Faraday’s Two Lucky Days

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Michael Faraday in one of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures. Image by Alexander Blaikley

Imagine this: There’s someone who you really admire so you decide to write that person letters of interest amounting to more than 300 pages. After doing so, you carefully bind these letters in leather to give it a sense of splendor and suave. When completed, you send the journal to that person hoping for the best. But after all is said and done, you receive no reply nor news. You then investigate the matter only to find out that there was actually a response, only, it was:

seen

Devastating, right?

But what if after some time that person actually responded with these words: “I am far from displeased with the proof you have given me of your confidence, which displays great zeal, power of memory and attention. . . I will see you at any time you wish.”

It would be perfectly reasonable if you felt currents of pleasure run through your veins upon reading those words. In that sense, it would also be perfectly reasonable to assume that a young Michael Faraday felt jolts of ecstatic energy pulsate throughout his body when he received the above reply from one of the major scientific figures of his day.

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Picture of Michael Faraday by Thomas Philips

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was born to a poor family. His blacksmith father and housemaid mother persisted through penury to feed four young mouths. Destitution only allowed the Faraday siblings basic education, forcing Michael to abandon further academic studies as he enrolled as a bookbinder’s apprentice at the age of 13.

Deprived of luxury but provided with books, Faraday found respite in his occupation and dedicated himself to its proper practice. The books at his disposal were valuable sources of knowledge and he took the opportunity to digest all that was interesting in the pages before him. He enjoyed reading books about natural philosophy and took particular interest in the Encyclopedia Britannica entry for “electricity”. But among the many titles that he encountered, the two that had the most profound effect on him were Conversations in Chemistry by Jane Marcet  and The Improvement of the Mind by Isaac Watts. His close fraternity with books initiated the spark that would soon light his way in the world of science.

Whilst an apprentice, I loved to read the scientific books which were under my hands.”

-Michael Faraday

When free of work and deserving of leisure, Faraday spent his time attending John Tatum’s lectures at the City Philosophical Society, carefully jotting down notes with his trusty pencil and stash of sheets. His employer, George Riebau, who had long noticed Faraday’s insatiable drive for knowledge, came up with an idea when he chanced upon Faraday’s Tatum-lecture notes. Like a father to a son, the pride swelling in him upon seeing his apprentice’s compelling compendium convinced him that Faraday’s efforts had to be rewarded. When William Dance, a frequent customer at Riebau’s bookstore and also a member of the Royal Institution, came by, Riebau presented him Faraday’s notes. Greatly impressed, Dance arranged for Faraday to attend lectures at the Royal Institution by giving him free tickets.

The lectures that Faraday attended were nothing ordinary. They were the popular lectures given by the era’s scientific head-honcho, Humphry Davy (1778-1829).

DavyNotes

Frontispiece of Faraday’s notes ©Royal Institution

Faraday copiously took notes from these sessions. So sharp was his attention and memory that he was able to marshal his thoughts into a coherent sequence that occupied the space of more than 300 pages!

His apprenticeship as a bookbinder soon ended in 1812. He wanted to be involved in the scientific world this time and his first attempt at doing so was by sending a letter of application to the president of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, requesting for a position “however menial”.

This account in Faraday’s life ended in bankruptcy. He inquired about the request with Bank’s page, to which the latter replied that according to his employer, Faraday’s letter “required no answer”.

Not to be deterred by the first instance of rejection, Faraday bound his Davy-lecture notes in leather which he then sent to Davy as a résumé. What he received in turn were a positive reply and an invitation for an interview. The senior Davy recognized the talents of the younger Faraday. But despite the paean and praise he could not offer Faraday a job at the Royal Institution. Instead, he advised Faraday to refrain from and reconsider scientific pursuit, saying that “science [is] a harsh mistress” who poorly rewarded “those who devote themselves to her service“. To summarize thus far, Faraday was denied entry to science, twice.

But Faraday’s first lucky day came soon after and at the expense of Davy’s eyesight.

Davy had been doing experiments with the rather dangerous compound nitrogen trichloride (NCl3). In one freak accident, an experiment with chlorine (Cl) and ammonium (NH4+) went amiss causing an explosion that temporarily blinded Davy. Having the inconvenience of not being able to see clearly, he needed someone to help him write and copy his notes. Faraday, whose rigorous note-taking abilities impressed Davy, added with his experience in bookbinding, was an ideal secretarial prospect. Davy immediately sent word to Faraday asking him to be his amanuensis. Faraday accepted.

It did not last long and Davy’s eyesight soon became better enough for him not to require Faraday’s service. But shortly after that, Faraday’s second lucky day arrived. This time, however, it was at the expense of one laboratory assistant.

A brawl ensued at the Royal Institution. John Newman, the institution’s apparatus and instruments maker, reprimanded laboratory assistant William Payne after the latter failed to carefully and correctly prepare an experiment set-up. A fisticuffs between the two followed causing quite a stir within the institution. Payne was admonished for his insolence and was immediately fired, leaving the laboratory assistant position vacant. Humphry Davy just knew the perfect person to fill the role.

In 1 March 1813, Davy recommended to the Royal Institution that Faraday, “a youth of 22 years of age” who “appears well fitted for the situation” for “his habits seem good, his disposition active and cheerful and his manner intelligent” be hired to fill the open position of laboratory assistant. The institution agreed with the suggestion and Faraday was immediately hired.

It was from then on that Michael Faraday started his long scientific service for the Royal Institution which led to his amazing contributions in electrochemistry and electromagnetism, inauguration of the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, and ultimately, becoming the public face of science in his time.

Darkness loomed over Michael Faraday’s childhood and a brighter future seemed out of view. Twice was he unlucky in his attempt to become a scientist. Twice he refused to rue rejection. Eventually, he was later favored by lady luck twice. Opposites do attract: negative events attract positive ones.

Luckier for us, for Michael Faraday lived once, illuminating the world in his lifetime. Without his pioneering work on electricity, the pleasures of digital delights that we enjoy now would have been impossible. Just try to turn on any digital device without using electricity. You can’t. No way. Not today.

Thank you, Michael Faraday.

References:

Hamilton, James. Life of Discovery: Michael Faraday, Giant of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Random House. 2002

Hirshfeld, Alan. The Electric Life of Michael Faraday. London: Walker Books. 2006

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