In the heart of busy London, over a stable, lived James and Margaret
Faraday, with their four little children. The father was a blacksmith,
in feeble health, unable to work for a whole day at a time, a kind, good
man to his household; the mother, like himself, was uneducated, but neat
and industrious, and devoted to her family. The children learned the
rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic at school, and then, of
course, were obliged to earn their living.
Michael, the third child, born 1791, became, at thirteen years of age,
an errand-boy in a bookseller's shop. His first duty was to carry
newspapers in the morning to customers, who read them for an hour or two
for a trifle, a penny probably, and then gave them to the newsboy to be
re-loaned. Often on Sunday morning the patrons would say, "You must call
again," forgetting that the next place might be a mile away, and that
the young boy was quite as desirous as they, to go to church with his
parents. Years after this, when he had become famous the world over, he
said, "I always feel a tenderness for those boys, because I once
carried newspapers myself."
The following year, 1805, he was apprenticed to a bookseller for seven
years, to learn the trade of binding and selling books. Here was hard
work before him till he was twenty-one; not a cheerful prospect for one
who loved play as well as other boys. Whenever he had a spare moment, he
was looking inside the books he was binding. Mrs. Marcet's
"Conversations in Chemistry" delighted him; and when he was given the
"Encyclopedia Britannica" to bind, the article on Electricity seemed a
treasure-house of wonders. He soon made an electrical machine,--not an
expensive one,--simply a glass vial, and other apparatus of a similar
kind; and afterwards with a real cylinder. These cost only a few pence a
week, but they gave a vast amount of pleasure to the blacksmith's son.
One day he saw in a shop-window a notice that a Mr. Tatum was to give at
his own house some lectures on Natural Philosophy. The charge for each
was twenty-five cents. No bookseller's apprentice would have such an
amount of money to spend weekly as that. However, his brother Robert,
three years older, himself a blacksmith, with some pride, perhaps, that
Michael was interested in such weighty matters, furnished the money, and
a lodger at the home of the bookseller taught him drawing, so that he
might be able, in taking notes, to illustrate the experiments. He
attended the lectures, wrote them out carefully in a clear hand, bound
them in four volumes, and dedicated them to his employer.
A customer at the shop had become interested in a boy who cared so much
for science, and took him to hear four lectures given by Sir Humphry
Davy at the Royal Institution. This was an unexpected pleasure. He was
beginning to sigh for something beyond book-binding. "Oh, if I could
only help in some scientific work, no matter how humble!" he thought to
himself. He says in his journal, "In my ignorance of the world, and
simplicity of my mind, I wrote to Sir Joseph Banks, President of the
Royal Society." No answer was ever returned to the request for a
situation. Could the president have realized that some day ten thousand
people would know the name of Michael Faraday where one knew the name of
Sir Joseph Banks, probably he would have answered the boy's letter.
Blessings on the great man or woman who takes time, however briefly, to
answer every letter received! Such a man was Garfield, and such is
Whittier. A civil question demands a civil answer, whether the person
addressed be king or peasant.
About the time his apprenticeship ended, in 1812, he summoned courage to
write directly to the great Sir Humphry Davy, sending the full notes he
had made at that gentleman's lectures. Sir Humphry, possibly remembering
that he, too, had been a poor boy, the son of a widowed milliner, wrote
a polite note, saying, that "Science was a harsh mistress, and, in a
pecuniary point of view, but poorly rewarding those who devoted
themselves to her service;" that he was going out of town, but would see
if he could some time aid him.
Meantime Michael was making crude galvanic experiments. He bought some
malleable zinc, cut out seven plates, each the size of a half-penny,
covered these with the copper half-pennies, placing between them six
pieces of paper soaked in a solution of muriate of soda, and with this
simple battery, decomposed sulphate of magnesia. So pleased was he that
he wrote a letter to one of his boy friends, telling of the experiment,
and adding, "Time is all I require. Oh, that I could purchase at a cheap
rate some of our modern gent's spare hours, nay, days! I think it would
be a good bargain, both for them and for me." The youth had learned the
first secret of success,--not to waste time; not to throw it away on
useless persons or useless subjects.
He had learned another secret, that of choosing right companions. To
this same young friend, Abbott, he wrote, "A companion cannot be a good
one, unless he is morally so. I have met a good companion in the lowest
path of life, and I have found such as I despised in a rank far superior
to mine.... I keep regular hours, and enter not intentionally into
pleasures productive of evil." London's highest circles possessed no
purer spirit than this young mechanic.
Faraday now began work at his trade of book-binding for a Frenchman in
London, who, having no children, promised him the business, if he would
remain with him always; but the employer's temper was so hasty that the
position became almost unbearable. The young man was growing depressed
in spirits, when one night, just as he was preparing for bed, a loud
knock on the door startled him. On looking out of the window, he espied
a grand carriage, with a footman in livery, who left a note. This was a
request from Sir Humphry Davy to see him in the morning. Was there,
then, the possibility of a place in the Royal Institution? Between
conflicting hopes and fears, he went to sleep, and in the morning
hastened to see the great chemist. The result was an engagement at six
dollars a week, with two rooms at the top of the house! He was to clean
the instruments, move them to and from the lecture-room, and in all ways
to make himself useful. Now he could say good-by to book-binding; and,
though six dollars a week was not a munificent sum, yet he could
actually handle beautiful instruments,--not copper half-pence and bits
of zinc,--and could listen to stimulating lectures.
And now work began in earnest. He joined the City Philosophical Society,
an association of thirty or forty persons in moderate circumstances, who
met each Wednesday evening, one of their number giving a lecture. Then a
half dozen friends came together once a week to read, criticise, and
correct each other in pronunciation and conversation. How eagerly would
such a young man have attended college! There was no opportunity to hear
polished talk in elegant drawing-rooms, no chance to improve manners in
so-called "best society." He did what is in the power of everybody,--he
educated himself. Did he not need recreation after the hard day's work?
Every person has to make his choice. Amusements do not make scholars:
pleasure and knowledge do not go hand in hand. Faraday chose the topmost
story of the Royal Institution, and books for companions, and immortal
fame was the result.
The experiments with Davy soon became absorbing, and often dangerous.
Now they extracted sugar from beet-root; now they treated chloride of
nitrogen, wearing masks of glass upon their faces, which,
notwithstanding, were sometimes badly cut by the explosions. Seven
months after this, Sir Humphry decided to travel upon the Continent, and
asked Faraday to be his amanuensis. This was a rare opportunity for the
young assistant. For a year and a half they visited France, Switzerland,
Italy, and Germany, climbing Vesuvius, enjoying art-galleries, and
meeting the learned and famous of the age. The journey had its
disagreeable side; for Faraday was made more or less a servant by Davy
and his sometimes inconsiderate wife; but it had great and lasting
advantages for one who had never been but twelve miles from London.
His heart turned longingly back to the poor ones he had left behind. He
wrote to his mother, "The first and last thing in my mind is England,
home, and friends. When sick, when cold, when tired, the thoughts of
those at home are a warm and refreshing balm to my heart.... These are
the first and greatest sweetness in the life of man.... I am almost
contented except with my ignorance, which becomes more visible to me
every day." And again, "I have several times been more than half decided
to return hastily home: I am only restrained by the wish of
improvement." To his sister he wrote, "Give my love with a kiss to
mother, the first thing you do on reading this letter, and tell her how
much I think of her." To Abbott he wrote something intended for his eyes
only, but headed, "I do not wish that my mother should remain ignorant
of it. I have no secrets from her." His heart bounded with joy at the
prospect of meeting them again, and "enjoying the pleasure of their
conversation, from which he had been excluded." No absorption in science
could make him outgrow his parents and his humble home.
On his return to England his salary was increased to $500 yearly, and he
was promoted to Laboratory Assistant. He was now twenty-four. He had
noted carefully Davy's researches in iodine and chlorine, had seen him
develop his safety-lamp, which has proved an untold blessing to miners,
had made many experiments from his own thinking; and now he too was to
give his first course of six lectures before his friends in the City
Philosophical Society, on Chemical Affinity, and kindred topics. He
wrote them out with great care; for whatever he did was well done. This
year he published his first paper in the "Quarterly Journal of Science"
on caustic lime. Encouraged by the approving words of Sir Humphry, the
following year he wrote six papers for the "Quarterly," giving his
experiments with gases and minerals, and gave another course of lectures
before the Philosophical Society. To improve himself in delivering
these, he attended lectures on oratory, taking copious notes.
Seven years had now gone by in his apprenticeship to Science. He had
published thirty-seven papers in the "Quarterly," had a book ready for
the press, on the alloys of steel, and had read a paper before the Royal
Society itself, on two new compounds of chlorine and carbon, and a new
compound of iodine, carbon, and hydrogen. But the young and now
brilliant student had other weighty matters in hand. Five years before
this, he had written in his diary:
"What is't that comes in false, deceitful guise,
Making dull fools of those that 'fore were wise?
What's that the wise man always strives to shun,
Though still it ever o'er the world has run?
But now, whether he tried to shun it or no, he became thoroughly in love
with Sarah Barnard, an intelligent and sweet-tempered girl, the
daughter of a silversmith. Distracted by fears lest he might not win
her, he wrote her. "In whatever way I can best minister to your
happiness, either by assiduity or by absence, it shall be done. Do not
injure me by withdrawing your friendship, or punish me for aiming to be
more than a friend by making me less."
The girl showed this to her father, who replied that love made
philosophers say very foolish things. She hesitated about accepting him,
and went away to the seaside to consider it; but the ardent lover
followed, determined to learn the worst if need be. They walked on the
cliffs overhanging the ocean, and Faraday wrote in his journal as the
day drew near its close, "My thoughts saddened and fell, from the fear I
should never enjoy such happiness again. I could not master my feelings,
or prevent them from sinking, and I actually at last shamed myself by
moist eyes." He blamed himself because he did not know "the best means
to secure the heart he wished to gain." He knew how to fathom the depths
of chemical combinations, but he could not fathom the depths of Sarah
At last the hour of her decision came; and both were made supremely
happy by it. A week later he wrote her, "Every moment offers me fresh
proof of the power you have over me. I could not at one time have
thought it possible that I, that any man, could have been under the
dominion of feelings so undivided and so intense: now I think that no
other man can have felt or feel as I do." A year later they were married
very quietly, he desiring their wedding day to be "just like any other
day." Twenty-eight years later he wrote among the important dates and
discoveries of his life, "June 12, 1821, he married,--an event which,
more than any other, contributed to his earthly happiness and healthful
state of mind. The union has nowise changed, except in the depth and
strength of its character."
For forty-seven years "his dear Sarah" made life a joy to him. He rarely
left home; but if so, as at the great gathering of British Scientists at
Birmingham, he wrote back, "After all, there is no pleasure like the
tranquil pleasure of home; and here, even here, the moment I leave the
table, I wish I were with you IN QUIET. Oh, what happiness is ours! My
runs into the world in this way only serve to make me esteem that
happiness the more."
And now came twenty years in science that made Faraday the wonder and
ornament of his age. Elected an F.R.S., he began at once twelve lectures
in Chemical Manipulation before the London Institution, six on Chemical
Philosophy before the Royal Society, published six papers on
electromagnetism, and began a course of juvenile lectures which
continued for nineteen years. This was one of the beautiful things of
Faraday's life,--a great man living in a whirl of work, yet taking time
to make science plain to the young. When asked at what age he would
teach science, he replied that he had never found a child too young to
understand him. For twenty years he lectured at the Royal Academy at
Woolwich, became scientific adviser to the government with regard to
lighthouses and buoys, not for gain, but for the public good, drew all
London to his eloquent lectures with his brilliant experiments, Prince
Albert attending with his sons; and published one hundred and
fifty-eight scientific essays and thirty series of "Experimental
Researches in Electricity," which latter, says Dr. Gladstone, "form one
of the most marvellous monuments of intellectual work; one of the rarest
treasure-houses of newly-discovered knowledge, with which the world has
ever been enriched."
He not only gathered into his vast brain what other men had learned of
science, but he tested every step to prove the facts, and became, says
Professor Tyndall, "the greatest experimental philosopher the world has
ever seen." He loved science as he loved his family and his God, and
played with Nature as with a petted child. When he lectured, "there was
a gleaming in his eyes which no painter could copy, and which no poet
could describe. His audience took fire with him, and every face was
In his earlier discoveries in compressing gases into liquids, he
obtained from one thousand cubic feet of coal gas one gallon of fluid
from which he distilled benzine. In 1845 the chemist Hofman found this
same substance in coal-tar, from which come our beautiful aniline dyes.
After eighteen years of studying the wonderful results of Galvani's
discovery at the University of Bologna, that the legs of a dead frog
contract under the electric current; and of Volta, in 1799, with his
voltaic pile of copper, zinc, and leather, in salt-water; and of
Christian Oersted at the University of Copenhagen; and Ampere and Arago,
that electricity will produce magnets, Faraday made the great discovery
of magneto-electricity,--that magnets will produce electricity. At once
magneto-electric machines were made for generating electricity for the
electric light, electro-plating, etc. This discovery, says Professor
Tyndall, "is the greatest experimental result ever attained by an
investigator, the Mont Blanc of Faraday's achievements."
Soon after he made another great discovery, that of electric induction,
or that one electric current will induce another current in an adjoining
wire. Others had suspected this, but had sought in vain to prove it. The
Bell telephone, which Sir William Thompson calls "the wonder of
wonders," depends upon this principle. Here no battery is required; for
the vibration of a thin iron plate is made to generate the currents.
After this, Faraday proved that the various kinds of electricity are
identical; and that the electricity of the Voltaic pile is produced by
chemical action, and not by contact of metals, as Volta had supposed.
The world meantime had showered honors upon the great scientist. Great
Britain had made him her idol. The Cambridge Philosophical Society, the
Institution of Civil Engineers, of British Architects, of Philosophy and
of Medicine, and the leading associations of Scotland had made him an
honorary member. Paris had elected him corresponding member of all her
great societies. St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Berlin, Palermo,
Modena, Lisbon, Heidelberg, Frankfort, and our own Boston and
Philadelphia had sent tokens of admiration. Eminent men from all the
world came to see him.
How proud his mother must have felt at this wonderful success! She was
not able to enter into her son's pursuits from lack of early education;
but she talked much about him, calling him ever, "my Michael"; and would
do nothing whatever without his advice. He supported her in her
declining years; and she seemed perfectly happy. His father had died in
his boyhood; but Faraday ever honored his occupation. He used to say, "I
love a smith-shop, and anything relating to smithing. My father was a
He was now forty-nine. The overtaxed brain refused to work longer.
Memory was losing her grasp, and but for the sweet and careful presence
of Sarah Faraday, the life-work would doubtless have been finished at
this time. She took him to Switzerland, where he walked beside the lakes
and over the mountains with "my companion, dear wife, and partner in
all things." For four years he made scarcely any experiments in original
research, and then the tired brain seemed to regain its wonted power,
and go on to other discoveries.
An Italian philosopher, Morichini, was the first to announce the
magnetizing power of the solar rays. Mrs. Somerville covered one-half of
a sewing-needle with paper, and exposed the other half to the violet
rays. In two hours the exposed end had acquired magnetism. Faraday, by
long and difficult experiments, showed the converse of this: he
magnetized a ray of light,--an experiment "high, beautiful, and alone,"
says Mr. Tyndall. He also showed the magnetic condition of all matter.
He was always at work. He entered the laboratory in the morning, and
often worked till eleven at night, hardly stopping for his meals. He
seldom went into society, for time was too precious. If he needed a
change, he read aloud Shakspeare, Byron, or Macaulay to his wife in the
evening, or corresponded with Herschel, Humboldt, and other great men.
In the midst of exhausting labors he often preached on the Sabbath,
believing more earnestly in the word of God the more he studied science.
When he was sixty-four the great brain began to show signs of decline.
Belgium, Munich, Vienna, Madrid, Rome, Naples, Turin, Rotterdam, Upsala,
Lombardy, and Moscow had sent him medals, or made him a member of their
famous societies. Napoleon III. made him commander of the Legion of
Honor, a rare title; and the French exhibition awarded him the grand
medal of honor. The Queen asked him to dine with her at Windsor Castle,
and, at the request of Prince Albert her husband, she presented him with
a lovely home at Hampton Court.
At seventy-one he wrote to Mrs. Faraday from Glasgow, "My head is full,
and my heart also; but my recollection rapidly fails. You will have to
resume your old function of being a pillow to my mind, and a rest,--a
happy-making wife." Still he continued to make able reports to the
government on lighthouses, electric machines, steam-engines, and the
And then for two years the memory grew weaker, the body feebler, and he
was, as he told a friend, "just waiting." He died in his chair in his
study, August 25th, 1867, and was buried in Highgate Cemetery.
Westminster Abbey would have opened her doors to him, but he requested
to be buried "in the simplest earthly place, with a gravestone of the
most ordinary kind." On a plain marble slab in the midst of clustering
ivy are his name and the dates of his birth and death. One feels a
strange tenderness of heart as he stands beside this sacred spot where
rests one, who, though elected to seventy societies, and offered nearly
one hundred titles and tokens of honor, said he "would remain plain
Michael Faraday to the last."
Wonderful man! great in mind, noble in heart, and gentle in manner,
having brought a strong nature under the most complete discipline. His
energy, his devotion to a single object, his untiring work, and his
beautiful character carried the blacksmith's son to the highest