interesting facts about Michael Faraday

September 6, 2010 | In: Science facts

When Michael Faraday (1791-1867) built the first simple electrical generator and then the first electrical motor, is it possible he could have imagined how his inventions would change the world?

Without electric motors and generators, the world would be nothing like it is today. For example, you wouldn’t be reading this on a computer since computers use motors for their disk drives and fans and draw electricity from power stations using generators.

Faraday, born in 1791 in Northern England, was one of 10 children of a working class family. He began his career in a book shop, which was a great place to start for a boy with a hunger for knowledge. As he read he became drawn to science and finally won a position as an assistant to the renowned scientist Humphry Davy, then went on to become one of the world’s finest experimental scientists.

Not only did he discover how to induce an electrical current using magnetism (the generator) and how to use electrical current to produce physical motion (the motor), but Faraday — who had broad interests — also instituted a popular series of Christmas-time science lectures for children (which are still given), liquefied gases, investigated the properties of steel, developed superior glass, discovered the chemical benzene, discovered the laws of electrolysis (the process of causing chemical changes to a material by passing an electrical current through it), and found that magnetism has an effect on polarized light.

This last discovery led him to believe that magnetism and light are two forms of electromagnetic radiation, a view that was soon supported by Scottish mathematician James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879).

Though Faraday’s accomplishments made him famous and might have made him wealthy, he and his wife were devout members of a small Protestant sect called the Sandemanians, which encouraged its members to live modestly and not accumulate money, so Faraday turned down a knighthood and an offer to become president of the British Royal Society, and gave away much of what he earned.

While Faraday was brilliant, he was not a mathematician. His theories of electromagnetism and light were based on experimentation, not calculation.

But in 1855 Maxwell showed mathematically that Faraday was right. By reducing Faraday’s theories to equations, Maxwell — a shy genius who submitted his first paper to the Edinburgh Royal Society at age 15 — developed a tool that could be used to make predictions. And by determining that the velocity of electromagnetic radiation is about the same as light, he gave weight to the argument that they are the essentially same thing.

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