One of the early disappointments for my course was Michael Faraday. I got the coursework books before the assignment schedule so pitched in on those subjects that immediately appealed – Faraday was the first! Then the assignment details arrived and I was told there would be no assigment on him!
But researching Faraday had been no waste of time – he was more interesting than I had expected. He was a devout Glasite, a Scottish Christian sect, and this shaped much of his approach.
Remarkably he managed to build a career in science when there weren’t any to be had.
He learned his science the hard way. Working with a bookbinder he consumed every scientific work he bound, often running himself a copy. Attending lectures on electricty and galvanism he listened to the august Humphrey Davy (of miners’ lamp fame) and wrote to him for a job, by sending him a 300-page set of notes he had taken of Davy’s lectures. He became his assistant, though this was initially more menial than that might sound.
But he was working within the Royal Institution and then travelled around Europe with Davy where he met with leading luminaries of the time – Guy-Lussac, Volta…
Maintaining a correspondence with these innovators was his scientific education!
He worked at chemistry for Davy and electromagnetism for his own interest and later combined the two in electro-chemistry.
In 1826 he originated a series of children’s Christmas lectures, aiming to snare their interest and commitment to science.
The Faraday Lecture is still an annual event!
His discoveries and papers started to flow through the middle of the 19th century. He was awarded a knighthood, but his religious beliefs discouraged self-aggrandisement so he refused the Presidency of the Royal Institution when it was offered.
When the government approached him, he refused to work on weapons’ research. He worked instead with Trinity House (the lighthouse organisation) and on an inquiry into a notable colliery disaster. He also advised the National Gallery on how to clean and protect its precious works of art.
In 1851 he was involved in the planning and judging of exhibits at the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace.
Like many of his time he was an enthusiastic generalist, but is remembered most for his lectures and his work in the field of electricty.
The SI unit of electric capacitance is named for him – the Farad.
He died in 1867 and whilst he had a memorial in Westminster Abbey he was buried in the Non-Anglican (the dissenters) section at Highgate Cemetery.
A remarkable man, who came from the ‘wrong’ social class in Britain, had received no proper education – but by sheer effort and intellect became one of the great and good.
Albert Einstein had three inspirational pictures on his wall – Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday!