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Faraday, Michael

Category: Genius


Michael Faraday, FRS ( 1791 –  1867) was an English scientist who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.  His main discoveries include those of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis. 

He was one of the most influential scientists in history.

Historians of science refer to him as having been the best experimentalist in the history of science. He conveyed his ideas in clear and simple language; his mathematical abilities, however, did not extend as far as trigonometry or any but the simplest algebra.



The main areas in which he produced significant results are as follows:

 Electromagnetism - It was by his research on the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a direct current that Faraday established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics. Faraday also established that magnetism could affect rays of light and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. He similarly discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and the laws of electrolysis. His inventions of electromagnetic rotary devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became practical for use in technology.

  • James Clerk Maxwell took the work of Faraday and others, and summarized it in a set of equations that is accepted as the basis of all modern theories of electromagnetic phenomena. On Faraday's uses of the lines of force, Maxwell wrote that they show Faraday "to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order – one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods." The SI unit of capacitance, the farad, is named in his honour.
    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 the eventual acceptance of his proposition by the scientific community. Faraday's concept of lines of flux emanating from charged bodies and magnets provided a way to visualize electric and magnetic fields; that conceptual model was crucial for the successful development of the electromechanical devices that dominated engineering and industry for the remainder of the 19th century.
  • Bunsen burners -  Faraday invented an early form of the Bunsen burner
  • Chemicals and gases - As a chemist, Faraday discovered benzene, investigated the clathrate hydrate of chlorine, invented  the system of oxidation numbers, and popularised terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion.   He succeeded in liquefying several gases.   The liquefying of gases helped to establish that gases are the vapours of liquids possessing a very low boiling point, and gave a more solid basis to the concept of molecular aggregation.  He investigated the alloys of steel.
  • Optics – he  produced several new kinds of glass intended for optical purposes. A specimen of one of these heavy glasses subsequently became historically important; when the glass was placed in a magnetic field Faraday determined the rotation of the plane of polarisation of light. This specimen was also the first substance found to be repelled by the poles of a magnet.
  • Nanoparticles - 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.

So where did his wisdom and inspiration come from?

Faraday was deeply critical of 'spiritualists' and 'mesmerists', and rejected the quasi magical practises which were then fashionable – 'seances and table lifting' - in favour of straightforward rigorous meticulous scientific investigation.  He had no hallucinations, no visions, [that we know of] no sudden insights on walks.  He was not brain damaged or unwell, although overwork in later life did result in a mental breakdown.  But he is an absolutely wonderful example of how suppression techniques used on an ongoing basis lead to inspiration and wisdom.

Faraday is one of the few people on this site who would be classified as 'religious', but his religion was somewhat different to the conventional institutionalised religions.  His father, James, was a member of the Glassite sect. The Glasites or Glassites were a Christian sect founded in about 1730 in Scotland by John Glas. Glas' faith was spread by his son-in-law Robert Sandeman into England and America, where the members were called Sandemanians.

Faraday was a lifelong member of the group and a lay preacher.  The Sandemanians organised themselves around the principles of the fundamentals of the teachings of Jesus.  So what did they believe in? 

  • LOVE as the driving force  -   Faraday's entire life was a demonstration of his love for his fellow human beings.  He married but had no children, so the love he demonstrated was love of who people are.
  • DON'T HURT – This pervaded his whole approach to life.  When asked by the British government to advise on the production of chemical weapons for use in the Crimean War (1853–1856), Faraday refused to participate citing ethical reasons.
  • Reducing desires /charity and service to others -  Faraday undertook numerous, and often time-consuming, service projects aiming to help people. His tireless scientific work was not motivated by money, it was motivated by a sense of service.
    But his sense of service extended to other areas.  It included, for example,  investigations of explosions in coal mines, and being an expert witness in court,  with the objective of saving lives and improving the working conditions of miners.  In 1846, together with Charles Lyell, he produced a lengthy and detailed report on a serious explosion in the colliery at Haswell County Durham, which killed 95 miners. Their report was a meticulous forensic investigation and indicated that coal dust contributed to the severity of the explosion.
    Faraday also spent extensive amounts of time on projects such as the construction and operation of light houses and protecting the bottoms of ships from corrosion in order to help save seamen's lives. His workshop still stands at Trinity Buoy Wharf above the Chain and Buoy Store, next to London's only lighthouse and a school that is named after him.
    Education was another of Faraday's areas of service; 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. Between 1827 and 1860 at the Royal Institution in London, Faraday gave a series of nineteen Christmas lectures for young people, a series which continues today.
Faraday presenting a "Christmas Lecture".
  • Faraday was also 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 1855, Faraday wrote a letter to The Times on the subject of the foul condition of the River Thames.
    Faraday assisted with the 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.
    Faraday was also never secretive about his work and findings.  He always published the findings of his experimental work, did not seek to patent and thus restrict the usefulness of what he found.  He also conducted correspondence with scientists whom he had met on his journeys across Europe, working on electromagnetism and similar projects.  He was always generous with his help praise and support for others work.
  • Squashing the big I am/humility - During his lifetime, Faraday rejected a knighthood and twice refused to become President of the Royal Society. His whole approach was one of humility and lack of ego. He turned down burial in Westminster Abbey
  • Humiliation - He was also subjected to humiliation, which he accepted with extraordinary good grace.  For example, in 1812, at the age of twenty, and at the end of his apprenticeship, Faraday attended lectures by the eminent English chemist Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution and Royal Society, When Davy damaged his eyesight in an accident, he decided to employ Faraday as a secretary and assistant.  In the class-based English society of the time, Faraday was not considered a gentleman. When Humphrey Davy set out on a long tour of the continent in 1813–15, his valet did not wish to go. Instead, Faraday went as Davy's scientific assistant, and was asked to act as Davy's valet.   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 made Faraday so miserable that he contemplated returning to England alone and giving up science altogether. But he didn't, he bore the insult and as a consequence gained access to the scientific elite of Europe and a host of stimulating ideas.
  • Suppressing memory/Question all beliefs - Faraday was born in what is now the  London Borough of Southwark.   His family was not well off; and as a consequence Faraday received little formal education .  This probably ended up being the best thing that could have happened as without all the beliefs of the time, he was able to look at things without preconceptions.
    At fourteen he became the apprentice to George Riebau, a local bookbinder and bookseller in Blandford Street. During his seven-year apprenticeship he read many books, including Isaac Watts' The Improvement of the Mind, and he enthusiastically implemented the principles and suggestions contained therein.  He was thus able to be selective in the sources he used.[Home schooling]

Underpinning most of his discoveries was a simple belief in the unity of all things,unity of people, of nature and the 'laws' of nature.  Thus without him ever stating the fact he believed in spirit.  This belief in the 'oneness' of the universe helped him. He concluded that, for example, contrary to the 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 (current and voltage) would produce different groups of phenomena.

I have few observations for Faraday, but his whole life and his discoveries are in a sense one big observation.

Faraday died at his house at Hampton Court on 25 August 1867 aged 75 years and 11 months.

Physicist Ernest Rutherford stated; "When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and of industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time".


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