Michael Faraday’s work on electrochemistry was motivated by his first employer, a bookbinder, who encouraged him to read and try out experiments.
Books and lectures
“The story of Faraday’s life and work is one of the most romantic and successful in the annals of science” says John Meurig Thomas, past director of the Royal Institution.
Michael Faraday finished formal education when he became a teenager, and was employed as errand boy for bookbinder Mr Riebau. Riebau not only taught Faraday how to bind books, but also encouraged him, despite his dyslexia, to read them. Possibly one of his first encounters with scientific ideas about electricity was the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on the subject, written by eccentric medic, chemist, writer and amateur balloonist James Tytler.
Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry, which includes experiments to do at home, also influenced Faraday, and Riebau encouraged him to try his own chemistry experiments. After reading a self-improvement book by hymn writer Issac Watts, Faraday began keeping a notebook of ideas, quotes, questions and facts that he found out.
In 1812, one of the shop’s customers gave Faraday a ticket to the last four lectures of a course that Humphrey Davy was giving at the Royal Institution. Faraday attended, took many detailed notes, and bound a neat set of these. What he did with these notes was, as the following passsage describes, both simple and audacious:
“My desire to escape from trade, which I thought vicious and selfish, and to enter into the services of science, which I imagined made its pursuers amiable and liberal, induced me at last to take the bold and simple step of writing to Sir H Davy expressing my wishes and a hope that, if an opportunity came in his way, he would favour my view: at the same time I sent the notes I had taken of his lectures.”
Davy was impressed, but there was no vacancy at the time which Faraday could fill, so he stayed on at the bookbinder’s for a time.
Not long after, one of Davy’s lab assistants was dismissed for brawling. His post went to Faraday, who then joined the lab in March 1813. One of his first jobs was preparing samples of newly discovered nitrogen trichloride – with dramatic results: Faraday and Davy both “suffered as a result of the premature explosion of this capricious substance”.
Fireflies and breaking diamonds
Later in the year, Davy and his wife were to go on a grand tour of Europe; Faraday was invited along as secretary and scientific assistant. The pair’s explosive experiments continued. The element iodine had only just been discovered, and during their trip to Paris, fellow scientist Andre-Marie Ampere gave them some to experiment with. Nitrogen triiodide was found to explode, like its trichloride counterpart.
Their tour continued, with different experiments at the different places they visited.
In Genoa, they investigated electrical discharge from torpedo fish, in Florence they did “the grand experiment of the diamond” proving diamond was pure carbon, just like graphite (this was far from common knowledge at the time, and there were disagreements about it even decades later), and in Milan they studied fireflies and glow-worms, as well as visiting Volta, who lent his name to the Volt.
Throughout the trip, Faraday saw how much authority scientific reputation had given Davy, but also sadly thought that this had made him vain and inconsiderate – not the “amiable and liberal” pursuer of science that he might have expected.
On Faraday's return, he continued working at the Royal Institution, where he researched many ideas, including electromagnetic rotation (the science behind electric motors).
Welly boots and benzene, as well as electric generators and transistors, all owe a debt to Michael Faraday.
With his name given to the unit of capacitance, the “Farad”, Faraday is often remembered as a physicist – however his contributions to the field of science in general were huge. Organic and analytical chemistry (including discovering and isolating benzene), materials science – work on alloys, vulcanisation, cataylsis, as well as gravity, electricity, time and magnetism was part of his experimenting. He also advised experts from other organisations, including talking to the National Gallery and the British Museum about conservation.
With such a range of research, it’s a small wonder that “he himself disliked the term physicist, and preferred to be described as a natural philosopher.” The vast majority of his work was carried out in a lab in the basement of the Royal Institution, using equipment that he designed and built himself.
Communication – Christmas Lectures on candles
In the 1820s, Faraday began the Friday evening discourses at the Royal Institution. These are designed for non-scientist audiences, and former speakers include past Royal Society of Chemistry President, Lesley Yellowlees, who started 175 Faces of Chemistry. He also spoke at some of the first Christmas Lectures, intended for children. His last Christmas Lecture series was “On the Chemical History of a Candle”, which was turned into a book.
Words by Jenifer Mizen
Images © RSC Library / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published August 2014