Commentary & Opinion
12:45 pm
Sun February 23, 2014

David Nightingale: Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

Among many people who have benefited humanity so permanently was the book binder's apprentice, Michael Faraday.

His mother was a farmer's daughter, and his father was a blacksmith.

“My education consisted of little more...” he wrote “....than the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic at a common day school … and my hours out of school were passed at home and in the streets”[ref.1 p.77]. This modest, self-educated and hard-working man would later turn down a knighthood, as well as two offers to be President of the Royal Society.

It was at 13 that he had become an errand-boy to a bookseller. As the bookseller's apprentice he also learned bookbinding, and a French artist who lodged above the bookshop befriended the boy and gave him lessons in perspective drawing.

When Faraday was about 18 one of the customers at the bookshop gave him tickets to a course of lectures at the Royal Institution (which had been founded by, amongst others, the American-born scientist, Count Rumford). Faraday made beautifully neat notes of those lectures, with the kind of illustrations he had learned from the emigre French artist – and he bound them into a 300 pp book.

At 21 the apprentice decided to write to that lecturer, Humphry Davy, enquiring whether there migh be any job in the sciences, however lowly, at the Royal Institution. To his everlasting credit, Humphry Davy, himself the son of a craftsman, offered him the position of assistant (he had recently had to sack his assistant), with 2 lab rooms at the top of the Royal Institution and just over a pound a week.

Humphry Davy was 14 years older than Faraday, but already famous for discoveries in chemistry, and the Davy lamp. When Davy was knighted he took a leave of absence and married a wealthy woman. Planning to travel for a year to scientific centers in Europe and the Near East, he took 23 yr old Michael Faraday with him, as both scientific assistant and valet. Davy treated Faraday as an equal, but Lady Davy regarded him as nothing more than a servant. Nevertheless, Faraday was able to meet and talk with scientists in Paris, such as Ampere, and he and Davy continued to work in chemistry – on iodine, and chlorine. In Florence they even had the opportunity of doing experiments burning diamonds in oxygen.

When they got back to the Royal Institution the by-now 25 yr old Faraday gave his first [ibid, p.85] public lecture at the Institution. Later, Faraday would give a series of Friday Evening Discourses – as well as some of the Christmas Lectures for a Juvenile Auditory [ibid,p.92].

Faraday performed a phenomenal amount of research in his 30s and 40s – benzene, oxidation number, the basic laws of electrolysis –  and he was not the kind of person to bother with socializing. He and his wife were Sandemanians – a small Christian sect -- and had strict attendance at chapel on Sundays. They had no children.

He had only a scant knowledge of mathematics and knew no trigonometry. His forte was incessant experimentation, and it was the great theoretician Maxwell who later cast his results into mathematical form.

At 49 Faraday began expressing himself rather strangely. He wrote : “... I am … [ibid p.117] at present rather weak in the head, and able to work no more.” He stopped his public lectures, saw even fewer people, and in a search for remedy visited Switzerland, sometimes walking 30 miles a day. At home a year later (1842) he stopped attending anything at the Royal Society, not only because he believed it should consist of scientists rather than anyone titled, but because, as he wrote to a friend [ibid p.118] “there is ill-health connected with my head”.

Fortunately, after 20 months he had recovered, and his researches at the Royal Institution continued, well into his 60s.

Finally, how have we all benefited from this bookbinder's apprentice? Well, the inducing of currents in a wire when moving past a magnet; the homopolar motor; the Faraday cage that shields us from electric fields; the discovery of diamagnetism ... that's just a few. The list is enormous.

While he would not accept a knighthood, he and his wife did accept from the government a free lease on a house, all expenses paid, in Hampton Court, London, when he was about 60, and he died there at the age of 75.

Interestingly, I see on the internet that that house, Faraday House, not far from the River Thames, was recently sold.


1.”Men of Science”, by J.G.Crowther; W.W.Norton & Co, NY, 1936.