What kind of luck did a brilliant scientist like Michael Faraday need to succeed? It turns out, quite a bit! Fortunately, he had plenty of luck from a supportive boss, a helpful book, a generous patron, a chemical explosion, a fistfight, and even a fortunate outbreak of the plague! Wait, those last three don’t sound fortunate at all! Well, they were fortunate for Faraday!
Michael Faraday seemed an unlikely person to change the world. He was born in 1791 to a mostly out-of-work blacksmith in the slums of London. His rudimentary education was cut particularly short as his mother took him out of school after just a few months to keep him away from an abusive teacher. He never learned Latin or any languages other than English. Astonishingly, he also never learned mathematics (aside from maybe basic algebra)! Finally, he was extremely poor in a time when it was incredibly difficult for a poor person to study science. In England, there were no free libraries, and most scientific books were written in Latin and assumed the reader had a formal education. Lectures were ridiculously expensive. It was difficult and expensive to get materials for experiments and most lower-middle-class jobs were 7 days a week and 12 hours a day! Finally, no one wanted to publish the work of an amateur scientist who didn’t come from a good background.
Faraday did have a few advantages. First, he was white and male, and Christian. Second, Faraday was brilliant and organized. Third, Faraday was very lucky. Repeatedly. His luck began when he was 13 years old, as he got a job working as a delivery boy for a nice bookseller named George Riebau. Riebau was very impressed with Faraday and hired him for a seven-year apprenticeship program to be a bookbinder. Riebau said that Faraday spent all of his free time, “searching for some Mineral or Vegetable curiosity his mind ever engaged.” Because of this Riebau gave Faraday lots of free time to experiment and to go to lectures. He also gave Faraday space in the back of the shop to conduct experiments. Most importantly, Riebau let his young employee read any of the books that floated through the shop.
There were two books that, years later, Faraday credited for starting his journey into science. The first book was an old edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which had 127 pages on the “latest” developments in electricity. The second was a book called “Conversations in Chemistry”. A bit of background of the Chemistry book: at the time the most famous science speaker was a man named Humphry Davy. Davy gave hugely popular poetic and dazzling talks for the upper crust on Chemistry at the Royal Institution. A wealthy woman named Jane Marcet went to a talk and found it confusing. When she asked around she found that she wasn’t alone, most people were confused, especially the women who had no science background. After she asked her husband to explain it to her she found the lectures to be far more interesting. For that reason, she wrote a simple introduction to Chemistry “, especially for the female sex.” Now, this was an extremely sexist time but this was the only book around that could explain Chemistry on a simple level so the book became a best seller! Years later Faraday said that “I felt like I had got hold of an anchor in chemical knowledge, and clung fast to it. Thence my deep veneration for Mrs. Marcet”
In February of 1810, Faraday borrowed a shilling from his older brother and went to his first science lecture. Faraday took copious notes, added his thoughts and experiments, and created a book of his own. He dedicated the book to his kind boss Riebau, “to you is to be attributed the rise and existence of that small portion of knowledge relating to the sciences which I possess.”
Meanwhile, Humphry Davy, the man whose talks inspired Jane Marcet to write a Chemistry book, was becoming more and more admired. In 1812, he was made a baron and married a rich socialite. Now that Davy was Sir. Humphry Davy with a demanding social life and wife decided that he would curtail giving so many talks. Therefore he put together a series of 4 “final” talks. Tickets to these talks were ridiculously difficult to come by.
Luckily for Faraday, a wealthy man named Mr. Dance was shown Faraday’s book on Chemistry. Dance was so impressed that he gave the young man tickets to see Davy’s talks! As you might expect, Faraday was entranced by Davy’s talks. It took him about five months after the talks to collect enough money to recreate Davy’s experiment of creating gasses with a homemade battery. He wrote to his friend about his adventures, “I, Sir, I my own self, cut out seven discs of zinc of the size of half-pennies each! I, Sir, covered them with seven halfpence and I interposed between them paper soaked in saltwater!!!” Faraday then placed the ends of the battery in a solution of salts and noted that “both wires became covered in a short time with bubbles of some gas”. Just as with the previous lectures, Faraday created a book of his notes from Davy’s talks interspersed with his own experiments and observations. Faraday wrote a pleading letter to the president of the Royal Institute for a job but never got a reply, even to reject him.
By October of 1812, Faraday had finished his apprenticeship with Riebau, and, unable to find a job in science, took a job as a journeyman to another French bookbinder. This boss had no interest in furthering Faraday’s studies. Faraday was no longer allowed to peruse all of the books, set up ad-hock science experiments in the bookshop, or even have Wednesday afternoons to go to his science meetings. Faraday morosely wrote a friend, “concerning the progress of the sciences I know but little, and am now likely to know still less…I must resign science entirely to those who are more fortunate in the possession of time and means.”
Luckily for Faraday, that same month, Davy hurt his eye in a chemical explosion and Mr. Dance helped Faraday get a dream job helping his idol for a few days. When he was done, Faraday sent a letter to Davy asking for a permanent job along with his precious book of notes and experiments. Davy responded with a short note of encouragement (that Faraday kept until his death) but then added that he didn’t need any help at that time. Once again, Faraday had a spot of luck as one of Davy’s assistants got into a fight with an instrument maker and was fired. Finally, Faraday was working in science. (whew!)
Faraday quickly proved to be an able assistant and Davy began to rely on him more and more. The messy and impulsive Davy was particularly pleased with Faraday for his organizational skills. The following year Davy became so famous that he and his wife were given special passports to travel through Europe by Napoleon despite the twenty-year-long war between England and France. When Davy’s personal valet refused to go visit the enemy Davy asked Faraday to join them as an assistant and a valet until he could get another valet in France. Faraday was also a little nervous about the travel (he had never been outside of London) and he had a distaste for being a servant but decided to join in on the adventure.
Through Davy, Faraday met all of the important scientists of France and Italy, and it was said that “we admired Davy, but we loved Faraday.”
Faraday found his time with Davy to be endlessly educational, “the constant presence of Sir Humphrey Davy was a mine inexhaustible of knowledge and improvement.” Although Faraday got along very well with Davy, the same cannot be said of Davy’s wife Jane. Jane Davy was from the upper crust of society and did not like associating with someone from a poor background like Faraday. Faraday complained that Jane Davy, “delights in making her inferiors feel her power.” Once, when they were on a perilous sea voyage in the Gulf of Genoa Mrs. Davy became too ill to speak. Faraday wrote to a friend that it was worth the danger to their lives just to enjoy her silence. Their relationship hit its lowest point in Genoa, Italy when they were invited to dinner with Mrs. Jane Marcet and her husband. This was the same Jane Marcet who wrote the “Conversations in Chemistry” that had inspired Faraday in the first place! However, at the dinner, Davy’s wife told Faraday in front of all the guests that he should eat dinner in the kitchen with the other servants. After dinner, Jane Marcet’s husband tried to fix this injustice by announcing loudly, “And now, my dear sirs, let us go and join Mr. Faraday in the kitchen”
Things were reaching a breaking point for Faraday. In November of 1814, he wrote his friend, “Alas! how foolish was I to leave home, to leave those whom I loved and who loved me.” Who knows what would have happened if the group had not heard that there was an outbreak of plague in their next stops, Greece and Turkey! Reluctantly Humphry Davy decided to cut their trip short and return home. (see? Lucky plague!)
Back in England, Faraday was promoted to a semi-independent researcher although he continued to help Davy for the next six years. In 1821, Faraday was asked to write a review of the latest developments in electricity. As was his way, he read everything that he could and reproduced all of the experiments that he read about, including a very strange experiment conducted in Denmark where a current in a wire moved a compass needle most unusually.
This experiment, that proved that electricity affects magnetism was to transform Faraday’s life, and the world. That story is next time on the secret history of electricity.