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Michael Faraday: A Biography of A Scientist Series

Updated on August 10, 2014
A young Michael Faraday
A young Michael Faraday

Early Life

Michael Faraday, an English chemist and physicist, was born on September 22, 1791, into poverty in Newington Butts right outside of London. He was the third of four children of James Faraday and his wife. As a child he was malnourished and received very little formal school education. Despite his humble beginnings, Faraday did manage to educate himself by acquiring most of his knowledge from reading books, specifically those in science, during his seven years as an apprentice under George Riebau , owner of a local bookbinder and bookseller shop. However, he didn’t get higher than arithmetic for his education in mathematics.

On one occasion at the shop Faraday came across a book that would ultimately affect his views of life and put him on a path to prominence. The book “The Improvement of the Mind”, written by a clergyman by the name of Isaac Watts instilled in him a positive and practical view of how to move forward in the world and this with inspiration Faraday began attending lectures and organizing discussion groups to learn more about chemistry.

After his apprenticeship ended in 1812, Faraday was given tickets from a customer of the bookseller shop to attend several lectures presented by Humphry Davy, an English chemist at the Royal Institution and Royal Society. Faraday eventually became more involved with the Royal Institution through a series of unexpected events; thanks to the 300 pages of notes he recorded from Davy’s lectures which he gave to him to read. Davy was so impressed with Faraday’s notes that he recommended him for a job as secretary for the Royal Institution since he had become temporarily blind as a result of an accident he experienced during an experiment with nitrogen trichloride. Soon thereafter by simply being in the right place at the right time good fortune gave Faraday an opportunity to fill a chemical analyst vacancy at the Royal Institution. He was finally where he wanted to be to increase his knowledge of chemistry.

An Amateur Chemist

During his early years at the Royal Society Faraday spent 18 months (1813-14) touring Europe with Davy and his wife meeting other influential scientists of the time. By 1821 he was married to Sarah Barnard and started receiving fees from outside work and from his appearances in court for expert testimony. On one occasion, Faraday had to testify against Davy on a sugar refinery dispute, unfortunately, that created a rift in their friendship. In that same year Faraday began doing research in electricity, electrochemistry and electromagnetism and four years later would discover benzene.

Faraday worked with chlorine and carbon and discovered two new compounds of these two elements. The first one is hexachloroethane, C2Cl6, a drug used in veterinary medicine which is often given to animals to expel worms from their body. The second compound is tetrachlorohexane, C2Cl4. Faraday systhesized this compound by heating the hexachloroethane crystals the by-product formed is tetrachloroethane. This is used mostly as a cleaning solvent in the drying cleaning business. He also discovered a well-known carcinogen (cancer-causing chemical) called benzene. In the course of his research he also developed several types of glass, borosilicate glasses in this cases and several alloys of experimental high-grade steel.

Diagram of a typical electric motor
Diagram of a typical electric motor

His Work in Electricity and Magnetism

Faraday is often referred to as the “Father of Electricity” because of his extensive research in the area of electricity, electrochemistry and electromagnetism. In 1821 he experimented with a method to convert electrical energy into mechanical energy by using permanent magnets and an electric current. He applied an electric current to the armature which caused it to spin. The armature is basically an iron bar with wire wound around opposite halves of the bar (See photo below). He based this idea on the principle of electromagnetism. This was the precursor to the electric motor he later invented based on this idea. This would become his greatest invention. Ten years later he applied the method in reverse by spinning the armature in the proximity of permanent magnets which generated electricity. This experiment lead to the invention of the electric generator.

On 4th September 1821, Michael Faraday discovered that a vertically mounted wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously round a magnet sticking out of a bowl of mercury. He named this phenomenon electro-magnetic rotations.
On 4th September 1821, Michael Faraday discovered that a vertically mounted wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously round a magnet sticking out of a bowl of mercury. He named this phenomenon electro-magnetic rotations.
Faraday's electric gnerator
Faraday's electric gnerator
Faraday's portrait was once on the British currency
Faraday's portrait was once on the British currency

Other Accomplishments

After being appointed director of the chemistry lab at the institution in 1825, Faraday begin presenting a series of Christmas lectures on the chemistry and physics of flames to children at the Royal Institution in 1826 and went on to publish his first papers in 1831 on what will become a series on Experimental Researches on Electricity based on the results of his research. The following year he was awarded an honorary doctoral degree in Civil Law from the University of Oxford and became the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, a position appointed for life, at the Royal Institution in 1833.

In 1839 Faraday completed several experiments to better understand the nature of electricity. These experiments led him to the conclusion that there is only one kind of electricity and the various manifestations of this phenomenon is due to the variation of the quantity (current) and the intensity (voltage) of electricity.

Besides his work with electricity, Faraday had a strong interest in maritime activities while at the institution and devoted much of his time in the construction and operation of the lighthouses around London. He even performed work on boats to protect them from corrosion.

An illustration of one of Faraday's Christmas lectures.
An illustration of one of Faraday's Christmas lectures.

The Later Years

By 1839 Faraday’s relentless work in lab began to take a serious toll on his health and he was forced to take a break from his research. He would not resume his work again until 1845. He manage to present more lectures in 1846 on electricity and magnetism which ultimately laid the foundation for the work of another famous scientist, James Maxwell, related to the theory of electromagnetism.

Again in the mid-1850s Faraday’s health would once again hindered his work and forced his to retire due to senility or dementia. His health further deteriorated to the point that we was unable to take care of himself. Faraday was offered knighthood from Queen Victoria but decline it and accepted the Queen’s offer of free residence at Hampton Court, now called Faraday House, where he would live out the remainder of his life. Faraday died on August 25, 1867. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery in London. He turned down an offer for a burial at Westminster Abbey.

Today, Faraday name is used in electronics to express the unit of capacitance called “farad”. Capacitance is the ability of a structure to store an electrical charge.

© 2012 Melvin Porter


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