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Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867)

Electromagnetism, invented electric motor, Bunsen burner, electrochemistry

Born in England on the 22nd of September 1791, Michael Faraday was one of four children of James Faraday a poor blacksmith from North West England.

Michael only received a very basic education because his family was not wealthy.

When he was 14, he trained under a local bookbinder, where during his spare time he taught himself to read and write.

He enjoyed the subject of science, especially electricity, and read many books on the topic.

When he was 22 years old he had made a few scientific notes, which he showed, to Sir Humphrey Davy, who was a great chemist at that time, and he hired Faraday as his research assistant that year. This was the turning point of Faraday’s career.

Even though Faraday was not being paid as much as when he was working at the bookbinder’s, he did not mind as he was learning so much about his favourite subject matter.

Once he finished washing bottles in the laboratory, he would watch the scientists working on various experiments. Faraday soon started experimenting on his own too.

Some of his earliest were methods of turning gas into liquid (liquefying gas), and being the first to produce freezing temperatures in the laboratory.

Because of his growing interest in the field of electricity, that was a natural area for him to experiment. Soon he realized that electricity that flowed through a wire had a magnetic quality (what we know today as electromagnetism), and found that mixing electricity with certain chemicals changed the chemicals (electrochemistry).

This groundbreaking work is the foundation for many areas of science today. His invention of the electromagnetic rotary device is the mechanism behind the electric motor.

He used his knowledge, improved on it, and later built the first generator, dynamo, and transformer and did experiments to understand the nature of chlorine.

Faraday is also known for inventing the Bunsen burner that is commonly found in all scientific laboratories, even those in schools.

Common scientific terms that are used in the electric trade like ‘ion’, ‘electrode’, ‘electrolytes’, ‘cathode’ and ‘anode’ were introduced by Faraday too.

Later in history, as an honour to Faraday a single unit of electricity is now known as the “farad”.

Faraday’s experiments with electricity also revealed that if electricity touched a metal object it would only pass through the outside of it, and will not affect the inside. Today this is called the Faraday Cage, and it is what protects buildings, homes and vehicles from lightening.

In 1845 he discovered what we refer to today as the Faraday Effect. It explains that the magnetic force and light are related to each other.

He invented a disk to show the way that magnetic fields and currents existed. But this disk was not very successful. It however was the foundation for other scientists like Tesla to develop later on.

His work in chemistry led him to discover a natural chemical compound called Benzene (or Benzol) which is a colourless sweet smelling liquid, which catches fire easily. It is one of the many compounds used to make gasoline, plastics, and rubber.

Besides discovering and inventing scientific things, Faraday was also Director & the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry (where his first teacher Sir Humphrey Davy was earlier), of the Royal Institution.

Faraday was an amazing personality who was interested only in furthering knowledge for everyone’s benefit. Because of this, there were many things like the knighthood (which would have made him Sir Michael Faraday), and the presidency of the Royal Society both of which he refused to accept.

In his will he said that he did not want to be buried at the Westminster Abbey which is where most famous historical figures are buried.

The British government asked his help to build chemical weapons (poison gas) to use in war, which he refused. If he had agreed, many lives would have been lost, and many more would have forever been in danger.

During his lifetime, even though he did not receive an excellent education he got main degrees and awards from various universities.

Faraday’s legacy continues many centuries after his death. During his time as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution in Longdon he used to lecture to groups of children every Christmas. The RI continues to have these lectures to large gatherings even today.

He wrote three volumes of Experimental Researches in Electricity during his lifetime.

Around the 1840’s Faraday’s health was not very good and he could not do as much research as earlier.

On the 25th of August 1867, the man considered by many as one of the greatest British chemists and physicists died at the Hampton Court England.