Michael Faraday received little formal education, but went on to become one of the most influential experimental physicists of the nineteenth century. His studies of electricity and magnetism laid the foundation for the scientific understanding of the principle of electromagnetic induction as well as the relationship between chemistry and electromagnetism, also known as electrochemistry.
Birthdate: September 22, 1791
Birthplace: Newington Butts, Surrey, England
Married: Sarah Barnard, June 12, 1821
Died: August 25, 1867
Early Exposure to Science
As a youth, the lower-class Michael Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder. During the seven years of his apprenticeship, he developed a love of scientific concepts from reading books on the subject.
Starting in 1812, at the end of his apprenticeship, Faraday began attending scientific lectures, notably given by a prominent English scientist of the day, Humphry Davy (who invented the first electric lamp), though he attended lectures given by other scientists as well. Faraday took careful notes on these lectures and compiled them into a 300-page book, which was able to give to Davy. Despite the differences in their station, Davy is reputed to have responded favorably to the book. When Davy was injured in 1813, with his eyesight damaged due to a chemical accident, he hired Faraday as his assistant, and also got him a position at the Royal Society as a Chemical Assistant.
Davy traveled on a lecture tour from 1813-15, and Faraday served as both his scientific assistant and valet on the trip. This trip allowed Faraday, despite the social position he had come from and remained in, to become familiar with the greatest European scientific minds of the age and to become intimately familiar with the scientific concepts they discussed.
Major Scientific Insights
Michael Faraday was one of the most influential experimental physicists of the nineteenth century, but is most widely recognized for achievements in two fields: electrochemistry and electromagnetism.
His early work with Davy focused on chemistry, and his earliest experiments were related to simple chemical batteries. In studying chemical compounds discovered by Davy, he formulated laws governing the chemical process of electrolysis (not to be confused with the hair removal treatment), published in 1834.
Faraday also explored the concept of electromagnetism more directly. Danish physicist Hans Christian Orsted had already discovered in 1821 that electric fields induced a magnetic field, but it was Faraday’s work that is largely recognized as revealing that magnetic fields could also induce electric fields and thus more fully exploring the concept of electromagnetic induction. Faraday’s work at the time sparked some controversies related to whether or not he was properly crediting colleagues with whom he collaborated. In his later years, Faraday’s collaboration with James Clerk Maxwell provided the foundation for Maxwell’s Equations describing the key physical relationships of electromagnetism, some of which were direct reformulations of Faraday’s experimental insights.
A cage made of conductive metal mesh is today known as a Faraday cage, and has the property that any objects inside the cage are protected from electromagnetic fields or electric discharges coming from outside of the cage. The Faraday cage gets its name from an 1843 experiment conducted by Faraday, called the “ice pail experiment,” which showed that electromagnetic induction on a conductor results in an electric charge on the outer shell of the conductor.
Throughout his lifetime, Michael Faraday was a devout Christian who strongly felt that his scientific discoveries helped to illuminate a fundamental unity between God and nature. He was a member of the Sandemanian church, an offshoot of the Church of Scotland.