Michael Faraday began his life in humble beginnings as the son of a blacksmith. His life was characterized by humility of spirit and Christian devotion. As a teenager he began to work in a book bindery and often read the books that came in to be rebound. He had little formal education, but amplified it notably by his personal readings. He also tried some of the experiments that were explained in the books. One day a customer came in who knew of Faraday’s interest in scientific things. This customer provided Faraday with tickets to a lecture at the Royal Institution in London, England where Sir Humphrey Davy was speaking. Faraday attended the lectures, took notes, drew illustrations, had the pages bound, and sent them to Sir Davy with a request for a job. He was successful in acquiring a position as laboratory assistant at the Royal Institution and lived for many years in a small attic apartment above the research rooms.
Faraday’s major contributions were in the fields of chemistry and electricity. Although he became recognized as the Father of Modern Chemistry and discovered benzene, he is probably best noted for his work in the field of electricity and magnetism. In 1821, Faraday had been able to build a rather simple motor which transformed electrical energy into mechanical movement. After hearing of the work of a Danish scientist who was able to produce a magnetic field with an electric current, he became intrigued with the idea of the relationship between magnetism and electricity. Faraday’s challenge was to reverse this process. His idea was to discover how to make electricity from a magnetic field. In 1831, he was able to produce electricity by moving a magnet inside a wire coil. By making electricity via mechanical means, Faraday had demonstrated the principle of induction. This was significant for two reasons. Firstly, it disproved the previous belief that electricity and magnetism were unrelated (which Coulomb had espoused fifty years earlier) and secondly, it allowed for the development of dynamos and generators. By the next year, Faraday had discovered the transformer which can change electricity from one voltage to another.
Faraday’s three tools – the motor, the generator and the transformer – allowed for the rapid growth of industrialization. Faraday also coined several terms which are used today – anode, cathode, electrolyte, ion, electrode. As well the term ‘farad,’ which is a measure of electrical charge, was named in his honour. Faraday also worked with electro-magnetism and light. He discovered that a magnetic force can alter light – a concept now known as the Faraday Effect. His research into electromagnetism provided the foundation for James Clerk Maxwell’s classic work and writings in the field of physics.
This figure and a few lines of explanation are photographed from Faraday’s original notes.
Faraday was a humble man and found ways to express his love of science and God. He believed that God had created a unified universe. Faraday took joy in discovering its unity and interconnectedness. Although both the presidency of the Royal Society and knighthood were offered to him, he turned both of these down. He did not seek prestige, but rather was characterized in such simple acts as giving free series of talks on science to children at Christmastime. Faraday even wrote a book on science aimed at a young audience – a ground-breaking concept for the time.
Throughout his life, Faraday was active and served in his small Protestant church. In his later years his memory began to fail. (He, along with Sir Davy, may have suffered from chemical toxicity since they were unaware of the health risks associated with the chemicals used in their work). Faraday lived out the remainder of his years in a cottage provided by Queen Victoria. As was characteristic of his modesty, he turned down the offer to be buried in Westminster Abbey, preferring a simpler funeral and grave site.