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Michael Faraday, an outstanding scientist

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Michael Faraday, born 218 years ago on 22 September, was the son of a blacksmith. He received little formal education, yet went on to become the outstanding scientific lecturer of his time and his work laid the foundations for all subsequent electrotechnology.

Faraday was born in Newington Butts, south London, and brought up in the Sandemanian sect of the Christian church. At the age of 14 he was apprenticed to a bookbinder, and this allowed him to read many books on science. After attending lectures by the chemist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution, Faraday wrote to Davy asking for a job. He was appointed laboratory assistant at the institution in 1813.

Faraday became a skilled analytical chemist. He was the first to liquefy chlorine in 1823 and discovered benzene two years later. He produced several new kinds of glass intended for optical purposes, one of which he later used to detect the rotation of the plane of polarisation of light when the glass was placed in a magnetic field. Around the same time he established the Christmas lectures for children and Friday evening discourses, which are held at the Royal Institution to this day. Faraday was the Institution’s first and foremost Fullerian professor of chemistry.

But perhaps Faraday’s greatest work was with electromagnetism and electrochemistry. His 1831 discovery of electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator, was crucial in transforming electricity from a curiosity into a powerful new technology. This commenced a remarkable decade of work during which Faraday rewrote the theory of electrochemistry (coining many words still in use today such as electrode and ion) and established his laws of electrolysis. The SI unit of capacitance, the farad, is named after him, as is the Faraday constant — the charge on a mole of electrons. When asked by William Gladstone, then British Minister of Finance, about the practical value of electricity, Faraday replied: “One day sir, you may tax it”.

As one of the foremost scientists of his day, Faraday undertook many service projects for private enterprise and the government, including investigations into explosions in coal mines, work on the construction and operation of light houses, and protecting the hulls of ships from corrosion.

A man of strong principles, Faraday rejected a knighthood, twice declined the presidency of the Royal Society and refused to co-operate with the government in producing chemical weapons for use in the Crimean war.

Faraday died in 1867 and was interred in the Sandemanian plot in Highgate Cemetery. He had previously turned down burial in Westminster Abbey, but has a memorial plaque there, near the tomb of Isaac Newton.

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