Standing on the shoulders of One Particular Giant

Jamies Magic Torch, Going Postal

We have been so immersed in watching all the political shenanigans recently that we deserve a break.  So make a cup of tea, put your feet up for five minutes, and let me relate to you the story of one of Britain’s greatest scientists, Michael Faraday, whose work is the basis of much that surrounds us today.

First we should remind ourselves of a small number of Faradays many achievements.  His best known work was to transform the understanding of electricity and magnetism.  Before Faraday, electricity and magnetism were seen as somewhat mysterious until he proved they were actually forces.  In 1821 Faraday found that a wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously around a magnet, showing that unlike any other force, it did not push or pull a magnet directly but instead pushed the wire sideways at a right angle.  Much of Faradays work was speculative research with no practical aim (Faraday saw his work as ‘reading the book of nature’), but his work was to be very influential to future scientists who would take his research and apply it to practical uses, for example, the above mentioned 1821 discovery which was the basis for the electric motor.  That is not to say that all of Faraday’s work was speculative.  He invented a new type of lamp for lighthouses at the request of the English and Welsh lighthouse authority.  The lamp was not only used in many lighthouses but the new Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace as well.  Also, early in his career, Faraday had worked alongside prominent scientist Sir Humphry Davy on the invention of the miner’s safety lamp.  Our lives today are dominated by electrical items whose workings can be traced back to Faradays research.  Even the pick-ups in the electric guitar work on principles discovered by Faraday, so be sure to thank him next time you listen to your favourite band (Dylan purists can alternatively curse him for giving Bob the Electric guitar!)

Faraday was born 22nd September 1791 in London.  His father was a blacksmith and his mother had been a domestic servant.  He was brought up in a close knit Sandemanian Church community, receiving only a basic education up to the age of thirteen, before becoming an errand boy for bookseller George Riebau.  A year later, Riebau took Faraday on as an apprentice bookbinder that exposed him to all types of books and illustrations.  His thirst for learning led to him exploiting the opportunity to read the texts that he was binding, taking a particular interest in the scientific parts of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.  Additionally, through encouragement from Riebau, Faraday attended demonstrations of some of the new machinery of the day, this being the period when the industrial revolution was in full swing.

Jamies Magic Torch, Going Postal

In 1812 when Faraday’s bookbinding apprenticeship ended he chose to pursue a career in science.  Scientists of the nineteenth century were predominantly from the upper classes and were university educated, neither of which Faraday benefitted from, so entering this world would be a huge challenge.  Faraday may have found inspiration from leading scientist Sir Humphry Davy who similarly had come from a working class background and had only a basic education, and whose lectures Faraday had occasionally attended.  Davy had relied on patronage early in his career, but Faraday was unsuccessful in replicating this route when leading scientist of the day Sir Joseph Banks rejected his request.  Faraday now turned to Davy, and in an attempt to impress him presented him with a bound version of notes based on some Davy lectures.  Although this led to an unsuccessful interview, this contact with Davy was to be pivotal.  In October 1812 Davy’s eyesight was temporarily damaged in a laboratory accident and subsequently needed to hire someone to take notes for him.  Davy turned to the man who had recently presented him with a write up of notes of his lectures, so giving Faraday his entry into the scientific profession.  Before long, Davy had spotted Faradays talent and took him on as a laboratory assistant.  Faraday took up some rooms in the attic of the Royal Institution, so was now living and working at the place that was to be his home and workplace for the much of his life.  This gave Faraday 24/7 access to a laboratory in the basement of the Institution to conduct his own research.  Faraday started giving public lectures in 1816, and an added benefit of living ‘above the shop’ was that Faraday could practice and perfect the demonstrations for his lectures, spending hours working on them to guarantee that they would be successful and also that the results could clearly be seen and understood by the audience.  Public lectures were popular entertainment in the nineteenth century and Faraday quickly gained a reputation for giving some of the best.  He was careful with the language he used in lectures so as not to baffle audience.  His attention to detail was so acute that Faraday even took elocution lessons to improve his delivery.

Jamies Magic Torch, Going Postal

In 1825 Faraday started the Friday Evening Discourses, where he would demonstrate his work to members of the Institution and guests, as well as inviting leading scientists of the day to do likewise.  Faraday also established the annual series of Christmas Lectures, nineteen of which he gave himself.  These became so popular that even Prince Albert took the Prince of Wales to hear them.  These lectures continue to this day and are now televised, so you may have seen the continuation of this Faraday tradition as you recover from your festive excesses.

Seeking to promote the Royal Institute as a place of discovery and discourse, Faraday even turned his attention to its building by leading the project in 1836/7 to add 14 Corinthian columns to its façade.  He wanted people to know from the exterior alone that the Royal Institution was where great and grand things happen.

Faraday had a devout Sandemanian faith.  This emphasised the ideals of service in church and public life.  Due to this, Faraday saw himself as a servant and so declined the presidency of the Royal Institution in 1864 as well as the presidency of the Royal Society in 1848 and 1858.  His faith is seen as an important influence in his approach to science due to its strict teachings of discipline and close observation of scriptural tenets.  Not only did Faraday apply these characteristics to his personal life but also to his science, approaching his work in a strict and disciplined manner.

Jamies Magic Torch, Going Postal

In his later years Faraday lived in a grace and favour home in Hampton Court which he was given to recognise his contribution to science.  It was here that he died in 1867 at the age of 75.  He never actually retired from the Royal Institution, having had his offer of retiring at the age of 70 rejected.  On his death, the renown of Faraday was demonstrated when he was given a lengthy obituary in The Times in an era when obituaries were rare in the newspaper. 

There is no doubt that luck played a part in making Faraday successful.  By missing out on university education he developed his own method of thinking, leading to a different approach to scientific problems than that of his university educated peers.  He was fortunate to become Riebau’s apprentice and by the injury to Davy’s eye (not lucky for Davy!)  Even being born into the Sandemanian faith which influenced how Faraday approached his science could be seen as luck, along with being born in the right place at the right time as he was in London at the centre of the industrial revolution with the opportunities to learn from others ideas.  However, it still took a man of Faradays character, his natural talent, his work ethic, his vision, his curiosity and his tenacity to exploit the luck and opportunities that came his way. 

We must thank Faraday for providing the basis upon which his successors have built, to provide many of the technological advances we enjoy today.  His successors truly stood on the shoulders of a giant.

Jamies Magic Torch ©