Friday, July 26, 2013

Young Scientists: Michael Faraday, a Shocking Sort of Fellow

The nineteenth century is filled with people who started out in one direction and took another turn to fame.  Michael Faraday is just such a person.  A largely self-taught lad and the son of a blacksmith, he was apprenticed to a bookbinder in London when he was 14.  Reading the books he was binding gave him a great appreciation of science.  A customer of his master provided him with tickets to lectures by famed chemist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution, England’s premiere laboratory.  Faraday was so fascinated by the demonstration that he took copious notes (some say up to 300 pages!), sending them to the scientist himself.  Davy was sufficiently impressed that he hired Faraday as his assistant.

Some, including Davy’s wife, refused to see Faraday as a gentleman.  He was even asked to step in as Davy’s valet when the previous valet quit.  However, valeting had its privileges.  Faraday traveled with Davy on a Grand Tour through France, Italy, and Switzerland, meeting the elite scientists of the day.  On Davy’s recommendation, he was made Chemical Assistant to the Royal Institution.  Following in Davy’s footsteps, he explored the properties of chlorine and other gasses. 

But what really fascinated him was electricity, which at that time was little more than a game to shock people at parties.  He squeezed in his own experiments while helping other scientists, using what materials were available.  For example, he constructed a voltaic pile using half pennies, sheet zinc, and paper wet with saltwater.  He discovered the principles behind the electric transformer and generator and made many other foundational discoveries, earning him credit for inventing the electric motor. He also took over the limelight at the Royal Institution, becoming an even more popular lecturer than Humphry Davy.

And people began to take notice.  Oxford University made him an honorary Ph.D. in Civil Law. He was offered a knighthood and refused.  He was twice suggested for president of the Royal Society, England’s professional scientific organization, and refused.  Supposedly he was asked to advise on the production of chemical weapons, and he refused.  He was, however, elected as a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the French Academy of Sciences.

One of his last areas of research was ways to improve lighthouses to help keep ships from floundering.  His recommendations were so well received that Prince Albert arranged for him to be given a house at Hampton Court, quite an elevation for a boy born to a blacksmith.

Some might even call it shocking.


J.Grace said...

He seems to have been smart and very gifted in science.
I was surprised he declined knighthood, I wonder how many individuals have.

Regina Scott said...

I was too, J. Grace. Given how some people treated him, you would have thought a knighthood might have helped him be seen as a gentleman. I have seen several theories for why he refused. One was that he was far along in years when the offer was made, so it wouldn't do him any good career-wise. Another theory was that he belonged to a religious sect that did not believe in worldly honors.