Real Men of Genius: Michael Faraday
Good afternoon and welcome to this weeks instalment of real men of genius. After last week’s entry about Norman Borlaug who was undoubtedly one of the finest scientists of the 20th century, I felt it was necessary to pay homage to one of the all time greats- Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Just as James brown is considered to be the ‘Godfather of soul’ personally, I consider Faraday to be one of the Godfather’s of modern technology. Faraday’s research was undoubtedly a precursor for the viability of electrically powered technology. Faraday has been referred to by many scientific historians as the greatest experimentalist of all time.
Faraday was from a poor background (his dad was a blacksmith), so he had to educate himself. At the age of 14 he landed an apprenticeship with a bookbinder, and spent the subsequent 7 years reading all the books he could find. During this time, he developed an interest in science, in particular electricity.
At the age of 20, he attended a number of lectures by the eminent Sir Humphry Davey, who was at that time president of the royal society. Faraday later sent his notes on the lecture to Davey, who told him that he would bear him in mind, but thought he’d be best off sticking at bookbinding.
A short while afterwards Davey accidentally damaged his eyesight and took Faraday on as his secretary. When a vacancy arose, Davey recommended Faraday to the royal society who gave him a job as a laboratory assistant. Throughout the early days of his career Faraday was not considered to be a gentleman, due to his background. But attitudes soon changed when he recognised the relationship between electricity and magnetism.
In 1821, Faraday built the first electric motor, but failed to credit the prior work that was conducted by Davey and William Hyde Wollaston. This controversy caused Faraday to withdraw from Electro-magnetic research for several years.
A decade later, Faraday discovered that electricity could be produced by changes is magnetic field, and the mathematical model of this became known as Faraday’s law. Using this principle, Faraday built the first dynamo that is the ancestor of the modern electric generator. Faraday was the first person that suggested that magnetism was best visualised by lines of flux, and this concept was critical in the successful implementation of electromechanical inventions for the remainder of the century.
In addition to his work with electricity, Faraday made several important contributions to chemistry. He discovered benzene, found a way to liquefy gases such as chlorine, discovered the laws of electrolysis and invented the system of oxidation numbers. For those of you who don’t know (don’t worry, I didn’t) a substances oxidation number is describes the number of positive and negative charges in an atom. Not bad work for a physicist that didn’t even go to college.
In 1845, he went on to discover what he called diamagnetism, or as we know it the Faraday effect, that shows the relationship between light and magnetism. On the day of this discovery, Faraday wrote in his notebook:
"I have at last succeeded in illuminating a magnetic curve or line of force and in magnetising a ray of light"
Faradays work with static electricity led him to discover what is now known as the Faraday cage, which is probably best described by example. If a person is sitting in a car and it gets struck by lighting, the charge will pass over the outside of the car’s shell to the ground without anything inside the shell being electrocuted. In other words the car acts as a Faraday cage.
Faraday was a true genius in every sense of the word. His contributions to science have had a profound effect on the world we live in today. I for one, could not be where I am today without the electrically powered technology that resulted from his work. In addition to his contributions to science, Faraday also invented the Bunsen Burner and gave the first Christmas Lectures at the royal society, a tradition that is still carried on today. Faraday was offered a knighthood, and presidency of the Royal Society- he declined both. The importance of this humble yet great man’s work should never be forgotten. Luckily his image has been immortalised on the back of the British £20 note.
Nice work Mr Faraday, very nice work.