English physicist and chemist Michael Faraday (1791-1867) is widely regarded as one of the most influential scientists in history.
His pioneering experiments over the course of the early to mid-19th century greatly contributed to the understanding of electromagnetism, and he ultimately became the first and foremost Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, a position which he held for his whole life. He was so celebrated that the unit of electrical capacitance is called the farad in his honour, and Albert Einstein kept a picture of him above his desk.
His achievements are yet more remarkable when placed within the context of his life. Born into an impoverished family, he received little education and was largely self-taught, until a fortunate encounter started his journey towards discovery and success.
So who was Michael Faraday?
He grew up in poverty
Born in Newington, now part of South London, Michael Faraday was one of four children born to a blacksmith and a country woman. His father was often ill and unable to work, meaning that the children were frequently hungry; Faraday later recalled once being given one loaf of bread to last him a week.
Faraday learned the basics such as reading, writing and ciphering in Sunday school. At an early age he worked as a newspaper deliverer and bookbinder, and from 14 was the bookbinder’s apprentice. While there, he read many of the books that were brought in for rebinding. He found an article about electricity in the Encyclopaedia Britannica particularly fascinating.
He used his meagre pay to buy chemicals and apparatus. For instance, he made a crude electrostatic generator using old bottles and lumber.
He got a job as a chemical assistant
In 1812, Faraday was offered a ticket to hear well-known scientists John Tatum and Humphry Davy speak on natural philosophy (physics). The fee for the lecture was one shilling; however, his older brother, a blacksmith, was impressed by his brother’s devotion to science so paid for him. Faraday went and was spellbound.
Faraday recorded the lectures, and eventually made additions to his notes which totalled some 300 pages, which he then sent to Davy as tribute. Davy responded immediately and favourably, and Faraday did some work for him as a writer after Davy’s eyesight was damaged in a chemical explosion. In 1813, when a formal opportunity to work in Davy’s laboratory opened, Davy offered the then 21-year-old Faraday the job as a chemical assistant at the Royal Institution. It has been said that Faraday was Davy’s greatest discovery.
He was subjected to snobbery because of his class
A year into his work, Faraday was invited to accompany Davy and his wife on an 18-month tour across Europe that included France, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium. During this time, Faraday met many significant scientists such as André-Marie Ampère in Paris and Alessandro Volta in Milan, which worked as a kind of university education.
However, in addition to his scientific and secretarial work, Faraday was required to be a personal secretary to Davy and his wife, which he did not enjoy: Davy’s wife refused to treat him as an equal, because of his working class background.
He was extremely religious
Faraday’s family belonged to a small Christian sect called Sandemanians (an offshoot of the Church of Scotland), that provided spiritual guidance to Faraday throughout his life.
In 1821, 29-year-old Faraday married Sarah Barnard, who he met through the Sandemanian church. The couple then lived in rooms in the Royal Institution for the next 46 years, including in the suite that Humphry Davy himself had once lived in.
In later life, Faraday served two terms as an elder in the meeting house of his youth. It was repeatedly noted Faraday’s religion was the single most important influence upon him and significantly affected the way he approached and interpreted nature.
He made significant scientific discoveries
Faraday’s research on the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a direct current established the fundamental concept of the electromagnetic field in physics. Faraday recorded that magnetism was able to affect rays of light, and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. He also developed electromagnetic rotary devices that formed the basis for electric motor technology, which allowed electricity to become practical for use in technology.
Amongst Faraday’s other achievements were the discovery of benzene, the invention of an early form of the Bunsen burner and the system of oxidation numbers and the popularisation of terms such as ‘anode’, ‘cathode’, ‘electrode’ and ‘ion’.
He was twice offered the presidency of the Royal Society
Faraday’s esteemed career saw him involved with the Royal Institution for a total of 54 years. He held his first lecture aged 24, was made Superintendent of House and Laboratory aged 29, and was elected to the Royal Society aged 32. A year later, he became Director of the Royal Institution’s Laboratory.
Faraday ultimately became the first and most eminent Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, a position he held for his whole life. In 1848, aged 54, and again 1858 he was offered the Presidency of the Royal Society, but he turned down the role both times.