advice of Dr. Faraday. Accordingly, at the close of one of the meetings I introduced myself to that philosopher, and told him my story. He laid his hand on my shoulder, and in a very kind and pleasant tone said : "My young friend, you have put question to to which lam sorry to say I cannot give a satisfactory reply. I have given the same subject a considerable amount of attention, but hitherto without success. The present method of preparing pure zinc is complicated and too expensive for use as battery plates. Should I hear of, or discover any means for preventing this local action, I will not forget to inform you. On the other hand, if you should discover any method of preventing this waste of material, I hope you will communicate with me." At that time amalgamating zinc plates with mercury, in order to prevent local action when immersed in dilute acid, was not practised. How very different it fared with friend of mine, who introduced a clever optical experiment (now well-known to the public) to the notice of Professor Whewell. The professor merely glanced at the apparatus then, raising his hand, he said, "Take it away, sir, take it away ; it is a mere toy."—
Yours, &c, J. B. DANCER. Greenheys, Manchester, October 13,1886.[4]

Faraday as a Chemist by Sir William J. Pope (1925)

Michael Faraday was born in 1791, the son of a working blacksmith in London. During the distress of 1801, when corn rose to over £9 a quarter, his family received public relief and one loaf of bread was allotted weekly to the nine-year old child. His systematic education was rudimentary in character, for in his thirteenth year he became errand-boy to a bookseller in the neighbourhood of Manchester-square, and was entrusted with the duty of distributing the Sunday newspapers.

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1868 Obituary [5]

....He was elected an Honorary Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 26th of June, 1838.....

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1838 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. The Engineer 1879/03/28
  3. The Engineer 1868/08/21
  4. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 15 October 1886
  5. 1868 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries