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Michael Faraday

Michael FaradayBorn: 22-Sep-1791
Birthplace: Newington Butts, England
Died: 25-Aug-1867
Location of death: Hampton Court, London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Highgate Cemetery West, London, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Presbyterian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Discovered electrical induction

English chemist and physicist, born at Newington, Surrey, on the 22nd of September 1791. His parents had migrated from Yorkshire to London, where his father worked as a blacksmith. Faraday himself became apprenticed to a bookbinder. The letters written to his friend Benjamin Abbott at this time give a lucid account of his aims in life, and of his methods of self-culture, when his mind was beginning to turn to the experimental study of nature. In 1812 Mr. Dance, a customer of his master, took him to hear four lectures by Sir Humphry Davy. Faraday took notes of these lectures, and afterwards wrote them out in a fuller form. Under the encouragement of Mr. Dance, he wrote to Davy, enclosing these notes. "The reply was immediate, kind and favorable." He continued to work as a journeyman bookbinder until the 1st of March 1813, when he was appointed assistant in the laboratory of the Royal Institution of Great Britain on the recommenalation of Davy, whom he accompanied on a tour through France, Italy and Switzerland from October 1813 to April 1815. He was appointed director of the laboratory in 1825; and in 1833 he was appointed Fullerian professor of chemistry in the institution for life, without the obligation to deliver lectures. He thus remained in the institution for fifty-four years. He died at Hampton Court on the 25th of August 1867.

Faradays earliest chemical work was in the paths opened by Davy, to whom he acted as assistant. He made a special study of chlorine, and discovered two new chlorides of carbon. He also made the first rough experiments on the diffusion of gases, a phenomenon first pointed out by John Dalton, the physical importance of which was more fully brought to light by Thomas Graham and Joseph Loschmidt. He succeeded in liquefying several gases; he investigated the alloys of steel, and produced several new kinds of glass intended for optical purposes. A specimen of one of these heavy glasses afterwards became historically important as the substance in which Faraday detected the rotation of the plane of polarization of light when the glass was placed in the magnetic field, and also as the substance which was first repelled by the poles of the magnet. He also endeavored with some success to make the general methods of chemistry, as distinguished from its results, the subject of special study and of popular exposition. See his work on Chemical Manipulation.

But Faraday's chemical work, however important in itself, was soon completely overshadowed by his electrical discoveries. The first experiment which he has recorded was the construction of a voltaic pile with seven halfpence, seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water. With this pile he decomposed sulphate of magnesia (first letter to Abbott, July 12, 1812). Henceforward, whatever other subjects might from time to time claim his attention, it was from among electrical phenomena that he selected those problems to which he applied the full force of his mind, and which he kept persistently in view, even when year after year his attempts to solve them had been baffled.

His first notable discovery was the production of the continuous rotation of magnets and of wires conducting the electric current around each other. The consequences deducible from the great discovery of Hans Christian Oersted (21st July 1820) were still in 1821 apprehended in a somewhat confused manner even by the foremost then of science. William Hyde Wollaston indeed had formed the expectation that he could make the conducting wire rotate on its own axis, and in April 1821 he came with Humphry Davy to the laboratory of the Royal Institution to make an experiment. Faraday was not there at the time, but coming in afterwards he heard the conversation on the expected rotation of the wire.

In July, August and September of that year Faraday, at the request of R. Phillips, the editor of the Annals of Philosophy, wrote for that journal an historical sketch of electromagnetism, and he repeated almost all the experiments he described. This led him in the beginning of September to discover the method of producing the continuous rotation of the wire around the magnet, and of the magnet around the wire. He did not succeed in making the wire or the magnet revolve on its own axis. This first success of Faraday in electromagnetic research became the occasion of the most painful, though unfounded, imputations against his honor. Into these we shall not enter, referring the reader to the Life of Faraday, by Dr. Bence Jones.

We may remark, however, that although the fact of the tangential force between an electric current and a magnetic pole was clearly stated by Oersted, and clearly apprehended by André-Marie Ampère, Wollaston and others, the realization of the continuous rotation of the wire and the magnet around each other was a scientific puzzle requiring no mean ingenuity for its original solution. For on the one hand the electric current always forms a closed circuit, and on the other the two poles of the magnet have equal but opposite properties, and are inseparably connected, so that whatever tendency there is for one pole to circulate around the current in one direction is opposed by the equal tendency of the other pole to go around the other way, and thus the one pole can neither drag the other round and round the wire nor yet leave it behind. The thing cannot be done unless we adopt in some form Faraday's ingenious solution, by causing the current, in some part of its course, to divide into two channels, one on each side of the magnet, in such a way that during the revolution of the magnet the current is transferred from the channel in front of the magnet to the channel behind it, so that the middle of the magnet can pass across the current without stopping it, just as Cyrus caused his army to pass dryshod over the Gyndes by diverting the river into a channel cut for it in his rear.

We must now go on to the crowning discovery of the induction of electric currents. In December 1824 he had attempted to obtain an electric current by means of a magnet, and on three occasions he had made elaborate but unsuccessful attempts to produce a current in one wire by means of a current in another wire or by a magnet. He still persevered, and on the 29th of August 1831 he obtained the first evidence that an electric current can induce another in a different circuit. On the 23rd of September he writes to his friend R. Phillips: "I am busy just now again on electromagnetism, and think I have got hold of a good thing, but can't say. It may be a weed instead of a fish that, after all my labor, I may at last pull up." This was his first successful experiment. In nine more days of experimenting he had arrived at the results described in his first series of "Experimental Researches" read to the Royal Society on the 24th of November 1841. By the intense application of his mind he had thus brought the new idea, in less than three months from its first development, to a state of perfect maturity.

During his first period of discovery, besides the induction of electric currents, Faraday established the identity of the electrification produced in different ways; the law of the definite electrolytic action of the current; and the fact, upon which he laid great stress, that every unit of positive electrification is related in a definite manner to a unit of negative electrification, so that it is impossible to produce what Faraday called "an absolute charge of electricity" of one kind not related to an equal charge of the opposite kind. He also discovered the difference of the capacities of different substances for taking part in electric induction. Henry Cavendish had before 1773 discovered that glass, wax, rosin and shellac have higher specific inductive capacities than air, and had actually determined the numerical ratios of these capacities, but this was unknown both to Faraday and to all other electricians of his time, since Cavendish's Electrical Researches remained unpublished until 1879.

The first period of Faraday's electrical discoveries lasted ten years. In 1841 he found that he required rest, and it was not until 1845 that he entered on his second great period of research, in which he discovered the effect of magnetism on polarized light, and the phenomena of diamagnetism.

Faraday had for a long time kept in view the possibility of using a ray of polarized light as a means of investigating the condition of transparent bodies when acted on by electric and magnetic forces. Dr. Bence Jones (Life of Faraday, vol. I, p. 362) gives the following note from his laboratory book on the 10th of September 1822:

Polarized a ray of lamplight by reflection, and endeavored to ascertain whether any depolarizing action (was) exerted on it by water placed between the poles of a voltaic battery in a glass cistern; one Wollaston's trough used; the fluids decomposed were pure water, weak solution of sulphate of soda, and strong sulphuric acid; none of them had any effect on the polarized light, either when out of or in the voltaic circuit, so that no particular arrangement of particles could be ascertained in this way.

Eleven years afterwards we find another entry in his notebook on the 2nd of May 1833 (Life, by Dr. Bence Jones, vol. II, p. 29). He then tried not only the effect of a steady current, but the effect on making and breaking contact.

I do not think, therefore, that decomposing solutions or substances will be found to have (as a consequence of decomposition or arrangement for the time) any effect on the polarized ray. Should now try non-decomposing bodies, as solid nitre, nitrate of silver, borax, glass, etc., whilst solid, to see if any internal state induced, which by decomposition is destroyed, i.e. whether, when they cannot decompose, any state of electrical tension is present. My borate of glass good, and common electricity better than voltaic.

On the 6th of May he makes further experiments, and concludes: "Hence I see no reason to expect that any kind of structure or tension can be rendered evident, either in decomposing or non-decomposing bodies, in insulating or conducting states."

At last, in 1845, Faraday attacked the old problem, but this time with complete success. Before we describe this result we may mention that in 1862 he made the relation between magnetism and light the subject of his very last experimental work. He endeavored, but in vain, to detect any change in the lines of the spectrum of a flame when the flame was acted on by a powerful magnet.

This long series of researches is an instance of his persistence. His energy is shown in the way in which he followed up his discovery in the single instance in which he was successful. The first evidence which he obtained of the rotation of the plane of polarization of light under the action of magnetism was on the 13th of September 1845, the transparent substance being his own heavy glass. He began to work on the 30th of August 1845 on polarized light passing through electrolytes. After three days he worked with common electricity, trying glass, heavy optical glass, quartz, Iceland spar, all without effect, as on former trials. On the 13th of September he worked with lines of magnetic force. Air, flint, glass, rock-crystal, calcareous spar were examined, but without effect.

Heavy glass was experimented with. It gave no effects when the same magnetic poles or the contrary poles were on opposite sides (as respects the course of the polarized ray), nor when the same poles were on the same side either with the constant or intermitting current. But when contrary magnetic poles were on the same side there was an effect produced on the polarized ray, and thus magnetic force and light were proved to have relations to each other. This fact will most likely prove exceedingly fertile, and of great value in the investigation of the conditions of natural force.

He immediately goes on to examine other substances, but with no effect, and he ends by saying, "Have got enough for today." On the 18th of September he "does an excellent day's work." During September he had four days of work, and in October six, and on the 6th of November he sent in to the Royal Society the nineteenth series of his "Experimental Researches", in which the whole conditions of the phenomena are fully specified. The negative rotation in ferro-magnetic media is the only fact of importance which remained to be discovered afterwards (by M. E. Verdet in 1856).

But his work for the year was not yet over. On the 3rd of November a new horseshoe magnet came home, and Faraday immediately began to experiment on the action in the polarized ray through gases, but with no effect. The following day he repeated an experiment which had given no result on the 6th of October. A bar of heavy glass was suspended by silk between the poles of the new magnet. "When it was arranged, and had come to rest, I found I could affect it by the magnetic forces and give it position." By the 6th of December he had sent in to the Royal Society the twentieth, and on the 24th of December the twenty-first, series of his "Researches", in which the properties of diamagnetic bodies are fully described. Thus these two great discoveries were elaborated, like his earlier one, in about three months.

The discovery of the magnetic rotation of the plane of polarized light, though it did not lead to such important practical applications as some of Faraday's earlier discoveries, has been of the highest value to science, as furnishing complete dynamical evidence that wherever magnetic force exists there is matter, small portions of which are rotating about axes parallel to the direction of that force.

We have given a few examples of the concentration of his efforts in seeking to identify the apparently different forces of nature, of his far-sightedness in selecting subjects for investigation, of his persistence in the pursuit of what he set before him, of his energy in working out the results of his discoveries, and of the accuracy and completeness with which he made his final statement of the laws of the phenomenon.

These characteristics of his scientific spirit lie on the surface of his work, and are manifest to all who read his writings. But there was another side of his character, to the cultivation of which he paid at least as much attention, and which was reserved for his friends, his family and his church. His letters and his conversation were always full of whatever could awaken a healthy interest, and free from anything that might rouse ill feeling. When, on rare occasions, he was forced out of the region of science into that of controversy, he stated the facts and let them make their own way. He was entirely free from pride and undue self-assertion. During the growth of his powers he always thankfully accepted a correction, and made use of every expedient, however humble, which would make his work more effective in every detail. When at length he found his memory failing and his mental powers declining, he gave up, without ostentation or complaint, whatever parts of his work he could no longer carry on according to his own standard of efficiency. When he was no longer able to apply his mind to science, he remained content and happy in the exercise of those kindly feelings and warm affections which he had cultivated no less carefully than his scientific powers.

The parents of Faraday belonged to the very small and isolated Christian sect which is commonly called after Robert Sandeman. Faraday himself attended the meetings from childhood; at the age of thirty he made public profession of his faith, and during two different periods he discharged the office of elder. His opinion with respect to the relation between his science and his religion is expressed in a lecture on mental education delivered in 1854, and printed at the end of his Researches in Chemistry and Physics.

Before entering upon the subject, I must make one distinction which, however it may appear to others, is to me of the utmost importance. High as man is placed above the creatures around him, there is a higher and far more exalted position within his view; and the ways are infinite in which he occupies his thoughts about the fears, or hopes, or expectations of a future life. I believe that the truth of that future cannot be brought to his knowledge by any exertion of his mental powers, however exalted they may be; that it is made known to him by other teaching than his own, and is received through simple belief of the testimony given. Let no one suppose for an instant that the self-education I am about to commend, in respect of the things of this life, extends to any considerations of the hope set before us, as if man by reasoning could find out God. It would be improper here to enter upon this subject further than to claim an absolute distinction between religious and ordinary belief. I shall he reproached with the weakness of refusing to apply those mental operations which I think good in respect of high things to the very highest. I am content to bear the reproach. Yet even in earthly matters I believe that 'the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead'; and I have never seen anything incompatible between those things of man which can be known by the spirit of man which is within him and those higher things concerning his future, which he cannot know by that spirit.

Published Works. Chemical Manipulation, being Instructions to Students in Chemistry (1st ed. 1827, 2nd 1830, 3rd 1842); Experimental Researches in Electricity, (3 vols., 1844-55); Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics (1859); Lectures on the Chemical History of a Candle (1861); On the Various Forces in Nature (no date).

Father: James Faraday (blacksmith)
Mother: Margaret Hastwell
Wife: Sarah Barnard (m. 12-Jun-1821)

    American Philosophical Society 1840
    Athenaeum Club (London)
    Royal Society of Edinburgh Fellow (1835)
    Royal Institution of Great Britain
    Copley Medal 1832
    Royal Medal 1835
    Copley Medal 1838
    Rumford Medal 1846
    Royal Medal 1846
    French Legion of Honor 1855
    Proxy Baptism: Mormon St. George, UT (Aug-1877)
    Units of Measure capacitance
    Asteroid Namesake 37582 Faraday
    Risk Factors: Dyslexia


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