Reflections 2004

Michael Faraday

Darren L. Skoldqvist

Michael Faraday

Every electronic device which exists today stems from the research of Michael Faraday. A self-educated book-binder, Faraday took great interest in physical science and earned a position with the Royal Institution to study the sciences. Faraday was also a devout Christian, remaining loyal to the church throughout his life. While Michael Faraday’s research efforts made advancements in chemistry, he is best known for his work in physics with electricity and magnetism. Seeing the importance of scientific knowledge, Faraday also made efforts to educate the community in which he lived.

Faraday was born in Newington Butts, Surrey, just outside of London, England on September 22, 1791. The son of a blacksmith, Faraday worked as a bookbinder, and developed an interest in science through reading many of the books he produced. He was raised as a Sandemanian Christian, an offshoot of the Presbyterian church that took a literal and hard-line interpretation of the scriptures, and remained loyal to its teachings throughout his life; he even served as a church elder twice during his life. Through an appeal to Sir Humphrey Davy, Faraday earned an assistant’s position at the Royal Institute of London, and through his merits later a position within the Royal Society itself.

What is astounding is despite his devout faith in the church and its teachings, Faraday never discussed his religious beliefs publicly and did not allow them to interfere with his study of the natural world. While Faraday’s research sought to explain the mysteries of the natural world, he did not seek to explain away the phenomenon of God;

Faraday wrote that a Christian finds his guide in the word of God, and commits the keeping of his soul into the hands of God. He looks for no assurance beyond what the Word can give him, and if his mind is troubled by the cares and fears which assail him, he can go nowhere but in prayer to the throne of grace and to Scripture (At Play, 1).

Even John Tyndall, Faraday’s colleague for fifteen years, and later his biographer, remarked that Faraday kept his religion to himself, though he spoke freely on the topic.

Faraday’s method of study completely separated his religious and professional life. Considering that his religion called for a literal interpretation of the Bible, it would be difficult for him to study the natural world without somehow violating those beliefs. He believed that science itself made people “active promoters of error” through their interpretation of the natural world. However, just as he interpreted the Bible literally, Faraday believed “the book of nature would be open to anyone who sought to read it without prejudice” (Gooding, 2). Interestingly, Faraday also disliked the term physicist, and preferred to think of himself as a philosopher instead. Perhaps the semantic difference between these words helped Faraday permit himself to conduct his scientific work as “philosophy” and still maintain his religious beliefs.

Faraday’s work spanned a number of topics in the realms of science, and technologies ranging from refrigeration to the laws of electrolysis are products of his research. His first notable experiment was the liquefaction of Chlorine gas, and this research later led him to the successful liquefaction of 20 gases. He also worked with electrolysis, and his research found the first two laws of electrolysis, as well as coined the terms for the equipment used in the process. Most importantly, Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction, the process of creating a flow of electrons through the use of wire and magnets.

In 1821, Faraday began working in electromagnetism after reading of work by Hans Christen Oersted, a German physicist. By connecting two wires to a copper disc, and rotating the disc between the poles of a horseshoe magnet, Faraday discovered that he could create a current. This experiment is duplicated today by passing a bar magnet through a coil of wire connected to a galvanometer. After 10 years of research, Faraday stated his discovery in his law of electromagnetic induction; “When magnetic flux changes through a circuit, an [electro-magnetic flux] is induced in it which lasts only as long as the change in the magnetic flux through the circuit continues” (Laws, 1). Thus when a magnet or magnetic field is applied to a coil of wire, the flux, or field of lines of force, effects the positions of electrons within the coil and moves them through the coil with the flux. This idea was later applied by inventors to create electric generators, the foundation for modern electricity. Through the application of this principle, science has made possible generators, telephones, speakers, televisions—virtually any electronic device you can imagine utilizes this basic principle.

Faraday was also passionate about education and political issues. During his life, the invention of indoor plumbing led to the pollution of the Thames with human waste—which Faraday firmly opposed. The decision led to disaster, when an outbreak of Cholera killed many of London’s residents and led to a ban of burials inside the city. Additionally, Faraday was an advocate for education—he sought to bring people into the realm of scientific thought and develop them into philosophers as well. To do this, he established a series of “Friday Night Discourses,” lectures by members of the Royal Institution discussing current affairs in science. Faraday also began a series of Christmas Lectures aimed at children. Both series continue to this day, and the Christmas Lectures are televised.

Faraday revolutionized science and technology by harnessing electricity in the 1830’s, and as a Scientific Advisor to the Trinity House, he became involved in the education of the British military, where his opinion was considered in matters ranging from the quality of foods at sea to strategy for attacking enemies. His primary duty here, however, was ensuring the safe navigation of ships around the British isle. Faraday developed a method of venting lighthouses with a chimney that caught on quickly and was used in a number of buildings, including Buckingham Palace. During the 1860’s, Faraday also worked on systems for electric lighthouses. These systems were tested and implemented in the Tynemouth and South Foreland lighthouses (Heritage, 2). In 1865, Faraday left the Royal institute after over 50 years of research. He died the same year, and was buried in London.

The work Faraday completed in the field of physics propelled science forward to a new era with technologies unimaginable before his birth. Considered to be one of the greatest experimenters of all time, Faraday’s prolific career solved as many mysteries as it uncovered in the fields of chemistry, electricity, electromagnetism, and optics. Faraday’s ability to separate his faith in God from his research enabled him to advance the human knowledge of the natural world like few other scientists. Likewise, his dedication to his faith made him humble and philanthropic—choosing to educate people and assist those in need. In short, Faraday’s life can be called nothing less than astonishing.

Works Cited

Gooding, David. “Michael Faraday, 1791-1867: Artisan of Ideas.” University of Bath. March 7, 2003. http://www.bath.ac.uk/~hssdcg/Michael_Faraday.html

“Michael Faraday: At Play in the Fields of the Lord.” Christian History Institute. March 7, 2003. http://www.gospelcom.net/chi/glimpsef/glimpses/glmp072.shtml

“Heritage Faraday Page.” The Royal Institute of Great Britain. March 1, 2003. http://www.rigb.org/heritage/faradaypage.html

“Electromagnetic Induction-Faraday’s Law of Electromagnetic Induction.” City Collegiate. March 7, 2003. http://www.citycollegiate.com/xii_chpxiv6.htm

Faraday Image retrieved April 7, 2005 from, http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/history/virtual/portrait/faraday.jpg

Other Sources

Eichman, Phillip. “The Christian Character of Michael Faraday as Revealed in His Personal Life and Recorded Sermons.” The American Scientific Affiliation. March 7, 2003. http://www.asa3.org/asa/pscf/1991/pscf6-91eichman.html

Irwin, Keith Gordon. Faraday as a Discoverer. Ed. Tyndall, John. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company. 1961

MacDonald, D. K. C. Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin. New York: Anchor Books 1964.

“Michael Faraday.” The International Association of Electrical Engineers. March 1, 2003. http://www.iee.org/theiee/research/archives/faraday1.cfm

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