Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

Faraday was a British chemist and physicist who contributed significantly to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry.

Michael Faraday was born on 22 September 1791 in south London. His family was not well off and Faraday received only a basic formal education. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to a local bookbinder and during the next seven years, educated himself by reading books on a wide range of scientific subjects. In 1812, Faraday attended four lectures given by the chemist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. Faraday subsequently wrote to Davy asking for a job as his assistant. Davy turned him down but in 1813 appointed him to the job of chemical assistant at the Royal Institution.

A year later, Faraday was invited to accompany Davy and his wife on an 18 month European tour, taking in France, Switzerland, Italy and Belgium and meeting many influential scientists. On their return in 1815, Faraday continued to work at the Royal Institution, helping with experiments for Davy and other scientists. In 1821 he published his work on electromagnetic rotation (the principle behind the electric motor). He was able to carry out little further research in the 1820s, busy as he was with other projects. In 1826, he founded the Royal Institution’s Friday Evening Discourses and in the same year the Christmas Lectures, both of which continue to this day. He himself gave many lectures, establishing his reputation as the outstanding scientific lecturer of his time.

In 1831, Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator. This discovery was crucial in allowing electricity to be transformed from a curiosity into a powerful new technology. During the remainder of the decade he worked on developing his ideas about electricity. He was partly responsible for coining many familiar words including ‘electrode’, ‘cathode’ and ‘ion’. Faraday’s scientific knowledge was harnessed for practical use through various official appointments, including scientific adviser to Trinity House (1836-1865) and Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich (1830-1851).

However, in the early 1840s, Faraday’s health began to deteriorate and he did less research. He died on 25 August 1867 at Hampton Court, where he had been given official lodgings in recognition of his contribution to science. He gave his name to the ‘farad’, originally describing a unit of electrical charge but later a unit of electrical capacitance.

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