Who was Michael Faraday?

Michael Faraday circa 1857 By https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/86/76/b53d681751b952d72142c23a2b24.jpgGallery: https://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0026348.htmlWellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-31): https://wellcomecollection.org/works/ee7bedrj CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36579286

Michael Faraday was an English born scientist born on September 22nd 1791 who made significant contributions to both electromagnetism and electrochemistry, in the context of Electronic Engineering it is the electromagnetism area which is of most interest to us. He came from a family that was not well off and had to educate himself as he only had a very limited formal education at school.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Michael Faraday as a person is that although he had very little formal education, he is highly regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time. That in itself is worth analyzing in detail. One could think of Michael Faraday as a real life mad scientist that was always playing around with things, he was exceptionally inquisitive about the world around him. He was also someone who communicated their observations/ideas in clear and simple language (the best way).

Michael Faraday was a great inspiration to the scientists that would come later such as Albert Einstein who famously kept a picture of Faraday on his study wall alongside a few other greats such as James Clerk Maxwell.

He also happens to be one of my heroes.

A Young Faraday

Portrait of Faraday in his late thirties, ca. 1826

Faraday was one of four children being brought into a poor and very religious family. At the age of 14 he became an apprentice to a local bookbinder and book seller, I rather humble job. It was during this time that Faraday devoured many many books, two that are particularly worth mentioning were the “electricity” section of the Encyclopedia Britannica and Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry.

At the age of 20 after finishing his apprenticeship Faraday attended lectures by the English chemist Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution and the Royal Society, and John Tatum, founder of the City Philosophical Society. Many of the tickets for these lectures were given to Faraday by William Dance, who was one of the founders of the Royal Philharmonic Society. Just quietly, what a great man William Dance was for doing this! Faraday sent Davy a 300-page book based on notes that he had taken during these lectures. Davy's reply was immediate, kind, and favourable. In 1813, when Davy damaged his eyesight in an accident with nitrogen trichloride, he decided to employ Faraday as an assistant.


Faraday is best known for his work regarding electricity and magnetism. His first recorded experiment was the construction of a voltaic pile with seven British halfpenny coins, stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water. With this pile he decomposed sulfate of magnesia (first letter to Abbott, 12 July 1812).

A copper-zinc Voltaic Pile

In his work on electromagnetism he was driven by his belief in the uniformity of nature and the relationships of different forces, which he described early on as fields of force. In 1821 he succeeded in producing mechanical motion by means of a permanent magnet and an electric current—an ancestor of the electric motor!! Ten years later he converted magnetic force into electrical force, thus inventing the world’s first electrical generator.

The Faraday Cage

Faraday's ice pail experiment demonstrated that the charge resided only on the exterior of a charged conductor during a static electricity experiment, and exterior charge had no influence on anything enclosed within a conductor. This is because the exterior charges redistribute such that the interior fields emanating from them cancel one another. This shielding effect is used in what is now known as a Faraday cage. In January 1836, Faraday had put a wooden frame, 12ft square, on four glass supports and added paper walls and wire mesh. He then stepped inside and electrified it!!! When he stepped out of his electrified cage, Faraday had shown that electricity was a force, not an imponderable fluid as was believed at the time. A mad scientist indeed :)

Faraday cage demonstration on volunteers in the Palais de la Découverte in Paris By Antoine Taveneaux - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4238427

An older Faraday

In June 1832, the University of Oxford granted Faraday an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree. During his lifetime, he was offered a knighthood in recognition for his services to science, which he turned down on religious grounds stating that he preferred to remain "plain Mr Faraday to the end".

Faraday suffered a nervous breakdown in 1839 but eventually returned to his electromagnetism research. In 1848 Faraday was awarded a house in Hampton Court in Middlesex, free of all expenses and upkeep. This was later called Faraday House, and now No. 37 Hampton Court Road. In 1858 Faraday retired to live there.

Having provided a number of various service projects for the British government, when asked by the government to advise on the production of chemical weapons for use in the Crimean War (1853–1856), Faraday refused to participate citing ethical reasons.

Faraday passed away at his home on 25 August 1867, aged 75. He had some years prior turned down an offer of burial in Westminster Abbey, but he has a memorial plaque there, near Isaac Newton's tomb. Faraday was interred in Highgate Cemetery West.

It's important to also reiterate that Faraday was not mathematically minded and could not express these observations in fancy mathematical terms, that would be left to the scientists of the future, Maxwell in particular, however, his incredible thirst for experimentation using what he did know to find out more about nature is truly remarkable.