Michael Faraday (1791--1867)


At a time when positions in science were reserved for the wealthy and the clergy, Michael Faraday rose out of poverty to become probably the greatest experimental scientist of all time. He made important discoveries in nearly every area of science. Sir John Meurig Thomas, former director of the Royal Institution in London, said that if Faraday had lived in the era of the Nobel prize, he would have been worthy of eight Nobel prizes.

It is said that Albert Einstein had three pictures that hung in his office, men who were his heroes. The pictures were of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, and James Clerk Maxwell. Einstein said that Faraday and Maxwell ushered in a new era in science.

It is interesting that Faraday and Maxwell are often linked together since their paths to greatness were quite different. Faraday was English whereas Maxwell was Scottish. Faraday grew up in a very poor family whereas Maxwell grew up on a large country estate. Faraday had virtually no formal education whereas Maxwell was given the finest education available. Faraday never held a university position whereas Maxwell was a professor at three major British universities. Faraday was a popular scientific lecturer whereas Maxwell was not considered a good classroom lecturer. Faraday was best known as an experimental scientist whereas Maxwell was best known as a theoretician, although Faraday thought deeply about the scientific principles involved in his experiments and Maxwell was a capable experimenter. Faraday knew essentially no mathematics whereas Maxwell was one of the finest mathematicians of his time. Faraday was very precise and payed attention to every detail whereas Maxwell was often sloppy in his calculations. Faraday received numerous awards and honorary degrees during his lifetime whereas Maxwell only received two major awards while he was alive. Faraday lived to be 76 whereas Maxwell died at the relatively young age of 48.

However, both Faraday and Maxwell were committed Christians who viewed the physical world they studied as the handiwork of God. Both of these men were highly respected by their peers and admired as much for their character and integrity as for their scientific achievements. There was an interesting statement by the famous English author Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) concerning Faraday

Even if I could be Shakespeare I think that I should still choose to be Faraday.

The famous German scientist, Hermann von Helmholtz (1821--1894), made this statement concerning Faraday

The name of Faraday is one to be held in reverence by all natural philosophers. Many times in London, in connection with lectures which I delivered at the Royal Institution, I had myself the privilege of his obliging help and the pleasure of his amiable society. The perfect simplicity, modesty, and undimmed purity of his character gave to him a fascination which I have never experienced in any other man.

Faraday is best known for his work in electricity and magnetism. Following Oersted's discovery that an electric current caused a nearby compass needle to move, Faraday showed how to use this fact to produce a rotating device (the first electric motor). His biggest discovery was the reverse of the principle used in the electric motor, namely electromagnetic induction. He showed that a changing magnetic field could produce a current in a wire. He then used this idea to construct the first electrical generator. This idea was also the basis of electric transformers. These discoveries really gave birth to the electrical industry. The generator made it possible to efficiently generate continuous electrical currents for long periods of time. The transformer enabled the transfer of electrical power over long distances with minimum losses. Faraday also developed a cage that demonstrated how areas can be shielded from electrostatic effects.

Not all of Faraday's accomplishments were experimental in nature. Faraday originated the concept of electric and magnetic fields. Although his field concept was ignored by most scientists at the time, James Clerk Maxwell took this idea and converted it to mathematical form resulting in his famous electromagnetic equations. The field concept is fundamental in modern physical theories. Faraday showed that there was a connection between electromagnetics and light by demonstrating that the polarization of light could be modified by a magnetic field. This discovery led to the development of the field of magneto-optics. He also studied non conducting materials (dielectrics) and showed how they could be used to improve capacitors. He studied as well non-magnetic materials and showed how they are affected by an external magnetic field.

Faraday is considered to be one of the founders of both organic and analytic chemistry. He discovered a number of useful compounds and developed many new methods of analysis. For example he discovered the useful compounds Benzene (used in production of a number of other chemicals) and tetrachloroethene ( a dry cleaning solvent). He also showed how a number of gases could be liquefied---including chlorine, ammonia, carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulphide, and hydrogen chloride.

He performed pioneering work in the production of steel alloys and optical glass. Faraday showed how hydrogen sulphide could be used to harden rubber, a process now known as vulcanization. Faraday was also interested in the combination of chemistry and electricity. He developed the basic laws of electrolysis that provide the basis for the electroplating industry. In this connection he introduced the commonly used terms anode, cathode, electrode, and ion. The standard unit of electrical capacitance, the farad, is named after him as is the Faraday constant (the charge on a mole of electrons).

Michael did not seek to profit from any of his inventions or discoveries. He refused to patent any of his inventions. He believed that his inventions should be allowed to be developed for the public good. This lack of interest in monetary or honorary awards stems from his training in the Sandemanian church, a small Christian sect that he was involved with throughout his lifetime.

Faraday was very interested in public education and was an outstanding lecturer and communicator. He instituted a series of Friday night lectures at the Royal Institution given by outstanding scientists. Faraday himself gave a number of the lectures. Guest lecturers included Charles Lyell, Gabriel Stokes, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Hermann Helmholtz, James Clerk Maxwell, and Thomas Huxley (Darwin's bulldog). The Friday night lectures were a major social event in London, frequently attracting 800–1000 attendees. Faraday felt that one of his duties as a scientist was to educate the public to such a degree that they could make good decisions on political issues involving science. Sadly, it seems that almost the opposite is true today. Faraday also instituted an annual series of ``Christmas Lectures'' aimed at children. Each series consisted of six lectures. One of his most famous series was on the chemical history of a candle. This series of lectures is available in book form. A handbill for the 1827 series is shown in figure 1. The Royal Institution continues to offer the Christmas lectures up to the present time.

Figure 1: Handbill for 1827 Christmas Lecture Series
You can view web casts of many of these lectures at the Royal Institution website. Figure 2 is a lithograph of one of Faraday's Christmas lectures.
Faraday giving one of the Christmas lectures.

In the following sections we will look more closely at the life of Michael Faraday and his accomplishments. The next section contains a biographical sketch of his life. The following two sections look at his faith and his contributions to science.

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