Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero

Michael Faraday is one of the world's greatest and most influential scientists and we honor his life and work in our humble article.

Michael Faraday 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.

So, just your ordinary "run of the mill academic" right? We won't even justify that with an answer, frankly :)

Michael Faraday is one of the world's greatest and most influential scientists and we honor his life and work in our humble article. Such were his achievements that it will not be possible to cover them all in the next few thousand words but we'll have a go. 

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. 

Early Life

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. 

This exposure to religion in his early life would greatly effect Faraday throughout his adult life. Especially on how he would see, reflect upon and interpret nature.

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature, and in such things as these, experiment is the best test of such consistency.”

- Michael Faraday

A self-made man

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 to 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 worlds greatest scientists. 

Michael Faraday's first big break

In 1812, at the age of 20, Faraday received a ticket for a series of Chemistry lectures by, the one and only, Sir Humphry Davy. 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

He would also start working for the Royal Institution at this time. An organization he would be associated with for 54 years, ending up as a Professor of Chemistry.

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

Faraday's tutelage under Davy

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, sorry Lavoisier, and produce an acid when combined with water, again sorry Lavoisier. 

FYI, this is an article on Faraday we promise!

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero
Sir Humprey Davy 1849 Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation/Wikimedia Commons

Faraday is exposed to atomic theory

Davy, accurately determined that this was a new element and he dutifully dubbed it Chlorine. Furthermore, he had shown that there was no oxygen at all in muriatic acid.

This led to further trains of thought:-

- Acidity was not the result of acid-forming elements but rather a condition'

- This condition must be something physical within the molecule itself.

Davy would develop his theories further and determine that acidity was the result of the specific elements, of course, but more importantly how they were actually arranged. This discovery was probably influenced by the idea of atomic theory proposed by Ruggero Giuseppe Boscovich.

His idea was that atoms were actually mathematical points surrounded by an alternating current of attractive and repulsive fields.

The logic would follow that elements, molecules and compounds and their properties were simply a product of the final patterns of force surrounding clumps of constituent atoms.

A known property of molecules and compounds at the time was that they could be put under a lot of strain or tension before the "bonds" holding them together would break.

It was these properties that would later influence Faraday's thoughts on electricity.

From bookbinder apprentice to Chemistry master in 8 short years

Faraday's second apprenticeship under Davy ended in 1820. At this 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 who's 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.

But many more were to come....

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero

Some of Michael Faraday's notes. Source: Royal Institution of London

Faraday makes some great discoveries and finds time to get married

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.

Almost as a side note at this point, he also managed to fit in getting hitched in 1821. Michael married Sarah Barnard and permanently settled at the Royal Institution. Here he started to work on electricity and magnetism. Two fields that would later revolutionize physics.

Michael Faraday: A True Scientific Hero
Faraday's first electrostatic generator Source: Royal Institution of London

Faraday's work on electricity

Michael Faraday's work on electricity is a perfect example of the man's determination to finish something he started. For that reason, we'll deal with this in a little detail.

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.

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 a 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 1820's, but sadly, to no avail.

In the early 1830's 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.

The secrets of magnetism begin to unravel

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.

Michael Faraday inventions and achievements

To be honest this would fill an entire series of enormous tomes. With this in mind, we'll handpick a few of the more commonly known ones as well as, we hope, some surprising examples. Obviously, if we mentioned them in the text above they'll be absent, e.g. electric motors, dynamos etc.

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
Source: Antoine 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.

First and Second Laws of Electrolysis

We, of course, had to mention Faraday's Laws of Electrolysis. Michael was a major player in the founding of this very important field of electrochemistry. 

This is the science of understanding what happens at the interface of an electrode and an ionic substance. This field of science has yielded the Lithium Ion batteries that are so abundant today. Of course, this is not to mention hydride batteries that power modern mobile technologies.

Faraday's founding principles are vitally important to our understanding of electrode reactions.

Death and legacy

Michael Faraday died at the ripe old age of 75 on the 25th 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 bank note. Source WorldBankNotesCoins


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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, farad or F. 


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