Faraday, the Blacksmith's Boy Who Changed the World

Michael Faraday working in his converted kitchen laboratory in the 1850s. Painting by artist Harriet Moore.
Michael Faraday working in his converted kitchen laboratory in the 1850s. Painting by artist Harriet Moore.

by Ray Setterfield

October 28, 1831 — He seemed to be just an ordinary boy and nothing about him suggested to his neighbours and friends that Michael Faraday was to become one of the most remarkable scientists in history. His inventions ultimately changed the world and led to many technologies used today.

His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled financially and lived in a poorer part of London. Michael was born in 1791, the third child of the family.

Neither James nor his wife, Margaret, could offer their son anything more than a basic education at the local church school – and that wasn’t to last long. Apparently Michael left at the age of 13 and took a job as a messenger boy for a local bookseller.

He must have got on well with his employer because he was soon promoted into the role of apprentice bookbinder. But he didn’t just bind books – he read them, too. Especially scientific ones.

A customer named William Dance who discussed one of the books with Faraday was so taken with the young man’s enthusiasm that he gave him tickets for a London series of lectures at the Royal Institution of Great Britain by Sir Humphry Davy, the UK’s top scientist of the time.

Avidly, he went along to the lectures, making extensive notes on Davy’s observations, but adding many thoughts of his own. He then bound the papers into a 300-page handwritten book, which he presented to his hero.

The eminent scientist was so impressed that he soon employed Faraday as a laboratory assistant and gave him a room in the Royal Institution’s attic in which he was to live.

He was to develop into a prolific chemist and physicist whose extensive inventions included the electric motor, transformer, generator, Faraday cage and many other discoveries.

Today, all energy sources still rely on a generator to produce the electrical current that powers everything people use and the electric power used across the globe relies upon Faraday’s research and inventions two centuries ago.

A basement kitchen at the Royal Institution was converted into a workshop and laboratory where Faraday worked tirelessly.

He never registered any patents or tried to make money from his work. He was driven simply by a need to “find out” and was quoted as saying: “I can at any moment convert my time into money, but I do not require more of the latter than is sufficient for necessary purposes.”

During his life, he was asked if he would wish to be interred in Westminster Abbey along with Britain’s kings and queens and scientists of the stature of Isaac Newton. But he refused and after he died aged 75 in 1867 he was buried in a modest grave at London’s Highgate Cemetery.

It is noteworthy that Albert Einstein displayed pictures of three scientists in his office: Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday.

Published: September 26, 2019

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