Michael Faraday, September 22, 1791 – August 25, 1867

By Paul Fleck VE3HTF

By Paul Fleck VE3HTF

This month I am exploring the life and times of Michael Faraday.Ernest Rutherford has called Michael Faraday the “Greatest Scientific Discover of all Time”. In short, Mr. Faraday was a Mathematician and a Chemist, not versed in the mathematics of Trigonometry he was however identified by James Maxwell as “to have been in reality a mathematician of a very high order, one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods.”

Michael Faraday was responsible for many discoveries, several you have heard about, and I believe many you have not. Michael Faraday was an English scientist who contributed to the fields of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. His main discoveries include those of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism and electrolysis. It was by his research on the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a direct current that Faraday established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field in physics. Faraday also established that magnetism could affect rays of light and that there was an underlying relationship between the two phenomena. [1][2] He similarly discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction, diamagnetism, and the laws of electrolysis. His inventions of electromagnetic rotary devices formed the foundation of electric motor technology, and it was largely due to his efforts that electricity became practical for use in technology.

As a chemist, Faraday discovered benzene, investigated the clathrate hydrate of chlorine, invented an early form of the Bunsen burner and the system of oxidation numbers, and popularized terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion.Faraday was an excellent experimentalist who conveyed his ideas in clear and simple language; his mathematical abilities, however, did not extend as far as trigonometry or any but the simplest algebra. James Clerk Maxwell took the work of Faraday and others, and summarized it in a set of equations that is accepted as the basis of all modern theories of electromagnetic phenomena. The SI unit of capacitance, the farad, is named in his honor.

Early life
Faraday was born in Newington Butts, [3] which is now part of the London Borough of Southwark, but which was then a suburban part of Surrey. [4] James Faraday moved his wife and two children to London during the winter of 1790 from Outhgill in Westmorland, where he had been an apprentice to the village blacksmith. [5] Michael was born the autumn of that year. The young Michael Faraday, who was the third of four children, having only the most basic school education, had to educate himself. [6] At fourteen he became the apprentice to George Riebau, a local bookbinder and bookseller in Blandford Street. [7] During his seven-year apprenticeship he read many books, including Isaac Watts’ The Improvement of the Mind, and he enthusiastically implemented the principles and suggestions contained therein. At this time he also developed an interest in science, especially in electricity. The book Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet particularly inspired Faraday. [8]

Michael Faraday in the early 30's

Michael Faraday in the early 30’s

Faraday married Sarah Barnard (1800-1879) on 12 June 1821. [9] They met through their families at the Sandemanian church, and he confessed his faith to the Sandemanian congregation the month after they were married. They had no children. [3]Faraday was a devout Christian; his Sandemanian denomination was an offshoot of the Church of Scotland. Well after his marriage, he served as deacon and for two terms as an elder in the meeting house of his youth. His church was located at Paul’s Alley in the Barbican. This meeting house was relocated in 1862 to Barnsbury Grove, Islington; this North London location was where Faraday served the final two years of his second term as elder prior to his resignation from that post. [10][11] Biographers have noted “a strong sense of the unity of God and nature pervaded Faraday’s life and work.”[12]

Scientific achievements:
Faraday’s earliest chemical work was as an assistant to Humphrey Davy. Faraday was specifically involved in the study of chlorine; he discovered two new compounds of chlorine and carbon. He also conducted the first rough experiments on the diffusion of gases, a phenomenon that was first pointed out by John Dalton, and the physical importance of which was more fully brought to light by Thomas Graham and Joseph Loschmidt. Faraday succeeded in liquefying several gases, investigated the alloys of steel, and produced several new kinds of glass intended for optical purposes. A specimen of one of these heavy glasses subsequently became historically important; when the glass was placed in a magnetic field Faraday determined the rotation of the plane of polarization of light. This specimen was also the first substance found to be repelled by the poles of a magnet.

Faraday invented an early form of what was to become the Bunsen burner, which is in practical use in science laboratories around the world as a convenient source of heat. [13][14] Faraday worked extensively in the field of chemistry, discovering chemical substances such as benzene (which he called bicarburet of hydrogen), and liquefying gases such as chlorine. The liquefying of gases helped to establish that gases are the vapors of liquids possessing a very low boiling point, and gave a more solid basis to the concept of molecular aggregation. In 1820 Faraday reported the first synthesis of compounds made from carbon and chlorine, C2Cl6 and C2Cl4, and published his results the following year. [15][16][17] Faraday also determined the composition of the chlorine clathrate hydrate, which had been discovered by Humphrey Davy in 1810. [18][19] Faraday is also responsible for discovering the laws of electrolysis, and for popularizing terminology such as anode, cathode, electrode, and ion, terms proposed in large part by William Whewell. Faraday was the first to report what later came to be called metallic nanoparticles. In 1847 he discovered that the optical properties of gold colloids differed from those of the corresponding bulk metal. This was probably the first reported observation of the effects of quantum size, and might be considered to be the birth of nanoscience. [20]

Electricity and magnetism
Faraday is best known for his work regarding electricity and magnetism. His first recorded experiment was the construction of a voltaic pile with seven halfpence pieces, stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water. With this pile he decomposed sulphate of magnesia (first letter to Abbott, 12 July 1812). One of Faraday’s 1831 experiments demonstrating induction. The liquid battery sends an electric current through the small coil. When it is moved in or out of the large coil, its magnetic field induces a momentary voltage in the coil, which is detected by the galvanometer. Faraday’s breakthrough came when he wrapped two insulated coils of wire around an iron ring, and found that, upon passing a current through one coil, a momentary current was induced in the other coil. [5] This phenomenon is now known as mutual induction. [21] The iron ring-coil apparatus is still on display at the Royal Institution. In subsequent experiments, he found that, if he moved a magnet through a loop of wire, an electric current flowed in that wire. The current also flowed if the loop was moved over a stationary magnet. His demonstrations established that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field; this relation was modeled mathematically by James Clerk Maxwell as Faraday’s law, which subsequently became one of the four Maxwell equations, and which have in turn evolved into the generalization known today as field theory. Faraday would later use the principles he had discovered to construct the electric dynamo, the ancestor of modern power generators.

In 1839, he completed a series of experiments aimed at investigating the fundamental nature of electricity; Faraday used “static”, batteries, and “animal electricity” to produce the phenomena of electrostatic attraction, electrolysis, magnetism, etc. He concluded that, contrary to the scientific opinion of the time, the divisions between the various “kinds” of electricity were illusory. Faraday instead proposed that only a single “electricity” exists, and the changing values of quantity and intensity (current and voltage) would produce different groups of phenomena. [5] Near the end of his career, Faraday proposed that electromagnetic forces extended into the empty space around the conductor. His fellow scientists rejected this idea, and Faraday did not live to see the eventual acceptance of his proposition by the scientific community. (Editor’s note: Imagine if this theory never evolved! We would not have antenna’s radiating signals!) Faraday’s concept of lines of flux emanating from charged bodies and magnets provided a way to visualize electric and magnetic fields; that conceptual model was crucial for the successful development of the electromechanical devices that dominated engineering and industry for the remainder of the 19th century.

Michael Faraday holding a glass bar of the type he used in 1845 to show that magnetism can affect light in a dielectric material. [22] In 1845, Faraday discovered that many materials exhibit a weak repulsion from a magnetic field: a phenomenon he termed diamagnetism. [23] Faraday also discovered that the plane of polarization of linearly polarized light could be rotated by the application of an external magnetic field aligned in the direction, which the light is moving. This is now termed the Faraday effect. He wrote in his notebook, “I have at last succeeded in illuminating a magnetic curve or line of force and in magnetizing a ray of light”. Later on in his life, in 1862, Faraday used a spectroscope to search for a different alteration of light, the change of spectral lines by an applied magnetic field. The equipment available to him was, however, insufficient for a definite determination of spectral change. Pieter Zeeman later used an improved apparatus to study the same phenomenon, publishing his results in 1897 and receiving the 1902 Nobel Prize in Physics for his success. In both his 1897 paper [24] and his Nobel acceptance speech, Zeeman made reference to Faraday’s work.

Faraday cage
In his work on static electricity, Faraday’s ice pail experiment demonstrated that the charge resided only on the exterior of a charged conductor, and exterior charge had no influence on anything enclosed within a conductor. This is because the exterior charges redistribute such that the interior fields due to them cancel. This shielding effect is used in what is now known as a Faraday cage. Amazing!

Nice to know
Faraday is a township in the Canadian province of Ontario, located within Hastings County. The township comprises the communities of Bow Lake, Faraday, Monck Road, and Paudash. There is also a street named after Faraday in Deep River, Ontario. Lord Bessborough (1880-1956, Governor General of Canada) unveiled over the telephone from Ottawa a plaque to Faraday in the then-new Battersea Power Station, in London England.


1. a, b, c, Michael Faraday entry at the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica hosted by LovetoKnow Retrieved January 2007.
2. a, b, c, d, “Archives Biographies: Michael Faraday”, The Institution of Engineering and Technology.
3. The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell Volume 1 page 360; Courier Dover 2003, ISBN 486-49560-4
4. “Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the World through the Language of Mathematics”, by Robyn Arianrhod UQP, reviewed by Jane Gleeson-White, 10 November 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald.
5. C.N.R. Rao (2000). “Understanding Chemistry”. p. 281. Universities Press, 2000.
6. “Michael Faraday.” History of Science and Technology. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. Answers.com 4 June 2007.
7. Plaque #19 on Open Plaques.
8. John H. Lienhard (1992). “Jane Marcet’s Books”. The Engines of Our Ingenuity. Episode 744. NPR. KUHF-FM Houston.
9. The register at St. Faith-in-the-Virgin near St. Paul’s Cathedral, records 12 June as the date their licence was issued. The witness was Sarah’s father, Edward. Their marriage was 16 years prior to the Marriage and Registration Act of 1837. See page 59 of Cantor’s (1991) Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist.
10. See pages 41-43, 60-64, and 277-280 of Geoffrey Cantor’s (1991) Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist.
11. Paul’s Alley was located 10 houses south of the Barbican. See page 330 Elmes’s (1831) Topographical Dictionary of the British Metropolis.
12. Baggott, Jim (2 September 1991). “The myth of Michael Faraday: Michael Faraday was not just one of Britain’s greatest experimenters. A closer look at the man and his work reveals that he was also a clever theoretician”. New Scientist. Retrieved 6, September 2008.
13. Jensen, William B. (2005). “The Origin of the Bunsen Burner” (PDF). Journal of Chemical Education 82 (4).
14. See page 127 of Faraday’s Chemical Manipulation, Being Instructions to Students in Chemistry (1827).
15. Faraday, Michael (1821). “On two new Compounds of Chlorine and Carbon, and on a new Compound of Iodine, Carbon, and Hydrogen”. Philosophical Transactions 111: 47. doi:10.1098/rstl.1821.0007.
16. Faraday, Michael (1859). Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics. London: Richard Taylor and William Francis. pp.33-53. ISBN 85066-841-7.
17. Williams, L. Pearce (1965). Michael Faraday: A Biography. New York: Basic Books. pp. 122-123. ISBN 306-80299-6.
18. Faraday, Michael (1823). “On Hydrate of Chlorine”. Quartly Journal of Science 15: 71.
19. Faraday, Michael (1859). Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics. London: Richard Taylor and William Francis. pp.81-84. ISBN 85066-841-7.
20. “The Birth of Nanotechnology”. Nanogallery.info. 2006. Retrieved 25 July 2007. “”Faraday made some attempt to explain what was causing the vivid coloration in his gold mixtures, saying that known phenomena seemed to indicate that a mere variation in the size of gold particles gave rise to a variety of resultant colors”.
21. Van Valkenburgh (1995). “Basic Electricity”. pp.4-91. Cengage Learning, 1995.
22. Detail of an engraving by Henry Adlard, based on an earlier photograph by Maull & Polyblank ca. 1857. See National Portrait Gallery, UK
23. Frank A.J.L James (2010). “Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction”. p. 81. Oxford University Press, 2010.
24. Zeeman, Pieter (1897). “The Effect of Magnetisation on the Nature of Light Emitted by a Substance”. Nature 55 (1424): 347. Bibcode 1897Natur..55..347Z. doi:10.1038/055347a0.
25. “Pieter Zeeman, Nobel Lecture”. Retrieved 29 May 2008.

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