A very modern innovator: Michael Faraday
From Richard Branson to Mark Zuckerberg — with Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jony Ive in between — true innovators have unquestionably changed the way we view and interact with our planet and each other.
Today, we admire, cherish and reward the great innovators as world-changers who drag us into the future. But many of the greatest innovations — the ones that really changed the world and our understanding of it — happened a long time before Bill Gates wrote his first programs in BASIC. The names of some of those great visionaries are commonplace — all school children learn about Da Vinci, Galileo and Marie Curie, for example — but some are less well-known.
Although he may be a legend in the scientific community, few of the general public will be too familiar with the name Michael Faraday, let alone his work or his incredible legacy. And yet the ‘Electricity Boy’ might be one of the most impactful — and likeable — innovators of all time.
Born in London, UK, in 1791, Faraday first became interested in science, especially electricity, when, at the age of 14, he worked in a book bindery. He bound books by day and read them by night. Eventually, he came to serve as the assistant to highly-regarded chemist Humphry Davy, who went on to appoint Faraday as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution. From there, Faraday’s real scientific career began.
And few careers have had such widespread and lasting consequences, with experiments conducted more than 150 years ago still very much shaping our world today. We take a look at some of the highlights of Faraday’s incredible legacy.
He invented the electric motor
If you have a blender, a juicer, a hairdryer — basically anything that uses an electric motor — in your home, then you have Michael Faraday to thank for it. In 1821, Faraday published the first work on electromagnetic rotation — the principle behind electric motors and generators.
He discovered that a vertically mounted wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously around a magnet protruding from a bowl of mercury, proving that it was possible to produce continuous motion from the interaction of electricity and magnetism. It also demonstrated that electricity could flow through wires — crucial in the transformation of electricity from scientific curiosity into a powerful new technology.
The Faraday cage
One of Faraday’s most famed creations — in fact, it still today bears his name — was the Faraday cage. While working on static electricity, Faraday discovered that the charge only resided on the outside of a charged conductor and not on the inside; he demonstrated this by building a ‘Faraday cage’ which could shield its contents from static electric fields, instead distributing the charge around the cage’s exterior.
If that doesn’t sound too inspiring, bear in mind that the modern day MRI machines used for medical diagnoses in hospitals are essentially Faraday cages. Used in radiology to investigate the anatomy and physiology of the body in both health and disease, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners form images through magnetic fields and radio waves.
If you don’t interact with MRIs on a daily basis, then remember that cars too are basically Faraday cages on wheels; the microwave you used at lunchtime to warm up yesterday’s leftovers is a reverse Faraday cage — designed to enclose the electromagnetic radiation; and the reason you lose cell phone reception when you get into an elevator is because they too are Faraday cages.
He created the first Bunsen burners
Although school children the world over have the German chemist Robert Bunsen to thank for the main instrument of fun-filled science lessons, it was Faraday who discovered benzene and thus created the first version of a gas burner for use in the lab.
Other things you’ll find in laboratories include Faraday cups, Faraday wheels and maybe even — in case of a power cut — a Faraday flashlight. You’ll also find a bunch of instruments used to measure ‘the Faraday effect’ and whether phenomenon adhere to ‘Faraday’s law’.
He discovered nanotechnology
Nanotechnology is “the manipulation of matter on an atomic, molecular, and supramolecular scale”. Today, scientists and engineers use nanotechnology to create new materials or alter existing ones, to make them stronger or lighter, for example.
It is a fascinating and controversial science, with potential uses in electronics, medicine and energy production… oh, and Michael Faraday invented it when he experimented with creating ‘activated gold’.
He brought science to the masses
Today, we have numerous publications, websites and TV shows — think Mythbusters or How It’s Made — dedicated to explaining the rules of physics and chemistry to wider audiences; Michael Faraday was ahead of his time in this space. During the 1800s, science was the domain of the privileged and purposely dense in order to keep it so. But Faraday was known to be charismatic and someone who enjoyed explaining his ideas in simple, easily-understood terms.
In 1826, he founded the Royal Institution’s Friday Evening Discourses and, in the same year, he started the Christmas Lectures (first televised by the BBC in 1936) for young people, both of which continue to this day. He himself presented many times, establishing a reputation for being the outstanding scientific lecturer of his day.
He believed in science for the good of the people
Philanthropists, such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk, follow in a great tradition of innovators who believed in creating a better society and future, with none playing that role better or in a more committed way than Michael Faraday.
When not busy being one of the greatest ever experimental physicists, Faraday concerned himself with the biggest problems of the day in Britain, such as hazardous and highly explosive coal dust in coal mines, protecting the bottom of ships from corrosion, and the goal of a fully electrically-powered turning lamp within lighthouses — something he finally achieved in his later years at South Foreland Lighthouse near Dover.
Faraday also pioneered what would today be termed ‘environmental science’, taking an active interest and role in trying to solve industrial pollution in Swansea, air pollution at The Royal Mint, and water pollution of The Thames. In his spare time, he advised the National Gallery on the cleaning and protection of its art.
He broke the mould
The innovators that most inspire us today are those who took highly individual paths to success — it’s no coincidence that the second Hollywood movie about Steve Jobs since his death in 2011 is about to be released.
In that sense, Faraday was a true original. Born into a poor family of blacksmiths at a time when science was the preserve of the wealthy, he received almost no formal education and knew little of higher mathematics, such as calculus. He was self-taught, but was famous for his curiosity and desire to experiment with new and different things. Had he lived today, he would have agreed with the famous “Stay hungry, stay curious” quote from Jobs.
Although regarded as one of the greatest scientists and experimenters that ever lived, he referred to himself as a philosopher.
“You know very well that ice floats upon water,” he said during one Christmas Lecture. “Why does the ice float? Think of that, and philosophise.”