Michael Faraday, English chemist and physicist. 1791 - 1867
Born 22nd September 1791, at Newington, Faraday received only a very basic education, and at the age of 14 became an apprentice to a local bookbinder, rather than join his blacksmith father in his trade. Here, he was able to read in a wide variety of subjects, which perhaps explains his later ability to move easily between disciplines. Although he read extensively in the field of chemistry, he is best known for his work on electricity and magnetism. He was a great experimentalist, drawing his conclusions from observation.
The turning point in his life came after attending a lecture by Humphry Davy, and sending his bound lecture notes to the great man with a request for employment. Davy was sufficiently impressed to appoint him as his assistant, and so, at the age of 21, Faraday went to London to work in the Royal Institution, carrying out research in the field of chemistry, discovering new carbon compounds and working on the problem of liquifying gases, especially on chlorine, an element discovered by Davy not long before. In 1821 he was appointed the director of the laboratory, and began to carry out work in the field of electrolysis, separating out metals from their ionic compounds.
He gave the first of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in 1826, and in 1834, published what have become known as Faraday's Laws of electrolysis, having begun to focus his attentions more on the sphere of electricity, which he came to believe was one of the unified forces of nature, along with heat and light. Although he was incorrect in some of his assumptions, it led him into the study of electromagnetism, a field which was then still in its infancy. Many learned people were of the opinion that electricity behaved like a liquid, 'flowing' along metals in the same way that water passes through pipes. Faraday was not among these thinkers, and set out to prove the nature of the link between electricity and magnetism.
Following up the work of such scientists as Charles Coulomb, Hans Christian Oersted, Andre Marie Ampere and Henry Cavendish, he proceeded to establish that magnetic fields could produce electric current, as well as the other way about. This discovery of induction led to the development of the dynamo, and he spent some time attempting to prove the mechanism to other, sceptical members of the scientific community, who thought his ideas on magnetic lines of force were absurd.
His work in this field was undoubtedly one of the ideas which enabled James Clerk Maxwell to develop his theories, which have led to the modern field theory concepts. In addition to this, Faraday established that strong magentic fields can affect light, when he proved in 1845 that polarised light can be rotated by magnetism. This has enabled modern researchers to carry out work in fields as diverse as DNA research and cosmology.
Faraday's discovery in (1845) that an intense magnetic field can rotate the plane of polarized light is known today as the Faraday effect. The phenomenon has been used to elucidate molecular structure and has yielded information about galactic magnetic fields.
He also demonstrated the principle of electric motors, using an apparatus involving a suspended piece of stiff wire dipped into a bath of mercury containing a cylindrical magnet. Current passing through the wire and mercury caused the wire to rotate around the magnet.
After 1855 he began to concentrate far more on lecturing, his mental powers being in decline, although by 1861, even this was proving too much for him. His increasing senility is demonstrated in his failed experiments to find an electrical effect of raising a heavy weight and his belief that gravity was directly convertible into some other force, and The Royal Society refused to publish his results. Finally, he retired, into a cottage at Hampton Court, granted to him by Queen Victoria, who also offered him a knighthood. Having accepted the house, he humbly declined the honour, preferring to remain known as "plain Mr. Faraday".
His writings include Experimental Researches in Electricity (three volumes, dated 1839, 1844 and 1855), Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics in 1858. and The Chemical History of a Candle in 1860.
He died on August 25, 1867, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery, London.
Thanks to jrn and Apatrix for corrections