Michael Faraday

A self-educated man with a brilliant mind, Michael Faraday was born in a hardscrabble neighborhood in London.

FaradayThrough the combination of insatiable curiosity and a powerful will to succeed, he transcended his austere beginnings to conduct some of the most groundbreaking work of his day, discovering the principles that lay behind two key instruments of applied electricity: electromagnetic induction, which led to the transformer, and magneto-electric induction, which led to the generator. For these contributions to science (and many others), Faraday is one of the most revered scientists of the 19th century.

Faraday was one of four children, all of whom barely had enough to eat. His formal education was curtailed by a dramatic incident in the classroom. The prevailing educational philosophy of the day was, “spare the whip, spoil the child”, and that attitude, combined with a speech impediment, led to the school master one day beating young Michael so severely that he could not move off the classroom floor. The brutal event turned out to be his final day in school, as his mother decided he would leave public education forever.  

At age 13, he got a job in a bookbinding shop, reading every book on which he worked. He developed special interest in science, particularly in electricity and magnetism. Faraday soon turned his home into a lab, teaching himself the fundamentals of chemistry and physics. In one of his first experiments, he fashioned a crude electrostatic generator using old bottles and pieces of wood.

The visionary scientist received his first big break when fellow countryman Sir Humphry Davy, one of the greatest scientific minds of the time, invited him to lectures on chemicals. Faraday was so moved by the experience that he made a bound copy of his notes and had them delivered to Davy in the hope of securing employment. Eventually, Faraday was hired as a laboratory assistant and learned chemistry at the side of one of the greatest scientists of the era. Taking full advantage of the break he had been given, he impressed Davy and his staff with his eager, yet humble, manner, and Farady’s career began to flourish.

He helped advance development of the battery by showing that layers of sheets of zinc amidst other chemicals could produce an electric charge. Other breakthroughs occurred when Faraday found the motion of a magnet inside a wire coil could produce electricity. All of this was a precursor to his discovery of electromagnetic induction: the use of an electromagnetic effect on a charged wire to generate power in an alternate wire. His findings in this area would later be the basis for the electric transformer, a device that produces a consistent electric current, also known as magneto-electric induction. To achieve that steady stream of electricity, Faraday created the first generator by spinning a copper disc between the opposite poles of a horseshoe magnet.

These developments evolved into the electric motors, generators and transformers in use today. Some of his later work involved the relationship between magnetism and light. The “Faraday effect” posits that a powerful magnetic field can influence the alignment of polarized light, a scientific consideration that has applications ranging from the molecular level to the magnetic fields surrounding earth. These results validated the presumed relationship between magnetic force and light. It was mainly the result of his efforts that electricity moved from the realm of scientific curiosity to being a principal component in technology.

Although he had no formal education or a degree, later in life Faraday became professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution. He had a commanding presence as a lecturer and his speeches were popular. 

Nearly a decade of nonstop experimentation and theoretical research led to a nervous breakdown in 1839. Over the next several years, Faraday performed little in-depth science, and it was not until 1845 that he was able to advance work he had started years earlier.

Faraday is considered one of the most influential scientists, and perhaps the finest experimentalist, in history. As a measure of his influence, consider that many analytical terms bear his name. In addition to the aforementioned “Faraday effect”, they include the unit of capacitance, known as the farad, as well as the Faraday constant, the charge on a group of electrons.