Michael Faraday: The Father of Electricity

By Adem Lewis / in , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , /

What is the first name that comes to mind
with the mention of electricity? Thomas Edison? Nikola Tesla? Perhaps even Benjamin Franklin. Yet Michael Faraday has every right to belong
on that list, too, as it’s impossible to imagine a world without his contributions to science. From chemistry to electricity, from theoretical
science to practical experiments that revolutionized the world, Faraday’s contributions can’t be
overstated. And there’s more to the story than just success;
it’s also a poignant tale of how anyone — regardless of their background, their education, or their
upbringing — can make a real impact. Faraday started out as just an everyday sort
of person, from a family that had no vast fortunes or resources. As a child, he often went to bed hungry. He had next to no formal education, and once
he did get an apprenticeship in the subject that had sparked his curiosity and determination,
he started at the absolute bottom. It’s a tale not just about science and discovery,
but the power of grit and determination… and a man who, at the end of his life, wasn’t
just remembered for his monumental advancements, but for his kindness as well. A Single Loaf’s Salary Little is known about Michael Faraday’s young
life, growing up in the area of London now known as Elephant and Castle. The reason for that is simple: it wasn’t the
sort of life anyone would really want to record, and his parents lived the sort of everyday
existence that danced on the edge of abject poverty. We do know that he was born on September 22,
1791, in Newington Butts — the aforementioned Elephant and Castle area of London. His father, James, was a blacksmith originally
from Yorkshire, who moved to the south and ultimately married the daughter of a Surrey
farmer. Our Faraday was one of four children, and
life was difficult. His father was ill for much of his childhood,
and that meant he wasn’t able to hold steady work. Often times, he wasn’t able to do much to
support his family. Life was hard, and it was the sort of hardship
that meant the family often went to bed hungry. In 1801, the family was actually awarded public
relief — for the then nine-year-old Michael, that came in the form of a single loaf of
bread per week. But even in the hardest of times, families
can sometimes find a way to make things work. For all the hardship, Faraday still grew up
knowing a mother who loved him dearly, and it was during his childhood that he came to
know what would be one of the biggest influences on his life — religion. The Faraday family belonged to a small sect
called the Sandemanians. They were an offshoot of the Christian faith,
founded only about 70 years before Faraday was born. The sect — descended from the Scottish Glassites
— believed that the Church should be beholden to no one and nothing but the original Apostolic
doctrine. Their faith was one of a devout and quiet
sort of piety, and they practiced things like a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper
and feet washing ceremonies. Accumulating wealth was seen as immoral, and
members were expected to share what they had with other Church members who were in need. The sect had mostly selfless beliefs, but
there’s a few things worth noting — particularly because Faraday’s identification with the
Sandemanian sect is something we’re going to come back to later in his life. Among their beliefs was a strict refusal to
pray alongside those of other faiths, even other Christians. Associating with those who had been excommunicated
was a major sin. But for now, during his childhood Faraday’s
association with the Church was a pleasant one. He read aloud during Sunday School, he was
an active member of the modest congregation, and it instilled a curiosity about the world
around him. Faraday was always a bright child, and while
he once credited a day school with teaching him the basics of reading and writing, it’s
arguable that his education truly began when he was 13 years old. That’s when he was sent to apprentice at perhaps
the best place a curious young mind could find itself: a London bookbinding shop. Even though he started out simply as an errand
boy, it wasn’t long before the bookbinder — a man named George Riebau — signed him
on for an eight-year apprenticeship. And while he was there, he was doing much
more than just running errands. He read each and every book they bound, including
works like Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry and much of the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was the articles on science, force, and
energy that particularly captivated the young Faraday, and opened up a whole new world that
would quickly get even wider. By 1810, Faraday had joined the City Philosophical
Society, and in spite of the somewhat deceiving name, it was a society of young people who
gathered on a weekly basis to listen to lectures on some of the most cutting-edge science of
the day. Fast forward a bit to 1812, and this is when
things really started to change. One of the bookbinder’s customers was William
Dance, who was one of the founders of the Royal Philharmonic Society. He was the one who gave young Faraday four
tickets — one to each of Humphry Davy’s last four lectures given at the Royal Institution. And that was when he found a calling worth
fighting for. No one’s going to just hand you what you want… By the time Faraday headed off to Davy’s lectures,
he had already begun to experiment with what he read about in the books that had come through
the little shop where he worked. He had already built his own electrostatic
generator out of some wood and a few old bottles, and had dabbled in his own electrochemical
experiments. When he listened to Davy’s lectures, he was
captivated — so captivated, in fact, that he decided this was where he wanted to be. And here’s the thing — there was no reason
that Davy should have given him a second glance. He was largely self-educated, from a poor
London family, and when push came to shove, he absolutely wasn’t the sort of person you’d
expect to see accepted into a prestigious position in the scientific community. Still, you don’t get anywhere in life without
putting yourself out there, and Faraday had the tools to do exactly that. He took extremely detailed notes during Davy’s
lectures, then headed back to his day job and turned those notes into a bound book,
which he then sent to Davy — along with a rather brazen application for apprenticeship. How brazen was it? Davy was one of the leading chemists of his
day, and when it comes to famous scientists through the lens of hindsight, he’s still
up there. By the time Faraday reached out to him, Davy
had already been appointed to the Royal Institution as a regular lecturer, then ultimately, as
a professor. He would turn it into a sort of advanced research
center for some of the era’s brightest and most innovative minds, and he had a slew of
credits to his name, too. Look back on his career today, and you’ll
find it’s one full of impressive achievements — including the discovery of how to isolate
sodium, potassium, calcium, and other alkaline earths. Additionally, and perhaps of note to those
of us who loathe going to the dentist, he did extensive research on nitrous oxide. That’s better known as laughing gas today. Davy proposed using it as an anesthetic for
minor surgeries, though his suggestion was, at the time, mostly ignored. Instead, it became the cool, fun thing to
do at English parties. Davy was at a point where he definitely could
have just cast Faraday’s application aside without a second glance, but he didn’t — perhaps
because he was, himself, a self-made scientist who grew up as the son of a poor Cornish woodcarver. Davy had to turn him down, at first — there
was simply no position open for him. But when one of Davy’s assistants was fired
for fighting just a few months later, he reached out to Faraday and offered him the job. Gainful Employment Today, Faraday is remembered most for his
work in electricity, but he didn’t start out there. When he started working with Davy in 1813,
his official title was Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution. That was in March; by the time October rolled
around, he found himself embarking on a different sort of adventure… although “adventure”
is probably being generous. In October of 1813, Davy and Faraday set off
to the continent. It was the chance of a lifetime, certainly,
but there was a catch. The passports for the group had been issued
by Napoleon, and he had made allowances for Davy, Davy’s wife, a maid, and a valet. Nowhere in that list is anything like “research
assistant,” or even “secretary,” so it quickly became clear that if Faraday wanted to go,
he was going to have to be a valet, too. The trip — which only ended in April of
1815 — led to some serious conflict within the group. Accounts suggest that Davy’s wife, Jane, insisted
on treating Faraday only like a servant. He, of course, took great exception to the
role, and it fell to Davy to keep the peace. Regardless of the conflict, Faraday was exposed
to some of the scientific world’s most cutting-edge research. In France, they saw chemists demonstrating
the electro-chemical nature of iodine, and in Italy, they got unprecedented access to
the Duke of Tuscany’s great lens. There, they were able to take a diamond and
turn it into carbon, which would probably be pretty awesome to witness even in our jaded,
21st century world. From there, it was on to Switzerland and into
the south of Germany, but here’s where things get a little fuzzy. The trip was supposed to continue, but it
didn’t — whether that was due to internal conflict or external affairs is unclear, but
it was about then that they headed back to England and Faraday retired his valet’s jacket
in favor of his original post as Chemical Assistant. There, he was once again able to work on projects
that more befitted his drive, including the Miner’s Safety Lamp — a project that ultimately
resulted in a light source much less likely to ignite the methane gas commonly found in
mines. He worked with others at the institute, too,
including a maker of surgical instruments named James Stoddart. Together, they were trying to invent a way
to improve the quality of steel. And through it all, Faraday was still just
an apprentice, remember. His apprenticeship didn’t end until 1820,
and by the time it did come to an end, it was clear that Faraday was just as much an
expert in the field of chemistry as Davy was. It came as no surprise when, in 1821, he was
appointed Superintendent of the House at the Royal Institution. It was a position that saw him being put in
charge of the physical buildings — a huge deal, considering that at the time, they housed
some of the finest scientific research laboratories in Europe. Powering Up The year 1821 was an important one for Faraday
— not only because of his new appointment with the Royal Institution, but also because
he married Sarah Barnard. She, too, was a member of the Sandemanian
faith, hailing from one of the church’s leading London families. Less than a month after they were married,
Faraday performed his Confession of Faith and was welcomed into the church as a full-fledged
member… which, again, might seem like a relatively minor detail, but one that we’ll
come back to. It was also in 1821 that he made a major scientific
discovery; it’s not even an exaggeration to say that this one changed the world. It started when he read a paper by the Danish
natural philosopher Hans Christian Oersted. He was writing about his discovery of this
thing called “electro-magnetism,” but there was some difficulty in getting the theory
across in a way that was easily understood. Since Oersted first wrote his paper in Latin
before having it translated to various European languages, it didn’t quite capture all the
nuances of his style, which was more naturally philosophical than nakedly scientific. In fact, Faraday himself wrote, “I have very
little to say on M. Oersted’s theory, for I must confess I do not quite understand it.” Still, you might say that Oersted’s theory
sparked something in Michael Faraday. Later that year, he had set up a surprisingly
simple experiment at the Royal Institution that proved it was possible to use magnets
to turn electricity into mechanical energy. The first surviving example of Faraday’s mechanism
is one that he built in 1822, and it’s essentially a glass vessel partially filled with mercury. Ah, the good ol’ days. It’s worth pointing out to anyone who might
want to try this at home that we also need to say, “Do not try this at home.” Mercury is in the World Health Organization’s
top ten chemicals that are cause for a major health concern. It’s toxic when ingested or inhaled, so again…
don’t try this. As dangerous as mercury is, it’s also an excellent
conductor, so it was perfect for Faraday’s experiments. He took this mercury-filled glass, secured
a magnet to the bottom, and suspended a wire into it from above. An external battery sent a current into the
wire, which created a magnetic field, interacted with the magnetic one, and caused the wire
to spin. It was the first electric motor, and if you
stop to think about all the things that we rely on today — and have relied on for decades
— that have electric motors, you’ll get some idea of just how monumental this discovery
was. It also led Faraday down another path when
it came to the theory of electricity: it made him contemplate the possibility that electricity
wasn’t a fluid after all, like many believed at the time. He envisioned it as a force, or a vibration,
something that was transmitted instead of being allowed to flow. And that breakthrough was a huge deal. For the next two decades, Faraday worked at
the Royal Institution and set up countless experiments. His work with electricity was on hiatus for
much of the 1820s as he worked with the British Admiralty to design an improved optical glass,
and it wasn’t until 1831 that he really got back to doing what the world needed him to
do… they just didn’t know it yet. His work on the theory of electrochemistry
came in that same year, when he developed the ideas of electromagnetic induction, which
would go on to become the basic principle that formed the groundwork of things like
generators and electric transformers. He coined words we all heard in science classes,
words like “ion,” “cathode,” and “electrode.” It’s impossible to talk about all of his theories,
discoveries, and advancements in such a short time, but there’s one more that’s definitely
worth a mention — it came in 1836, and it’s the Faraday cage. You’ve probably heard of them in that aforementioned
science class and you’ve probably seen one, but you might not realize just how important
they are. The Faraday cage is fairly simple: it collects
and distributes electrostatic charges across the exterior of the cage, protecting what’s
in it. Even if you’re only vague familiar with the
idea, you’ve been inside Faraday cages a lot — both our cars and our aircraft are protected
by Faraday cages, and while you might not worry to much about being struck by lightning
while you’re driving along to Sunday dinner with the in-laws… in which case, you might
be hoping for a little of that lightning… it’s a very real danger when you’re thousands
of feet in the air. Faraday cages are actually everywhere, and
while yes, they are put in place on purpose to protect important things like top secret
and proprietary information, there’s also one in your kitchen right now. The mesh that’s over the window in your microwave? That’s part of the Faraday cage that allows
you to reheat your leftover pizza in complete safety by keeping most of the microwave radiation
on the inside, so, like we said — it’s a big deal. A temporary fall from grace While Faraday was conducting — again, no
pun intended, we promise! — his experiments, there was, of course, a lot going on in his
everyday life… and this is where we go back to his faith. In 1832, Faraday had been appointed to the
Deacon’s office of his church, and it wasn’t long after that the continued strain of experiments,
theories, writing, and lecturers took a toll on his health. It led to him stepping back a bit, and he
did little work between 1839 and 1845. In 1840, he was made an Elder in the church. It wasn’t just handed to him because of his
scientific work, but because he was recognized as an upstanding and devout figure in the
community. This makes Faraday something of an anomaly
in the scientific community, because it’s well known that science and religion rarely
go hand-in-hand. But Faraday firmly believed that not only
should the Bible be taken literally — that God really did create everything in the natural
world — but he also believed that the natural laws he was working with and exploring had
been put in place by God. By conducting his experiments and proving
his theories, he truly thought he was getting closer to understanding God’s plan… or,
at least the laws that God had put in place to keep the world running. While it might seem that the Sandemanians
would be grateful to have such a devout Elder in their church, it wasn’t without conflict. We mentioned that the traditions of the Sandemanians
involved the observation of a weekly, Sunday supper — The Lord’s Supper. In 1844, Faraday missed one of those suppers,
and wasn’t just removed from his position as an Elder, he was excommunicated for it. He had an extremely good reason for missing
the meal — Queen Victoria had invited him to be her personal, honored guest, and that’s
just not the sort of thing you turn down. He was eventually welcomed back into the church,
and in 1845 he once again picked up his scientific research. Much of his work was theoretical, exploring
the unity of forces, but he also took on a fascinating — and massive — project: figuring
out how to update and upgrade England’s lighthouses. An estimated 10 percent of his correspondence
involved this project, and he was the one who decided — after doing extensive testing
himself — that Frederick Holmes’s suggestion of using a carbon arc lamp was the way to
go. In 1858, the first electric lighthouse lit
its beacon, thanks to Faraday’s work. Between 1864 and 1866, London saw the construction
of their only lighthouse. It stands on the intersection of the Thames
and the River Lee, and it’s where Faraday oversaw the testing of new lighthouse technology. Even though there’s plenty of inventions we
know him for today, there was only one patent he was ever awarded, and that was for a chimney
that would be installed in lighthouses in order to prevent the combustion of gases. It was designed at the Docklands lighthouse,
and it was Faraday who supervised the monumental task of electrifying all lighthouses. Even the brightest lights begin to fade By the time Faraday saw lighthouses converted
to electric lamps, he already knew that his mind was beginning to fail him. By 1855, he had largely retired from experimental
and theoretical work. His attempts at converting gravity into another
force — as he had converted electrical energy into mechanical energy — had failed, and
he refused to publish any of his work on the problem. He was offered a knighthood but declined it,
saying that he would be plain “Mr. Faraday” until he died, and this is a case where his
refusals say just as much about his character as his achievement. He also declined an offer of the presidency
of the Royal Society — twice — and also refused to work with the government when it
came time to develop chemical weapons for the Crimean War. Those who wrote about him consistently wrote
about a humble and kind person, who was more concerned with his faith and his science than
with awards and accolades. He did accept a small pension from the queen,
and in 1851, census records showed him living at the place he had worked at for so long,
the Royal Institution. In 1858, Queen Victoria also gave him the
use of a Grace and Favor House, located in Hampton Court, as a thank-you for all he had
done not just for science, but for the country. It was at this house that he died, in 1867. There was just a few thousand pounds that
needed to be distributed through his will, and while he left most to his wife, he also
left money to Miss Savage, “the valued and faithful Housekeeper of the Royal Institution,”
and to his niece, Jane. To the rest of us, he left quite a bit of
wonderful wisdom, including this thought: “No matter what you look at, if you look at
it closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe.”

27 thoughts on “Michael Faraday: The Father of Electricity

  1. 1:45 I legit thought you were going to proceed to tell us why on earth a town would be named "Elephant and Castle"… very disappointed!

  2. The curl of the electric field at some point is equal to the negative change in the magnetic field at that same point. A law such as this will assure that one survives in name at least indefinitely.

  3. Charles Proteus Steinmetz, JC Maxwell, Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Townsend Brown, Viktor Hlavaty, Thomas Edison, JP Morgan, Albert Einstein, Heinrich Hertz, etc. Dielectrics and Magnetism.

  4. They all rave about how Nikola Tesla, invented the Battery tech and electric items! But without Michael Faraday we would not and Tesla would not be where they were or are now? After all, do they use Tesla cage to protect us from electricity and microwaves.. NO it's a Faraday Cage… that speaks for it's self.. Plus electro metal plating that was invented by Faraday.. electro chemical work Faraday! and so many other processes.. So sorry Tesla without Faraday's work and invention and self taught skills we all be worse off process wise and electric wise.

  5. what do you mean they turned a diamond into carbon? it IS already carbon…

    Its like saying I turned a potato chip into a fried and salted flake of potato…

  6. I worked on a secret military project in 1988-9 the entire building was a Faraday cage — not to protect us but to prevent signals from the computers from leaking out.

  7. T=17:35. “This makes Faraday something of an anomaly… “ Faradays’ beliefs were much more prevalent in his day than in ours. Sir Isaac Newton wrote more on Theology than on science. That said, today many scientist and engineers are active evangelical Christians. Just because we understand the underlying principles of how the universe works doesn’t mean there isn’t a Creator.

    Excellent vlog, SW. Well balanced. Thank you!

  8. If you look back at the Scientist who have made the most profound discoveries that we still use today.
    People like Einstein, Tesla, Faraday and others. You will see that there is one thing that the vast majority of them all had in common.
    They believed in God.

  9. Extra facts…
    Eienstien kept a photograph of Faraday on his desk.
    Faraday appeared on the £10 UK cash note in the 90s.
    A scientist character from the series Lost was named after faraday.

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