Michael Faraday (1791-1867)

Michael Faraday was a British natural philosopher most famous for his contributions to our understanding of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. He was born in 1791 in Newington, an area now in the London borough of Southwark but then part of suburban Surrey. Faraday’s family were not wealthy - his father was a blacksmith - and as soon as he finished school, aged 14, Faraday began an apprenticeship with a London bookbinder. He started reading the books he was binding and became fascinated by science.

Whenever he got the chance, Faraday attended science lectures, which at that time were a popular form of entertainment. In 1812 he attended a series at the Royal Institution given by the eminent Humphry Davy. Faraday took extensive notes throughout the lectures and afterwards sent to Davy a carefully copied set of his notes, hoping for a job at the Royal Institution. Although none were available at the time, Davy was impressed, and when a series of laboratory explosions caused temporary damage to Davy’s eyesight, he hired the young Faraday as his chemical assistant.

Faraday remained at the Royal Institution for the rest of his career, and was appointed the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry in 1833. He started the work for which he is chiefly famous - in electromagnetism - in 1821. Building on the work of Hans Christian Ørsted, Faraday created devices which produced electromagnetic rotation - developments which led to the electric motor. In Faraday’s excitement to publish this work, he omitted to credit his mentor Davy, causing a strain in their relationship. Ten years later, Faraday discovered that passing a current through a coil of copper wire wrapped around iron could induce current in an adjacent coil - and thus invented the first transformer. He was also responsible for the first generator and dynamo.

In his work in chemistry Faraday discovered that chlorine could be liquefied, and in 1825 discovered a new substance which he called bicarburet of hydrogen, now known as benzene. He established the laws of electrolysis, and performed the first syntheses of compounds of carbon and chlorine.

Faraday is also known for his role in initiating two series of scientific lectures at the Royal Institution. The Friday Evening Discourses and Christmas Lectures continue to this day.

Faraday was a devout Sandemanian (a small non-conformist sect outside the dominant Church of England). He met his wife, Sarah Barnard, through his church, and they married in 1821. They had no children.

He retired to his house at Hampton Court, Surrey in 1858, and died there, aged 75, in 1867. He is buried in the dissenters’ section of Highgate Cemetery, London, having previously refused a burial in Westminster Abbey - though a memorial plaque lies near the tomb of Isaac Newton.