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About the Author

Michael Faraday, the discoverer of electro-magnetic induction, electro-magnetic rotations, the magneto-optical effect, diamagnetism, field theory and much else besides, was born in Newington Butts (the area of London now known as the Elephant and Castle) on 22 September 1791. His father, James, was a blacksmith and a member of the Sandemanian sect of Christianity. James Faraday had come to London a year or so earlier from North-West England. Very little is known of the first few years of Faraday's life. In an autobiographical note Faraday recalled that he had attended a day school and had learnt the "rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic".

In 1805 at the age of fourteen Faraday was apprenticed as a bookbinder to George Riebau of Blandford Street. During his seven year apprenticeship Faraday developed his interest in science and in particular chemistry. He read Jane Marcet's "Conversations on Chemistry" and the scientific entries from the "Encyclopedia Britannica". He was also able to perform chemical experiments and he built his own electro-static machine. But, more importantly, Faraday joined the City Philosophical Society in 1810. In this society, which was devoted to self-improvement, a group of (youngish) men met every week to hear lectures on scientific topics and to discuss scientific matters. It was here that Faraday would give his first scientific lectures.

Towards the end of his apprenticeship, in 1812, Faraday was given, by one of Riebau's customers, William Dance (one of founders of the Royal Philharmonic Society), four tickets to hear Humphry Davy's last four lectures at the Royal Institution. Faraday attended these lectures took notes and later in the year presented them to Davy asking for a position in science. Davy interviewed Faraday, but said that he had no position available. Early in 1813 there was a fight in the main lecture theatre of the Royal Institution between the Instrument Maker and the Chemical Assistant which resulted in the dismissal of the latter. Davy was asked to find a replacement for him; he remembered Faraday and called him for a second interview the result of which was that Faraday was appointed Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution on 1 March 1813.

Faraday, in effect, started a second apprenticeship in chemistry. For most of the 1810s and 1820s he worked under Davy's replacement as Professor of Chemistry, William Thomas Brande. However, between October 1813 and April 1815, he accompanied Davy, as his assistant, on a scientific tour of the Continent. Davy had been given a passport by Napoleon for himself, his wife, her maid and a valet. Faraday, very reluctantly, agreed to also perform this latter role. This led to tension between Faraday and Jane Davy who regarded him as a servant which he assuredly was not. What is interesting is that Davy sought to keep the peace between his relative new wife. This says something about the state of the Davys' marriage, but also about Davy's high opinion of Faraday's abilities. On the tour they visited Paris (where Faraday witnessed his first piece of original scientific research when Davy confounded the French chemists by demonstrating electro-chemically the elementary nature of iodine), Italy (where they met the aged Volta, visited Vesuvius and Davy was able to decompose a diamond into carbon by using the Duke of Tuscany's great lens), Switzerland (where they met the De La Rives) and Southern Germany. Davy had intended to continue into the Turkish Empire to visit Athens and Constantinople, but whether due to the tensions in the party or to Napoleon's escape from Elba, they returned to England in April 1815.

Back in England, Faraday resumed his position as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution and continued to learn his science from Brande as well as occasionally helping Davy as with the Miner's Safety Lamp in 1816 and 1817. Between 1818 and 1822 he worked with the surgical instrument maker James Stoddart in improving the quality of steel. One of the reasons why this sort of work was carried out at the Royal Institution, was that it easily had the best equipped laboratory in England and one of the best in Europe.

The year 1821 was in many ways one of the most important in Faraday's life. On 21 May 1821 he was promoted in the Royal Institution to be Superintendent of the House. On 2 June he married Sarah Barnard who was a member of one of the leading Sandemanian families in London and on 15 July Faraday made his Confession of Faith in the Sandemanian Church. The year was also the one when he made his first major contribution to natural knowledge.

In 1820 the Danish natural philosopher Hans Christian Oersted had discovered electro-magnetism. This he announced in a paper written in Latin, but was quickly translated into the major scientific languages of Europe. It was immediately evident that Oersted had made a major discovery, but because he belonged to the German school of naturphilosophie his paper contained views which many of its readers found strange. Indeed writing later Faraday commented that "I have very little to say on M. Oersted's theory, for I must confess I do not quite understand it". What was clear was that Oersted had opened up a major field of scientific enquiry which was exploited by savants all over Europe. Faraday was part of this effort and on 3 and 4 September 1821 in his basement laboratory at the Royal Institution, he undertook a set of experiments which culminated in his discovery of electro-magnetic rotation - the principle behind the electric motor. Apart from the practical significance of this discovery, it was important as Faraday's interpretation of the phenomenon indicated that he was not a Newtonian in supposing that forces had to act rectilinearly.

In the ensuing decade following this discovery, Faraday's opportunity for doing original research was severely circumscribed, although he was able to liquefy chlorine in 1823 and discover bicarbuet of hydrogen (later renamed benzene by Eilhard Mitscherlich) in 1825. At Davy's instigation he was the first secretary of the newly founded Athenaeum Club in 1824 and in the late 1820s undertook an extensive project on making optical glass for a joint committee of the Royal Society and Board of Longitude. In addition in 1826 he founded the Friday Evening Discourses and in the same year the Christmas Lectures for juveniles. In total Faraday gave 123 Friday Evening Discourses between 1826 and 1862 and 19 series of Christmas lectures between 1827 and 1861. These and other lectures that he gave served to establish his reputation as the outstanding scientific lecturer of the time. Both the Friday Evening Discourses and the Christmas lectures continue to this day. The latter series is televised each year.

It was not until nearly ten years to the day after his discovery of electro-magnetic rotations that Faraday was able to resume his work on electro-magnetism, when he discovered on 29 August 1831, electro-magnetic induction. This is the principle behind the electric transformer and generator. It was this discovery, more than any other, that allowed electricity to be turned, during the nineteenth century, from a scientific curiosity into a powerful technology. During the remainder of the 1830s Faraday worked on developing his ideas on electricity. He enunciated a new theory of electro-chemical action between 1832 and 1834 one of the results of which was that he coined, with William Whewell, many of the words now so familiar - electrode, electrolyte, anode, cathode and ion to name but five. In the later half of the 1830s Faraday worked on a new theory of static electricity and electrical induction. This work led him to reject the traditional theory that electricity was an imponderable fluid or fluids. Instead he proposed that electricity was a form of force that passed from particle to particle of matter.

In 1836 Faraday was appointed Scientific Adviser to Trinity House, a post which he held until 1865. Trinity House is responsible for safe navigation round the shores of England and Wales. In his capacity as Scientific Adviser, Faraday sought to make light houses more efficient in the fuel they consumed and in the light they produced. In the 1840s he invented a chimney for oil burning lamps which allowed much more of the products of combustion to be taken away from the lamp. Although Faraday did not patent anything himself, this chimney was patented by his brother Robert. As well as being installed in all lighthouses, it was also used in the Athenaeum, Buckingham Palace and many other places. Faraday also spent a considerable amount of time, especially in the early 1860s, working on various systems of electric light that were proposed. These systems were installed and tested in the Tynemouth and South Foreland lighthouses.

Faraday's work for Trinity House was not the only example of his scientific expertise being used for practical purposes. Between 1830 and 1851 Faraday was Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. During his tenure generations of officers of the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery learnt their chemistry from him. The Admiralty frequently sought his advice on matters as diverse as the quality of oats at sea to the best way to attack Cronstadt during the Crimean War. In 1844 he and the geologist Charles Lyell were asked by the Home Office to attend the inquest into the explosion at Haswell Colliery. The report they produced stated that increasing the ventilation of mines would reduce explosions. However, the government and mine owners ignored their conclusions.

In the early 1840s Faraday suffered a breakdown in health and also became an Elder of the Sandemanian Church. These two items taken together account for the sharp decline in the quantity of Faraday's scientific work (in both research and lecturing) during the early 1840s compared with what he had achieved during the 1830s. However, in 1843 Faraday asked whether space was a conductor or not of electricity. Under some circumstances Faraday showed that space did conduct electricity and under others it did not. This was clearly an absurd situation which Faraday sought to resolve. He commenced this process in a lecture on the nature of matter in 1844 where he proposed that instead of Daltonian atoms, atoms should be viewed as centres of force where lines of force met.

One problem with this conception was that magnetism was known to be specific to only three types of metal - iron, cobalt and nickel. The solution to this problem followed from a conversation that Faraday had with the twenty-one year old William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) at the 1845 meeting of the British Association in Cambridge. Thomson asked Faraday if had ever investigated whether light was affected when passing through an electrolyte. Faraday said he had tried this experiment but had not found any effect, but would try again. When he repeated this experiment he still found no effect. It then occurred to him to see what would happen to light passing near to a powerful magnet. This he did by placing a piece of heavy glass on the poles of a powerful electro-magnet; then he passed polarised light through the glass; when he turned the electro-magnet on he found that the state of polarisation of the light changed.

This experiment told Faraday two things. First that light had been affected by magnetic force - the magneto-optical effect, which later became known as the Faraday Effect. The second thing it told Faraday was that glass had been affected by magnetic force. This latter Faraday wanted to demonstrate directly, not just through the agency of light. On 4 November 1845 he hung a piece of heavy glass between the poles of an electro-magnet and observed that the glass aligned itself along the lines of force of the magnet. He then experimented with many other substances which all displayed similar phenomena, which he called diamagnetism Thus Faraday concluded that magnetism was an inherent property of matter. This gave him the confidence to reassert strongly his views on the nature of matter in lecture entitled "Thoughts on Ray-vibrations" which he delivered in April 1846. This lecture laid the basis for the field theory of electro-magnetism which Faraday developed in the ensuing years. This theory was taken up and mathematised by Thomson, and, at Thomson's instigation, by James Clerk Maxwell in whose hands it became, and remains one of the cornerstones of physics.

Although Faraday continued working in science and for Trinity House, ill health eventually took its toll. In 1858 he was given a Grace and Favour house at Hampton Court where he increasingly spent much of his time. Between 1860 and 1864 he was again an Elder of the Sandemanian Church. He died at Hampton Court on 25 August 1867 and was buried in the Sandemanian plot in Highgate Cemetery five days later.

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