A scientist whose discoveries continue to impact our lives every single day, Faraday’s life offers us more than many realize.
On August 25, 1867, Michael Faraday, FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society) died at age 75. Left behind in his luminous wake are the discoveries he bequeathed to the scientific community and the world—the fruit of his brilliance and dedication.
Who was Michael Faraday, and what were his contributions to the rich legacy of British scientific achievement? By examining his life and the choices he made, we may discover important personal qualities that transcend his scientific endeavours—qualities of character from which all of us can learn and benefit.
Michael Faraday was born in London, England in 1791, in Newington, Surrey. The family was not well off; his father was a blacksmith and his mother was in domestic service for most of her life. Along with two siblings, the family struggled, as did many, with poor and humble circumstances.
Faraday’s early education was minimal. At age 13, in order to help provide for his family, he was employed as a delivery boy for a local bookstore. Over time, he impressed the owner and was promoted to the role of apprentice bookbinder.
Rather than squander his free time, he voraciously consumed the books around him, eventually gravitating toward scientific volumes. He was intrigued with The Encyclopaedia Britannica as an aid to attaining electrical knowledge, as well as Conversations on Chemistry, a chemistry book for the non-technically minded.
With financial assistance offered by a bookstore customer, Faraday was able to further his education. He attended a lecture by one of the world’s foremost scientists, Sir Humphry Davy. Davy was lecturing and carrying out experiments in the new field of electrochemistry at the Royal Institution (RI) in Mayfair, London. The four lectures Faraday witnessed moved him deeply. In appreciation, he handwrote a 300-page book, bound it, and presented it to Davy. According to Faraday, “The reply was immediate, kind and favourable” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Ed., p. 173). After a laboratory accident left Davy unable to write for a time, Faraday took notes for him. Soon after, the young man was offered a job as a chemical assistant.
At age 21, Faraday embarked on a new career at the Royal Institution working alongside Davy. Faraday worked hard, supporting the writing of Davy’s academic papers. However, due to Faraday’s humble beginnings and low stature in the social structure of the time, little of his early efforts were attributed to him. A breakthrough came when Faraday was given honourable mention in one of Davy’s papers as “Indebted to Mr. Michael Faraday for much able assistance.”
At age 24, in the year 1816, Faraday published his first paper in the Quarterly Journal of Science. By age 29 he was elevated to be “Superintendent of House and Laboratory” of the RI. In 1833, at age 41, he became the Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, a position that became his defining role.
Michael Faraday’s discoveries were numerous. His 1821 discovery of electromagnetic rotation (the earliest predecessor to the electric motor) was a major breakthrough. But it was ten years later, in 1831 during his efforts to generate an electric current by using magnets, that he wrote to a friend, “I am busy just now again on electromagnetism, and think I have got hold of a good thing, but can’t say. It may be a weed instead of a fish that, after all my labour, I may at last pull up.” Thankfully, time would prove that his efforts were not at all being spent on weeds!
By intensely focusing his mind on a single endeavour, Faraday brought a fledgling thought to maturity in less than three months: he had produced an electric current using kinetic energy (rotation) resulting in the creation of the electric generator—otherwise known as the dynamo! “Virtually all electric power is produced using Faraday’s principles, no matter whether the prime source of energy is coal, oil, gas, nuclear, hydro, or wind” (“Michael Faraday’s generator,” rigb.org). This is how our homes are powered even today.
In 1845 Faraday discovered the phenomenon of diamagnetism, which is, in effect, the creation of a temporary magnet brought about by an externally applied magnetic field. While this finding was not immediately lauded, it has benefited the entire world ever since.
Faraday’s career at the RI spanned some 54 years. After a lifetime of dedicated and detailed research and beneficial discoveries, his legacy is secure. Among other accolades, the unit for measuring electrical capacitance—the farad—is named in his honour. Albert Einstein is known to have kept pictures of three scientists in his office, one of them being Michael Faraday. And in 1973, the Faraday Museum located within the Royal Institution was dedicated in his honour.
But possibly his greatest achievement—something enduring that each of us can discover—lies in the type of character he aimed to develop, at which he worked just as hard as he did at his science.
“His letters and his conversation were always full of whatever could awaken a healthy interest, and free from anything that might rouse ill-feeling. When, on rare occasions, he was forced out of the region of science into that of controversy, he stated the facts and let them make their own way. He was entirely free from pride and undue self-assertion” (The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, p. 792). The Encyclopaedia Britannica reports that Faraday willingly accepted correction, and, in his declining years, he happily let loose of the things beyond his current capacity to fulfil.
An all-too-often undervalued quality in society is that of humility. Do you have a high opinion of yourself? Do you struggle with self-importance? Faraday was sincere in his biblical convictions. No doubt, he read the biblical exhortation that states, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Benefits accompany humility, a magnetism of which Faraday may have been keenly aware.
Despite modern atheistic assertions to the contrary, believers in God can and do make outstanding scientists. Many exhibit unusual levels of humility—perhaps because of the humbling nature of their discoveries.
True to form, this man from humble beginnings turned down an offer to be buried with Britain’s kings, queens and famous scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and others within the “national mausoleum” of Westminster Abbey. This would have been one of the highest tributes to a man of his influence and standing.
Instead, Michael Faraday was inclined toward a humble burial in London’s Highgate Cemetery, interred next to Sarah, his wife of 46 years. The world has learned much from Michael Faraday’s scientific endeavours and discoveries, and while no man is without flaws and fumbles, we can learn an even more valuable lesson from his humble approach during a life of notable accomplishments.