Michael Faraday


Michael Faraday, the leading chemist and natural philosopher in England during the middle third of the nineteenth century, discovered the principle behind the electric motor (1821), benzene (1825), the electric transformer

English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, who developed the field theory of electromagnetism.
English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, who developed the field theory of electromagnetism.

and generator (1831), the laws of electrolysis (early 1830s), and the magneto-optical effect and diamagnetism (1845), which enabled him to develop the field theory of electromagnetism, one of the cornerstones of modern physics.

Faraday was born on September 22, 1791, in Newington Butts, south of London. His father, a blacksmith, belonged to the Sandemanians, a small literalist sect (in which the members believe in the literal truth of the Bible) of Christianity. Faraday was fully committed to this sect, becoming a deacon in 1832 and an elder in the 1840s and again in the 1860s. He married a fellow Sandemanian, Sarah Barnard, in 1821 and died on August 25, 1867, in his "grace and favour" house (a house given by a monarch to a subject in recognition of worth and of need) at Hampton Court. In his scientific research, Faraday sought to determine the laws of nature that he believed God had written at the creation of the universe. Although it was only toward the end of his life that problems began to emerge between some types of Christianity and science, mostly in response to Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, published in 1859, Faraday did not see any conflict between them.

Faraday attended a day school and in 1805 he began an apprenticeship as a bookbinder, which was to last for seven years. During this time he developed a strong interest in science, particularly chemistry, and in 1812, the final year of his apprenticeship, he attended four lectures delivered by Humphry Davy at the recently founded (1799) Royal Institution in London's West End. Faraday sent his notes on Davy's lectures to Davy asking for a job in the field of science; he was eventually appointed as an assistant in the Royal Institution's laboratory. Between the fall of 1813 and spring of 1815 he toured Europe with Davy and helped him establish the fact that iodine was a chemical element. Returning to England, Faraday was reappointed to the Royal Institution and promoted through the ranks, becoming the director of its laboratory in 1825 and first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry in 1833. In these roles, Faraday established Christmas lectures for children and Friday evening discourses, both of which series still continue.

During the 1820s much of Faraday's work centered on chemistry. He aided Davy in his disastrous efforts to protect electrochemically the copper bottoms of ships and with the equally unsuccessful project to improve optical glass. In 1823 Faraday liquefied the gas chlorine for the first time and in the 1840s he liquefied several more gases. His liquefaction of chlorine resulted in a bitter break with Davy, by now president of the Royal Society , who believed that Faraday had not given him sufficient credit for his part in the work. Davy thus tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to block Faraday's election to the Royal Society. Two years later Faraday discovered, but did not investigate fully, a new chemical that he named "bi-carburet of hydrogen." Nearly ten years later Eilhardt Mitscherlich, a chemistry professor in Berlin, first undertook a detailed study of the substance that he renamed benzene. Faraday, nevertheless, is credited with benzene's discovery, and in 1925 there were major celebrations throughout England marking the 100-year anniversary of Faraday's discovery.

Following his 1831 electromagnetic work, Faraday turned his attention to electrochemistry. The decomposition of chemical compounds was a standard test for the presence of electricity. In his extensive use of this test, he observed phenomena contradicting Davy's theory that electrochemical decomposition occurred at the metal pole. Faraday found that decomposition occurred in the substance itself and the poles did not need to be metal. All this led Faraday to develop a new language of electrochemistry. With a number of classical scholars, notably William Whewell, Faraday introduced terms such as electrolysis, electrolyte, electrode, anode, cathode, and ion (although he said there would be little need for this last term).

Faraday was thus able to enunciate his two laws of electrolysis. His second law implied that both matter and electricity were atomic in nature. Faraday was deeply opposed to atomism, especially the theory proposed by John Dalton, and indeed held a very antimaterialist view. It was clear to Faraday, however, that the law of definite proportions also required some sort of atomic theory . What Faraday proposed in the 1840s was that matter was perceived where lines of force met at a particular point in space. A direct experimental outcome of this radical theory was Faraday's discovery in 1845 of the magneto-optical effect and diamagnetism. The field theory that Faraday developed from this was able to solve a number of problems in physics that were not amenable to conventional approaches. This was one reason why field theory was taken up quite quickly by elite natural philosophers such as William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell. Nevertheless, the theory was not generally accepted for some time because it was seen by many physicists as opaque and, in origin, nonmathematical. However, as the German organic chemist Justus von Liebig pointed out, this occurred because physicists did not recognize Faraday's background as a chemist, a factor Liebig thought crucial in the development of Faraday's theory: "To physicists, who have approached physics by the road of chemistry, Faraday's memoirs sound like admirably beautiful music" (Hofmann, p. 1100).

SEE ALSO Dalton, John ; Davy, Humphry ; Electrochemistry ; Iodine ; Liebig, Justus von ; Maxwell, James Clerk .

Frank A. J. L. James


Cantor, Geoffrey (1991). Michael Faraday, Sandemanian and Scientist: A Study of Science and Religion in the Nineteenth Century. London: Macmillan.

Cantor, Geoffrey; Gooding, David; and James, Frank A. J. L. (1996). Michael Faraday. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Gooding, David (1990). Experiment and the Making of Meaning: Human Agency in Scientific Observation and Experiment. Dordrecht and Boston: Kluwer Academic.

Gooding, David, and James, Frank A. J. L., eds. (1985). Faraday Rediscovered: Essays on the Life and Work of Michael Faraday, 1791–1867. London: Macmillan.

Hofmann, August (1875). "Faraday Lecture." Journal of the Chemical Society 13:1100.

James, Frank A. J. L. (1991). The Correspondence of Michael Faraday. 4 vols. and others in preparation. London: Institution of Electrical Engineers.

Thompson, Sylvanus P. (1898). Michael Faraday: His Life and Work. London: Cassell.

Internet Resources

The Royal Institution of Great Britain. Available from http://www.rigb.org/heritage/index.html .

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