On this day in 1791, Michael Faraday, who established the field theory of electromagnetism and laid the foundation of modern physics, was born. An English bookbinder and blacksmith’s son, Faraday became interested in electricity and subsequently became one of the most important chemists and physicists in history, even though he was almost entirely self-trained.
Faraday was born in Newington Butts (now Elephant and Castle) in South London, and started a bookbinding apprenticeship at 14. By reading the science books that he was employed to bind, he became a very well-versed amateur science enthusiast.
In 1812 one of his clients gave him a ticket to a talk by Humphry Davy–a British chemist who discovered several alkali and alkaline metals and invented the Davy lamp for miners–at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, and after the talk Faraday approached the esteemed scientist about a job. It took a long time for a position to become available, but after a year Faraday was offered a role as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution, and so his incredible scientific career began.
His discoveries and experiments have helped to shape the modern world. As early as 1821, he found that a suspended magnet would revolve around a current-bearing wire, and thus that magnetism was a circular force. A decade later in 1831 he discovered electromagnetic induction, the production of voltage across a conductor moving through a magnetic field, and put its principles into practice to invent the homopolar generator–or Faraday Disc–which was able to convert mechanical rotation into electric current. Thus he contributed to the development of the electric motors that would power the modern age.
He also developed the all-important concept of electric and magnetic forces existing as fields in 1845; devised the laws of electrodeposition, a chemical process of extracting metals from solutions, in 1857; and even wrote the second law of electrolysis: “The amounts of bodies which are equivalent to each other in their ordinary chemical action have equal quantities of electricity naturally associated with them.”
Furthermore, Faraday’s work on improving lighthouses saved countless lives at sea, and even earned a thank you from Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. Working closely with the Corporation of Trinity House, he introduced the modern set-up of rotating lights with large lenses, as well as the use of electric lights, and thoroughly tested them in his experimental lighthouse on London’s Trinity Buoy Wharf, on the Thames.
Michael Faraday died on 25 August 1867, and is buried in North London’s Highgate Cemetery. Despite his humble beginnings, his discoveries of electricity generation and transmission have transformed our world and the way we live now.
Credit: Library of Congress
Caption: A daguerreotype of Michael Faraday taken in the Mathew Brady studio.