Dates: Michael Faraday was born on 22 September, 1791, in Newington, Surrey, England and died on 25 Aug, 1867, in his house at Hampton Court.
Essentials: Michael Faraday was brought up in poverty and left school at 14 to work at menial jobs. This did not stop him from eventually becoming one of the most renowned scientists of all time. Faraday's greatest contributions were in the experimental and theoretical foundations of electromagnetic physics.
Short biography of Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday's father was a humble blacksmith who had great difficulty supporting his large family. Including Michael, he had eleven children to house and feed. The Faraday family lived in a London slum, and Michael had to leave school at the age of 14
Michael began his working life in a bookbindery. This was hard work, but it gave him access to many useful books, including the self help volume Improvement of the Mind. But the Encyclopedia Britannica was his main source of inspiration, especially a hundred page article on electricity and accounts of Humphrey Davy's work. This led him to repeat many of Davy's experiments.
In 1812, after attending a lecture by Humphrey Davy, Faraday wrote to the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, seeking employment as a scientist. His letter wasn't answered. Undaunted, he sent Humphrey Davy a 386 page thesis on Davy's theory of acids thereby gaining employment as a laboratory assistant.
In 1813 Davy took Faraday on a tour of the scientific centres of Europe. They returned 18 months later. This helped Faraday gain much greater social confidence, and in 1816 he started to deliver his own public lectures. Also, at this time, he began publishing the first of many scientific papers.
In 1820 Hans Christian Oersted noticed that electrical current flowing in a wire deflected a compass needle. This showed that electricity can create magnetism. Faraday used this observation in his development of the world's first electric motor. But Davy turned against his pupil, suggested that Faraday had stolen the idea, and became the sole opponent to Faraday's election to the Royal Society. In spite of this, Faraday never spoke ill of his former mentor.
In 1831 Faraday managed to generate electricity from magnetism in three different ways:
- He allowed the magnetism of an electric coil to generate a current in an adjacent coil.
- He thrust a magnet into a coil's interior.
- He span a copper disk between the poles of a magnet. This produced a steady stream of electricity - the world's first dynamo.
Faraday imagined electromagnetic forces as tensioned lines of force surrounding charges, magnets and circuits. They were like invisible spider webs tugging at receptive items that crossed them.
Newton's had suggested that the force of gravity was an action-at-a-distance. It was a mysterious pulling force, without a hand doing the pulling. Faraday dismissed this idea by suggesting that electromagnetism made its presence felt via fields of force. These force fields affected charges straying into them.
Michael Faraday did not know enough mathematics to translate his ideas into a mathematical theory, and succumbed to nervous exhaustion in 1839 in the attempt. He stayed away from electromagnetism for five years, returning with an experiment that showed that light is affected by magnetism--heralding the theory of light as waves in an electromagnetic field. But this idea was scorned. His ideas were not accepted until the 1870s, when they were put into the language of equations by James Clerk Maxwell.
Einstein characterised Faraday's views on force and light as the "greatest alteration in our conception of the structure of reality since the foundation of theoretical physics by Newton".
Michael Faraday - Further Reading
For a slightly longer biography read the Michael Faraday biography in Britannica. It's a fitting tribute by the publication that Faraday himself valued so highly as a child, and which gave him his start in science. For a book length biography, try Faraday: The Life by James Hamilton.