Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero Behind Electromagnetism

Michael Faraday was one of the most important scientific minds of human history, discovering various electromagnetic and chemical principles.
Trevor English

Without the work of Michael Faraday, we wouldn't have Teslas or nearly any modern mechanical thing for that matter. Faraday's work and invention in the realm of electricity changed the world forever.

Faraday is the inventor of electrolysis, balloons, electric motors, generators, dynamos, and more. If you weren't aware of Faraday's work, you might at least recognize him from the cage that keeps his namesake, the Faraday cage

He was a highly influential British scientist who in part turned electricity into something that could be harnessed for work. He was a noted chemist and physicist in his own time who created a substantial body of work and experiments that ultimately lead to our modern-day understanding of electromagnetism.

In order to grasp the magnitude of intellect and achievement that was Michael Faraday, let's take a look back at his life and work. 

By the way, did you know that Albert Einstein actually kept photos of three scientists in his office? Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and, yes you've guessed it, Michael Faraday. 

Where it all began for Faraday

Michael Faraday was born on the 22nd of September 1791 to a relatively poor family in the country village of Newington, Surrey. Newington was to later become absorbed into the South of London. His father was a blacksmith who had actually moved from the north of England in search of work in earlier in 1791. 

His mother was a humble countrywoman who supported her family emotionally throughout their very difficult upbringing. Michael was one of four children who at times would find it hard to get enough to eat. Their father was often ill and incapable of work. A steady supply of food was far from easy for the Faraday family. 

Michael Faraday would later in his life recount how he was given one loaf of bread that had to last a whole week. And you think you've got it bad?! His family belonged to a small Christian sect. This sect provided substantial spiritual and emotional support throughout his life. 

As a child, Faraday latched onto curiosity to get him by, never letting go of his childhood need to understand why and desire to understand more about the way that things work. A story reminiscent of many an engineer.

Interestingly, his early education was very rudimentary indeed. He received only the basics, such as learning to read, write, and cipher at the local Sunday School. His first occupation was a paperboy delivering newspapers for a local book dealer and bookbinder. At the age of 14, he even began an apprenticeship with him, one he would pursue for the next 7 years. 

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero
Source: Royal Institution of London

Faraday was different from his fellow apprentices, however. Faraday would take the time to actually read some of the books he was binding. Michael would recount that one particular article on electricity in the third edition of Encyclopedia Brittanica would particularly grip his imagination. He was also heavily influenced by the book Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet.

Mr. Faraday would even begin to experiment at this tender age. He actually built a weak voltaic pile through which he would perform home experiments in electrochemistry.

And so it was, using his relatively humble education that Faraday would self-teach himself and become one of the world's greatest scientists.

When he was much older, he was a regular attendee of lectures by Sir Humphry Davy, a chemist who isolated a number of elements, such as potassium and sodium. 

Faraday sat absorbed by the entire event and made meticulous notes. 

So complete were these, in fact, that he even sent Davy a 300-page document to serve as official notes for the lectures. He also took the liberty of accompanying this with a letter asking for employment.

"Don't ask, don't get" we respect that Mr. Faraday.

Davy was clearly impressed but promptly and kindly rejected the young Faraday as he currently had no open positions. He did not forget the young man though. As soon as one of his assistants was fired for brawling he quickly offered the position to Michael.

He, of course, jumped at the opportunity and found himself in the enviable position of assisting and learning Chemistry from one of the greatest practitioners of the day. It is often jokingly said of Davy that Faraday was, in hindsight, his greatest ever discovery

Faraday's early work in chemistry

Faraday first joined Davy in the lab in 1812 at the age of 21. This was quite the opportunity for Faraday in his early career as Davy was one of the top chemists of his time. 

The first project that the duo worked on together was interpreting the molecular structure of different chemicals. This early work taught Faraday a great deal about the rudimentary workings of electricity. 

At the time that Michael Faraday joined Davy's team, he was in the process of overturning the current thinking in Chemistry of the day. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, the founder of modern Chemistry, had completed his reforms of chemical knowledge and had insisted on some core principles for future Chemists.

Amongst them, though there were many, was that oxygen was a unique element. He also dictated that it was the only supporter of combustion and, importantly here, it was the basis of all acids. 

Davy had succeeded in isolating sodium and potassium, in fact discovering them, by using a powerful current from a galvanic battery. The battery was used to decompose oxides of these elements as well as decompose muriatic hydrochloric acid, which is one of the strongest acids known.

This process led to hydrogen being released as well as some strange green gas. This green gas seemed to support combustion, and produce acid when combined with water.

Faraday worked with Davy until 1820, which by that time Faraday himself had become one of the world's most premier chemists of the time.

He had, effectively, learned everything there was worth learning about Chemistry at the time. His labors under Davy had given him a vast amount of experience in performing chemical analyses and laboratory techniques. He was for all intents and purposes now a master experimenter.

Michael had, also, developed his own theoretical views to such an extent that it would now guide him in his own work. He would combine everything he had learned throughout his time with Davy and shock the scientific world with his own discoveries.

Michael Faraday set out on his own and would soon win himself early renown amongst his peers. He had built up a flawless reputation as an analytical chemist and would often find himself called up as an expert witness in legal trials. He also built up a clientele whose financial support helped support the Royal Institution. 

In 1820 he made some remarkable discoveries, well for chemists anyway. He succeeded in creating the first known compounds of chlorine and carbon C2CL6 and C2CL4. He produced them by substituting chlorine and hydrogen in "olefiant gas", aka ethylene. These were the first substitution reactions induced and would later challenge the dominant theory of chemical combination proposed by Jons Jacob Berzelius.

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero
Faraday's magnetic laboratory, Source: Royal Institution of London

He married a woman by the name of Sarah Barnard in 1821 and took up residence at the Royal Institution in London. His primary focus there was to conduct experiments and research around magnetism and electricity.

Faraday's approach to electricity at the time was unique to his counterparts. He visualized electricity as a vibration rather than something of a flow, a concept that would help him make discoveries around electromagnetism.

His first discovery at the Royal Institution was that of devices that could produce electromagnetic rotation or circular motion from the magnetic forces surrounding a wire. 

In 1825, Michael was working on illuminating gases and succeeded in isolating and describing something that would later be known as benzene. Around this time he also helped lay down the foundations of metallurgy and metallography whilst conducting investigations into steel alloys.

He also worked on an assignment by the Royal Society of London into improving the quality of glasses and telescopes. He succeeded in producing a very high refractive index that would later, in 1845, help him discover diamagnetism.

Faraday's further work in electromagnetism & electrolysis

Faraday went on to discover electromagnetic induction, the process of producing electromotive forces across conductors due to magnetic fields. If that rings a bell, it's the way that generators and electric motors work. 

Hans Christian Ørsted had discovered, in 1820, that passing an electrical current through a wire produced a magnetic field. His findings were furthered by André-Marie Ampére who showed that the magnetic force appeared to also be a circular force. Ampére showed, in effect, that the magnetic field appeared to form a cylinder around the wire. This was the first time this had ever been proposed. 

Faraday understood, almost intuitively, what this implied. He noted that if a pole could be isolated it should form constantly circular motion around the current carrying wire. With this hypothesis in mind, coupled with his genius for experimentation, he decided to prove this with his own apparatus.

His device transformed electrical energy into mechanical energy. Michael Faraday had just created the world's first electric motor.

Faraday worked to further flesh out his ideas and knowledge around electromagnetism, creating something called the induction ring in 1831. This device was essentially a transformer that generated electricity in a wire due to the magnetic forces from another wire. 

It was groundbreaking at the time.

Michael kicks his ideas into gear

Faraday didn't stop there, of course. He started to look at the bigger picture and contemplate the nature of electricity in general. Unlike most of his contemporaries in the field at the time, Faraday was convinced electricity was not a material fluid flowing through wires, like water in a pipe. 

He insisted, instead, that it must be a vibration or force that somehow moved through the wires as the result of tensions created in the conductor. One of his first experiments after his motor was to pass a ray of polarised light through a decomposing electrochemical solution.

The idea was to detect the intermolecular strains that he had postulated should take place in the presence of an electrical current. He would keep returning to this idea through the 1820s, but sadly, to no avail.

In the early 1830s, Michael Faraday attempted to determine how an induced current was produced. Building on his original experiment using an electromagnet he now tried a permanent magnet instead.

His experimentation found that moving the magnet in and out of a coil of wire actually induced a current. Faraday was also already aware that the magnetic field is made visible using iron filings sprinkled on some paper or card held above the magnet.

He associated the "lines of force" displayed by the filings must be those lines of tension in the medium, air, he had previously postulated.  

He would soon discover the law determining the production of electrical currents by magnets. Namely, the magnitude of a current was dependent on the number of lines of force cut by the conductor per unit time.

Faraday quickly built on this by realizing that he could produce a continuous current by rotating a copper disk between the poles of a magnet. The current could be "drawn off" by taking leads off the rim and center of the disk. This was, in effect, the very first dynamo.

This was the direct ancestor of modern electric motors, albeit the same principle but in reverse to spin the disk.

Laws of Electrolysis

As he continued research into electricity, he leaned heavily on his background as a world-renowned chemist. He did extensive work in the field of electrochemistry, where he developed the first and second laws of electrolysis. 

These laws state that "the amount of chemical change produced by a current at an electrode-electrolyte boundary is proportional to the quantity of electricity used, and the amounts of chemical changes produced by the same quantity of electricity in different substances are proportional to their equivalent weights."


Explained more simply flows of electricity can be used to kickstart chemical reactions. In practical terms in the form of electrolysis, this means that electricity can be used to produce hydrogen from water molecules, deposit metallic compounds onto surfaces (electroplating), and to extract pure metallic elements from solutions. 


As with many scientific topics, it's far easier to understand electrolysis through visuals. Take a look at the quick video below to understand how electrolysis works and the importance of this discovery from Faraday.

Faraday's work in the field of electrolysis laid the foundation for this now essential industry. 

Gas liquefaction and refrigeration

In 1823, Michael Faraday built on the ideas of John Dalton and proved his ideas by applying pressure to liquefy chlorine gas and ammonia gas for the first time.

His successful liquefaction of ammonia was of particular interest. When he let the ammonia evaporate again he noticed it caused cooling. Though this principle had been displayed publicly by William Cullen in 1756, Faraday's work had shown that mechanical pumps could be used to turn gas to liquid at room temperature. 

The beauty of this discovery was the gas could be pressured and liquified and left to evaporate and cool continuously in a closed system. The whole sequence could be repeated ad infinitum, so long as the system was sealed. This is the basis of all modern refrigerators and air source heat pump systems. 

Bunsen Burner (sort of)

Michael Faraday was a great practical inventor which led him to produce a forerunner to one of the most iconic pieces of laboratory equipment, the Bunsen Burner. He combined air and gas before lighting it, obviously, to provide an easily accessible form of high temperature.

His early work was later developed by Robert Wilhelm Bunsen to produce a piece of equipment fondly remembered by many science students around the world. 

Faraday Cage

In 1836, Michael Faraday had discovered that when an electrical conductor is charged all the extra charge sits on the outside of it. By extension, this would mean that the extra charge does not "appear" on the inside of a room or metal cage.

The same principle can be used in actual clothing, the so-called Faraday suits. These overclothes have a metallic lining that keeps the wearer safe from any external electrical source. 

Faraday cages are also used to protect sensitive electrical equipment and during electrochemical experiments to prevent external interference. They are also used to create dead zones for mobile communications today.

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero
SourceAntoine Taveneaux /Wikimedia Commons


In 1825, Michael Faraday discovered this "miracle" molecule in the oily residue left behind from producing gas for lighting in London.

Benzene is one of the most important substances in Chemistry. It used to make many new materials and has helped in the understanding of bonding. Benzene actually ranks as one of the top 20 chemicals, by production volume, in the U.S. 

It is a vital component of many plastics, resins, nylon, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, drugs to name but a few.


We are all intuitively familiar with ferromagnetism or your run of the mill magnet, but Faraday discovered, in 1845, that all substances are diamagnetic. Of course, there is a wide variation in the strength of the phenomena in nature. 

 Diamagnetism is an opposed direction to an applied magnetic field. If the substance in question showed strong diamagnetism it will be strongly repelled by the north pole of a magnet. 

Amazingly, this can be used to produce levitation in most materials with a strong enough magnet. Even living things, like a frog, can "defy" gravity with a strong magnetic field. 

Death and legacy

Michael Faraday died at the ripe old age of 75 on the 25th of August 1867. He was survived by his wife. The couple had no children. Faraday had been a devout Christian his entire life. He had also held strong connections to that small sect, the Sandemanians, since childhood.

Because of his contributions to science, in life, he had been offered a burial space at Westminster Abbey along with Britain's kings and queens, even Sir Isaac Newton. He rejected this offer in favor of a more modest burial. You can find his grave in London's Highgate Cemetery. His wife, Sarah, is also buried with him.

A statue was erected in his honor in Savoy Place, London. It stands outside the Institution of Engineering and Technology. There are various other statues, schools, parks, and other monuments dedicated to the man who contributed so much to humanity. There are also many streets named after him across the U.K. and the U.S. 

He, of course, was given the ultimate accolade by appearing on the reverse of the Series E £20 Bank of England note. Michael also has a special Royal Society of London prize named after him for "excellence in communicating science to UK audiences". 

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero
1991-2001 £20 Bank of England Series E banknote, Source WorldBankNotesCoins

The final word

Michael Faraday also penned a series of letters and journals in his time, all of which are widely available and thoroughly recommended read for any Faraday fan.

Although coming from a poor family, Michael Faraday would work tirelessly to first educate himself. He would then dedicate his life to the pursuit of knowledge. His tenacity would see him become one of the world's most important scientists. His achievements are even more remarkable given his humble beginnings in a world dominated by the privileged class. Amongst his many great discoveries and inventions, he has also been immortalized as the SI unit for capacitance, fared, or F. 

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