Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

Michael Faraday

Prince of Experimenters; Assistant to Sir Humphry Davy

No one can take an interest in the history of Electricity without being impressed with the great importance of Faraday's discoveries, but one may know his work without knowing the man. I was impressed with this many years ago, when the late John Tatlock, of Glasgow, who at one time was one of Lord Kelvin's assistants, told me the following incident concerning Faraday.

When a young man, Tatlock was passing the old Andersonian College, the forerunner of the colossal Royal Technical College, in Glasgow, when the janitor called to him and asked if he would care to hear Michael Faraday preach on the following day—Sunday. Tatlock thought at first that the janitor was jesting, but when given a note of the time of place and meeting he very naturally decided to be one of the audience. On Sunday he made his way to the address given, where in a back court he found a very small hall, in front of which stood Faraday in conversation with two old gentlemen. At the appointed hour the meeting was begun, with only a dozen or two of an audience in the small hall. There stood Faraday, at a time when the world was ringing with his praise, giving a simple discourse on "Brotherly Love." My old friend told me that the one thing at which he marvelled most was the exceptional knowledge of the Bible, which was apparent by the ease with which Faraday turned from one quotation to another, and his whole address was practically a stringing together of passages of Scripture. The smallness of the meeting-place is accounted for by the fact that Michael Faraday belonged to that small religious sect known as Sandemanians  or Glassites. Their religious creed is practically the same as other Protestant bodies, but they do not believe in having professional clergymen, and they have some customs special to their own church.

Faraday, in common with most of us, followed the religion of his parents, but because he belonged to a deeply religious sect we are not to picture him flaunting his religion before the world, as some small sects are liable to do. One of his friends has said: "Never once during an intimacy of fifteen years did he mention religion to me, save when I drew him on to the subject."

His father was employed as a blacksmith in London, and lived in a very humble position. The blacksmith's wife was "particularly neat and nice in her household arrangements," but there was nothing outstanding about Faraday's parents.

He was born in London in 1791, and although we are looking back from the twentieth to the eighteenth century, the cry is not a very far one. It is one hundred and twenty years since Faraday was born, but it is not forty-five years since he died, so that there are many people still living who can remember him.

Our hero very nearly lost his life when a boy. He tells how he was playing about in a loft above the smithy in which his father worked, and stepping backwards he fell through an open space in the floor. The opening happened to be right above his father's anvil, and fortunately for him and for the world, his father was bending over his work at the moment when the boy Michael came down. Had he not fallen right on to his father's back, he would doubtless have been killed upon the anvil.

As a schoolboy Faraday attracted no special attention, but he tells us himself, "I was a very highly imaginative person, and I could believe in the Arabian Nights  as easily as in the Encyclopaedia;  but facts were important to me and saved me. I could trust a fact, and always cross-examine an assertion."

Like many boys leaving school, he seemed to have no particular bent, and so he became errand-boy to a book-seller, whose shop was in the neighbourhood of the Faradays' humble residence. But Michael Faraday was one of those sensible boys who mean to take life in earnest, and who would put his heart into whatever work he was set to do. Some of his duties were very humble, such as delivering newspapers at the customers' houses, but Faraday carried out his simple duties to such good purpose, that at the end of one year the bookseller offered to take him as an apprentice to learn bookbinding, without asking the premium which was usual for such a training. This must have been appreciated by Michael's father, who could not well afford to pay a premium, Michael being only one of a large family.



By this time Faraday was fourteen years of age, but he did not, like so many boys, idle away all his spare time; he got permission to read the books belonging to his master. Among these books one great favourite with him was Mrs. Marcet's Conversations on Chemistry, and he said long years afterwards that it was this book in particular which had led him into Science.

By the time his seven years' apprenticeship was up in the bookshop Faraday had become very much interested in Science, but as he had had no special training, there seemed nothing for it but to stick to the bookbinding trade. He was now a full-fledged workman, and he took a situation with another employer, who was evidently a hard taskmaster. In any case, Faraday had acquired such a craving for Science that he determined to write a letter to the great Sir Humphry Davy, asking if he could give him any employment in connection with the Royal Institution. Faraday had written previously to the President of the Royal Society, and one can scarcely blame so busy a man for not replying to this letter sent without any introduction. But Faraday was keen, and he doubtless felt as though he knew Sir Humphry Davy, for he had attended some of his public lectures, and had taken voluminous notes, to which he had added drawings of the apparatus used in the experiments. As proof of his interest in Science, Faraday sent to the great Chemist this notebook, which is now preserved in the museum at the Royal Institution. Davy, great and busy man as he was, wrote the following very kind letter to Faraday:

December 24, 1812


I am far from displeased with the proof you have given me of your confidence, and which displays great zeal, power of memory, and attention. I am obliged to go out of town till the end of January; I will then see you at any time you wish. It would gratify me to be of any service to you; I wish it may be in my power.

"I am, sir, your obedient humble servant,


How Faraday must have treasured that letter from one who was famous throughout the world!

The great Chemist was as good as his word; he made an appointment for Faraday to meet him at the Royal Institution. He received the youth very kindly, but pointed out to him that Science was not a money-making business, whereas he might do very well in the book-binding business. Davy was evidently impressed with the lad's capabilities, for he promised him the book-binding of the Institution and his own private work also. This was very kind, but Michael Faraday was eager to become a scientist, and no doubt Davy saw that the lad would not be satisfied with a business life.

Not very long after this Faraday was going off to bed in his humble home, after a hard day's work, when the household was disturbed by a loud knock at the door. A footman had alighted from a grand carriage and had left a note for Michael Faraday. This was a request from Sir Humphry Davy that he should call upon him the next morning. I wonder if Faraday slept much that night! Nothing would prevent him keeping this appointment.

Sir Humphry, finding the young man was still as eager as ever to get into scientific employment, gave him the place of assistant in the laboratory of the Royal Institution, from which he had been forced to dismiss the former occupant on the previous day.

This was not long before Davy's continental tour, and by that time he was so impressed by Faraday's general interest that he took him with him on his travels, to act as secretary and as assistant, for even then Davy carried a miniature chemical laboratory about with him. On their return about a year and a half later, Faraday was reappointed assistant in the Royal Institution.

When he was thirty years of age he was still assistant, but then to Davy's successor, and his salary was only one hundred pounds, with residence in the Institution. At this age Faraday married the daughter of a silver-smith, following the custom of the Sandemanians at that time by marrying one of their own sect. In his love-making and throughout his wedded life he was most chivalrous. When his successor, Professor Tyndall, was going over Faraday's book of Diplomas and Honours, he came across the following entry in Faraday's own handwriting: "Amongst these records and events, I here insert the date of one which, as a source of honour and happiness, far exceeds all the rest. We were married on June 12, 1821."

Faraday had no children of his own, but he was so fond of children that he adopted a little niece, and when his day's work was over he would go up to his rooms and play with this little one at bagatelle or charades, or he would read to her. When other children came to visit them, he would play hide-and-seek with them in the large Lecture Theatre, and then take them up to see his tuning-forks or resounding glasses. He would often take his little niece to the Zoological Gardens, and he would join in her merriment, sometimes laughing at the monkeys' tricks till the tears rolled down his cheeks. His love for children was so great that when he went out to a dinner-party he must see the little ones, who were sometimes brought down in their nightgowns to him. It was his great love of children that suggested to him the public lectures for boys and girls home from school for the Christmas holidays, which custom is carried on, by men of science, to this day at the Royal Institution each Christmas. Faraday himself conducted these lectures for nineteen years. He entered into the spirit of the thing so well that it is said one would have thought that he had never seen the experiments before, and that he was about to clap his hands with boyish glee at the unexpected results.

Faraday was a hard worker, and found it necessary to refuse almost all invitations to dinner-parties and other social gatherings, but he did not cut himself off from the world. He used to take open-air exercise on his velocipede, and he would entertain his friends with his flute.

He was always gentle and a true gentleman, and although he was truly sympathetic he was by no means what is termed "soft." On one occasion, when a young man, he was hurrying along Holborn Pavement on a Sabbath morning to attend the Sandemanian meeting, when some small missile struck his hat. He would have thought it accidental, had it not been quickly repeated, whereupon, glancing upwards, he saw a head hastily withdrawn from an open window in the upper storey of a closed linen-draper's shop. Roused by the affront, he marched up to the door and knocked. The servant opening it said that there was no one at home, but Faraday declared he knew better, and pushed his way upstairs. There he found a number of draper's assistants, who professed to know nothing of the matter, but Faraday taxed them very severely for their annoyance of wayfarers on a Sabbath morning, and before he left they apologised for their behaviour.

Another occasion when Faraday showed a little temper was when he and another scientist had gone down a Durham coal-mine to make inquiry on behalf of the Government into the cause of a serious explosion, which had taken place in this mine shortly before that time. While sitting in the mine questioning some of the men Faraday asked where they kept their gunpowder, and when they coolly told him that he was sitting on a bag of it, he very naturally "gave them a piece of his mind" upon their carelessness.

On another occasion Faraday wrote a scathing letter in connection with two Italian philosophers who had tried to do his work an injustice. But these were exceptions to the rule, and only serve to show us how very well Faraday had himself in control.

Here is an incident which will serve to show how remarkably kind and thoughtful he was. One of his pupils had been appointed Director of the Chemical Department of the War Establishment at Woolwich, through the influence of Faraday. This pupil tells us that on the occasion of his first lecture he was feeling very nervous. To his dismay, when he went into the Lecture Hall there was his professor, who happened to be in Woolwich on that day. But Faraday put him at his ease at once. Coming forward and shaking hands warmly with the young lecturer, Faraday said that he had looked in to see if he could be of any assistance to him, and this Prince of Experimenters set about acting assistant to his former pupil.

It may seem strange that Faraday himself never lectured till he was thirty-two years of age, and then only because the professor was absent. He did not become a regular lecturer until he was thirty-six years of age. But we must remember that he did not enter the Royal Institution till he was twenty-two years of age, and he had had no university or college education. Up to that time he was entirely an amateur scientist, but his letters to his young Quaker friend Benjamin Abbott make interesting reading. They are included in Faraday's correspondence collected by Dr. Bence Jones, the then secretary of the Royal Institution.

While Faraday's lectures were a great success, it was as an experimenter, and more especially as a discoverer, that he became famous. It was he who discovered the principle which made the modern dynamo possible, and brought about all the practical applications of electricity on a large scale. Had Faraday been a practical inventor such as Lord Kelvin was, we should probably have had the dynamo a generation earlier, but Faraday confined himself to the Science side entirely. The only point of actual contact I can think of between Faraday's personal work and the practical applications of Science was his appointment as Adviser to Trinity House in connection with Lighthouses, and in this capacity he did much useful work. For a few years Faraday did come into indirect touch with the business world in doing some work as an analytical chemist, but we shall consider this later.

Another fundamental principle laid down by Faraday was what electricians call "self-induction," and this was of great value in connection with the early cables across the Atlantic. Then came Faraday's experimental proof of the intimate connection between light, electricity, and magnetism. These few remarks will be sufficient to convince the general reader that Michael Faraday has a just claim for being called a Hero of Science. It was a great work of Faraday's, the breaking down of the barriers which used to separate one department of Science from another.

Strange to say, this Prince of Experimenters, this great discoverer, was not a mathematician. A continental Scientist has said: "It has been stated on good authority that Faraday boasted on a certain occasion of having only once in the course of his life performed a mathematical calculation: that once was when he turned the handle of Babbage's calculating machine." If Faraday did say this, it must, of course, have been in jest. We find him assisting his niece with her lessons, and making her problems in arithmetic easy and interesting by his lucid explanations. Faraday was doubtless an expert arithmetician, but he had no training in higher mathematics. He certainly had a mathematical mind. The great mathematician Clerk Maxwell, of whom we shall read in a later chapter, when referring to some of Faraday's work, said: "It shows him to have been a mathematician of high order, and one from whom the mathematicians of the future may derive valuable and fertile methods." Of course, Maxwell does not mean that Faraday used higher mathematics in the ordinary sense.

Amongst the letters received by Faraday were two from the great Napoleon, while he was Prince Louis Napoleon. These were personal letters asking his scientific advice on particular points. The first letter was written when the Prince was imprisoned in the fortress of Ham, and in this letter he tells Faraday that his writings have brightened the hours of confinement.

Then there is a letter to Faraday written by King Edward VII, when he was Prince of Wales, and about fifteen years of age:

Windsor Castle, January 16, 1856.


I am anxious to thank you for the advantage I have derived from attending your most interesting lectures. Their subject, I know very well, is of great importance, and I hope to follow the advice you gave us of pursuing it beyond the lecture-room; and I can assure you that I shall always cherish with great pleasure the recollection of having been assisted in my early studies in chemistry by so distinguished a man.

"Believe me, dear sir,

"Yours truly, Albert Edward

Faraday's sympathetic nature was evident not only in words, but in deeds. One of his biographers, Dr. Gladstone, wrote: "When I had my wife and my only son taken away, and I myself lay ill of the same fatal disease, he [Faraday] called at my house, and in spite of remonstrances found his way into the infected chamber. He would have taken me by the hand, if I had allowed him; and then he sat awhile by my bedside, consoling me with sympathy and cheering me with the Christian hope."

Faraday had always a very pleasant way of doing things. For instance, he was asked on one occasion by the managers of the Royal Institution to make some intimations before proceeding with his public lecture. One intimation referred to some one who was in the habit of keeping his hat on in the Institution. Faraday said: "The second case I take to be a hypothetical one, namely that of a gentleman wearing his hat in the drawing-room."

He was always very thoughtful for his audience. When he was well up in years he found, before one of his lectures, that his throat was not only troubling him to inconvenience, but that it was painful to exert his speech. However, his lecture had been advertised and there was a large audience gathered in the Lecture Theatre. When he rose to deliver his lecture he apologised to the audience for his voice. He said that he would like to keep his appointment with them if they would excuse his imperfect utterance. Some one then suggested that the lecture might be postponed, one medical man even saying that it would be very hurtful to Faraday to proceed, but the lecturer said that it would be most inconvenient to many, to ladies who had sent their carriages away, and to gentlemen who had possibly put off other engagements. "On this the whole audience rose as of a single impulse, and a number of persons surrounded Faraday, who now yielded to the general desire to spare him the pain and inconvenience of lecturing."

An interesting anecdote related in connection with Faraday refers to one of his handy men in the Royal Institution. He had taken into his employment an old soldier, Anderson, one who would do just exactly as he was told. On one occasion Faraday was busy making some optical glass, and he told Anderson to stoke the furnaces steadily, and keep the temperature as constant as possible, for the production of the glass was a tedious one. When at last Faraday had succeeded in his experiment, and was no doubt busy thinking of other schemes, he went off to his rooms, forgetting to tell the old soldier that he had finished. In the early morning he was horrified to find the faithful old servant still stoking away at the furnace, which he had kept up to its full heat all through the night.

There is one anecdote concerning Faraday that I think does not appear in any of his biographies. It was told me by an old gentleman who, during Faraday's lifetime, took a great interest in the philosopher's work. Faraday was asked by the inventor of "a very powerful electromotor" to give his opinion of it. Very probably the request came from friends who had been asked to put money into the venture. In any case, Faraday paid a visit with some friends to see the exhibition machine. The source of power was an electric battery, the energy of which was easily estimated by Faraday, and although the fly-wheel of the motor looked large and heavy, he knew very well that there was little power in it. Looking round he saw a broomstick standing in the room, and picking this up he applied it as a gentle brake upon the fly-wheel, bringing it almost to a standstill, then replacing the broomstick where he got it, he left the room without making any remark.

In the illustration facing page 250 we see a simple form of apparatus devised by Faraday for the production of an electric current by revolving a conductor between the poles of a magnet.

When Faraday was nearly seventy years of age, he saw a dynamo producing an electric current, by means of a coil of wire rapidly revolved between the poles of very large permanent magnets, just as we have on a small scale in those magneto-electric machines with which some young people like to deal out electric shocks to their friends. But Faraday did not live to see the great electrical industries established.

There is one incident which I should have liked to pass over, because it reflects upon the disposition of Sir Humphry Davy, and yet I feel it necessary to mention it in order to make the picture of these two great men as complete as possible. The most I could conscientiously do was to omit it from the chapters dealing with Davy, and let it come in here after we have formed a clear impression of that great philosopher. It is unfortunate that the great Sir Humphry Davy's friendship with Faraday was marred. I should like to have been able to bring forward some reasonable excuse on behalf of Davy, such as failing health or some misunderstanding, but there are no extenuating circumstances. Davy, as President of the Royal Society, tried to prevent Faraday's election as a Fellow of that learned Society, he even ordered Faraday to withdraw his name. Davy seems to have been carried away with his own exalted position, and to have thought—very wrongly—that Faraday's humble origin should debar him from the Royal Society. The whole affair must have been distressing to Faraday, and it detracted from the popularity of Davy. But Michael Faraday bore him no ill-will in after years, and we should hasten to remember how Sir Humphry befriended the bookbinder who desired an entrance into scientific work.

Faraday preferred to remain plain Michael Faraday all his days, although he was offered a knighthood. He even declined the Presidentship of the Royal Society and other honours. He preferred to remain a poor man, because to have become rich would have required the time he devoted to pure Science. In his younger days he had done some analytical work for business firms and the Government, and had made an income of one thousand pounds a year. One of his contemporaries assures us that Faraday could very easily have increased this to five thousand pounds a year. But unselfish Faraday wilfully dropped all such means of becoming rich, not because he could not have enjoyed life with plenty of money to spend, but because he believed he could be of more service in Science. It was a noble spirit, and we are indebted to him to-day.

Here is an extract from a letter written by Faraday to the Deputy Master of the Trinity House, when making arrangements in connection with his accepting the post of scientific adviser: "In consequence of the good-will and confidence of all around me, 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."

Faraday always looked back with pleasure upon his early home; he was proud of his humble parents. When in the days of his fame Faraday was sitting to enable a great sculptor to make a bust of him, some of the sculptor's chisels accidentally fell and made a jingling noise. The sculptor apologised, fearing that the disturbance might annoy the aged philosopher, but Faraday assured him that the noise had only brought to his mind many happy recollections of the blacksmith's shop in which his father had worked.

When Faraday's memory and health began to fail, the Prince Consort suggested to Queen Victoria that she might give Faraday the use of a comfortable house on the green near Hampton Court. This the Queen did, first having the house thoroughly repaired so that it would be no expense to Faraday, and there he spent his remaining days, still having the use of his rooms in the Royal Institution whenever he cared to go there. The Queen and the Prince Consort had been present at some of Faraday's public lectures, and the Prince much esteemed and valued Faraday's genius, and we have already seen the pleasure that the young Prince of Wales had derived.

By Faraday's own request, his funeral was of the simplest character, the burial being carried out in perfect silence, as was the custom of his church. Just as the coffin was being lowered into the grave, a few scientific friends came out from the shrubbery and respectfully joined the family group.