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Michael Faraday, British Scientist

It is not my intention to lay before you a life of Faraday in the ordinary accepting of the term. The duty I have to perform is to give you some notion of what he has done in the world; dwelling incidentally on the spirit in which his work was executed, and introducing such personal traits as may be necessary to the completion of your picture of the philosopher, though by no means adequate to give you a complete idea of the man. Michael Faraday was born at Newington Butts, on September 22, 1791, and he died at Hampton Court, on August 25, 1867.

When thirteen years old, that is to say in 1804, Faraday was apprenticed to a bookseller and bookbinder where he spent eight years of his life, after which he worked as a journeyman elsewhere. Faraday’s first contact with the Royal Institution was that he was introduced by one of the members to Sir Humphry Davy’s last lectures, that he took notes of those lectures; wrote them fairly out, and sent them to Davy, entreating him at the same time to enable him to quit trade, and to pursue science, which he loved.

Davy was helpful to Faraday, and this should never be forgotten. He at once wrote to Faraday, and afterwards, when an opportunity occurred, made him his assistant. In Rome he made rapid progress in chemistry, and after a time was entrusted with easy analyses by Davy. In those days the Royal Institution published ‘The Quarterly Journal of Science,’ the precursor of ‘Proceedings. ‘ Faraday’s first contribution to science appeared in that journal in 1816. It was an analysis of some caustic lime from Tuscany, which had been sent to Davy by the Duchess of Montrose.

Between this period and 1818 various notes and short papers were published by Faraday. In 1818 he experimented upon ‘Sounding Flames. From time to time between 1818 and 1820 Faraday published scientific notes and notices of minor weight. At this time he was acquiring, not producing; working hard for his master and storing and strengthening his own mind.

He assisted Mr. Brande in his lectures, and so quietly, skillfully, and modestly was his work done, that Mr. Brande’s vocation at the time was pronounced ‘lecturing on velvet. ‘ In 1820 Faraday published a chemical paper ‘on two new compounds of chlorine and carbon, and on a new compound of iodine, carbon, and hydrogen. ‘ This paper was read before the Royal Society on December 21, 1820, and it was the first of his that was honored with a place in the ‘Philosophical Transactions. ‘ On June 12, 1821, he married, and obtained leave to bring his young wife into his rooms at the Royal Institution.

There for forty-six years they lived together, occupying the suite of apartments which had been previously in the successive occupancy of Young, Davy, and Brande. At the time of her marriage Mrs. Faraday was twenty-one years of age, he being nearly thirty. Oersted, in 1820, discovered the action of a voltaic current on a magnetic needle; and immediately afterwards the splendid intellect of Ampere succeeded in showing that every magnetic phenomenon then known might be reduced to the mutual action of electric currents.

This attracted Faraday’s attention to the subject. He read much about it; and in the months of July, August, and September he wrote a ‘history of the progress of electromagnetism,’ which he published in Thomson’s ‘Annals of Philosophy. ‘ Soon afterwards he took up the subject of ‘Magnetic Rotations,’ and on the morning of Christmas-day, 1821, he called his wife to witness, for the first time, the revolution of a magnetic needle round an electric current.

Incidental to the ‘historic sketch,’ he repeated almost all the experiments there referred to; and these, added to his own subsequent work, made him practical master of all that was then known regarding the voltaic current. In 1821, he also touched upon a subject which subsequently received his closer attention–the vaporization of mercury at common temperatures; and immediately afterwards conducted experiments on the alloys of steel. He was accustomed in after years to present to his friends razors formed from one of the alloys then discovered.

During Faraday’s hours of liberty from other duties, he took up subjects of inquiry for himself; and in the spring of 1823, he began the examination of a substance which had long been regarded as the chemical element chlorine, in a solid form, but which Sir Humphry Davy, in 1810, had proved to be a hydrate of chlorine, that is, a compound of chlorine and water. Faraday first analyzed this hydrate, and wrote out an account of its composition. This account was looked over by Davy, who suggested the heating of the hydrate under pressure in a sealed glass tube. This was done.

The hydrate fused, the tube became filled with a yellow atmosphere, and was afterwards found to contain two liquid substances. Dr. Paris happened to enter the laboratory while Faraday was at work. Seeing the oily liquid in his tube, he rallied the young chemist for his carelessness in employing soiled vessels. On filing off the end of the tube, its contents exploded and the oily matter vanished. The gas had been liquefied by its own pressure. Faraday then tried compression with a syringe, and succeeded thus in liquefying the gas. Davy, moreover, immediately applied the method of self compressing atmosphere to the liquefaction of muriatic gas.

Faraday continued the experiments, and succeeded in reducing a number of gases till then deemed permanent to the liquid condition. In 1844 he returned to the subject, and considerably expanded its limits. These important investigations established the fact that gases are but the vapors of liquids possessing a very low boiling-point, and gave a sure basis to our views of molecular aggregation. The account of the first investigation was read before the Royal Society on April 10, 1823, and was published, in Faraday’s name, in the ‘Philosophical Transactions.

The second memoir was sent to the Royal Society on December 19, 1844. It was rumored that while he was conducting his first experiments on the liquefaction of gases, thirteen pieces of glass were on one occasion driven by an explosion into Faraday’s eye. Some small notices and papers, including the observation that glass readily changes color in sunlight, follow here. In 1825 and 1826 Faraday published papers in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ on ‘new compounds of carbon and hydrogen,’ and on ‘sulphonaphthalic acid.

In the former of these papers he announced the discovery of Benzol, which, in the hands of modern chemists, has become the foundation of our splendid aniline dyes. But he swerved incessantly from chemistry into physics; and in 1826 we find him engaged in investigating the limits of vaporization, and showing, by exceedingly strong and apparently conclusive arguments, that even in the case of mercury such a limit exists; much more he conceived it to be certain that our atmosphere does not contain the vapor of the fixed constituents of the earth’s crust.

In 1825 Faraday became a member of a committee, to which Sir John Herschel and Mr. Dollond also belonged, appointed by the Royal Society to examine, and if possible improve, the manufacture of glass for optical purposes. Their experiments continued till 1829, when the account of them constituted the subject of a ‘Bakerian Lecture. ‘ This lectureship, founded in 1774 by Henry Baker provides that every year a lecture shall be given before the Royal Society, the sum of four pounds being paid to the lecturer. The Bakerian Lecture, however, has long since passed from the region of pay to that of honor, papers of mark only being chosen for it by the council of the Society.

Faraday’s first Bakerian Lecture, ‘On the Manufacture of Glass for Optical Purposes,’ was delivered at the close of 1829. It is a most elaborate and conscientious description of processes, precautions, and results: the details were so exact and so minute, and the paper consequently so long, that three successive sittings of the Royal Society were taken up by the delivery of the lecture. This glass did not turn out to be of important practical use, but it happened afterwards to be the foundation of two of Faraday’s greatest discoveries.

In 1827, therefore, a furnace was erected in the yard of the Royal Institution; and it was at this time, and with a view of assisting him at the furnace, that Faraday engaged Sergeant Anderson, of the Royal Artillery. Anderson continued to be the reverential helper of Faraday and the faithful servant of the Institution for nearly forty years. In 1831 Faraday published a paper, ‘On a peculiar class of Optical Deceptions,’ to which is believe the beautiful optical toy called the Chromatrope owes its origin.

In the same year he published a paper on Vibrating Surfaces, in which he solved an acoustical problem which, though of extreme simplicity when solved, appears to have baffled many men. The problem was to account for the fact that light bodies, such as the seed of lycopodium, collected at the vibrating parts of sounding plates, while sand ran to the nodal lines. Faraday showed that the light bodies were entangled in the little whirlwinds formed in the air over the places of vibration, and through which the heavier sand was readily projected.

Faraday’s resources as an experimentalist were so wonderful, and his delight in experiment was so great, that he sometimes almost ran into excess in this direction. The work thus referred to, though sufficient of itself to secure no mean scientific reputation, forms but the vestibule of Faraday’s achievements. He had been engaged within these walls for eighteen years. During part of the time he had drunk in knowledge from Davy, and during the remainder he continually exercised his capacity for independent inquiry.

In 1831 we have him at the climax of his intellectual strength, forty years of age, stored with knowledge and full of original power. Through reading, lecturing, and experimenting, he had become thoroughly familiar with electrical science: he saw where light was needed and expansion possible. The phenomena of ordinary electric induction belonged, as it were, to the alphabet of his knowledge: he knew that under ordinary circumstances the presence of an electrified body was sufficient to excite, by induction, an unelectrified body.

He knew that the wire which carried an electric current was an electrified body, and still that all attempts had failed to make it excite in other wires a state similar to its own. What was the reason of this failure? Faraday never could work from the experiments of others, however clearly described. He knew well that from every experiment issues a kind of radiation, luminous in different degrees to different minds, and he hardly trusted himself to reason upon an experiment that he had not seen. In the autumn of 1831, he began to repeat the experiments with electric currents, which, up to that time, had produced no positive result.

He began his experiments ‘on the induction of electric currents’ by composing a helix of two insulated wires which were wound side by side round the same wooden cylinder. One of these wires he connected with a voltaic battery of ten cells, and the other with a sensitive galvanometer. When connection with the battery was made, and while the current flowed, no effect whatever was observed at the galvanometer. But he never accepted an experimental result, until he had applied to it the utmost power at his command. He raised his battery from 10 cells to 120 cells, but without avail.

The current flowed calmly through the battery wire without producing, during its flow, any sensible result upon the galvanometer. ‘During its flow,’ and this was the time when an effect was expected– but here Faraday’s power of lateral vision, separating, as it were, from the line of expectation, came into play–he noticed that a feeble movement of the needle always occurred at the moment when he made contact with the battery; that the needle would afterwards return to its former position and remain quietly there unaffected by the flowing current.

At the moment, however, when the circuit was interrupted the needle again moved, and in a direction opposed to that observed on the completion of the circuit. This result, and others of a similar kind, led him to the conclusion ‘that the battery current through the one wire did in reality induce a similar current through the other; but that it continued for an instant only, and partook more of the nature of the electric wave from a common jar than of the current from a voltaic battery.

The momentary currents thus generated were called induced currents, while the current which generated them was called the inducing current. It was immediately proved that the current generated at making the circuit was always opposed in direction to its generator, while that developed on the rupture of the circuit coincided in direction with the inducing current. It appeared as if the current on its first rush through the primary wire sought a purchase in the secondary one, and, by a kind of kick, impelled backward through the latter an electric wave, which subsided as soon as the primary current was fully established.

Faraday, for a time, believed that the secondary wire, though quiescent when the primary current had been once established, was not in its natural condition, its return to that condition being declared by the current observed at breaking the circuit. He called this hypothetical state of the wire the electrotonic state: he afterwards abandoned this hypothesis, but seemed to return to it in later life. The term electrotonic is also preserved by Professor Du Bois Reymond to express a certain electric condition of the nerves.

The mere approach of a wire forming a closed curve to a second wire through which a voltaic current flowed was then shown by Faraday to be sufficient to arouse in the neutral wire an induced current, opposed in direction to the inducing current; the withdrawal of the wire also generated a current having the same direction as the inducing current; those currents existed only during the time of approach or withdrawal, and when neither the primary nor the secondary wire was in motion, no matter how close their proximity might be, no induced current was generated. Faraday has been called a purely inductive philosopher.

He was at this time full of the theory of Ampere, and it cannot be doubted that numbers of his experiments were executed merely to test his deductions from that theory. Starting from the discovery of Oersted, the illustrious French philosopher had shown that all the phenomena of magnetism then known might be reduced to the mutual attractions and repulsions of electric currents. Magnetism had been produced from electricity, and Faraday, who all his life long entertained a strong belief in such reciprocal actions, now attempted to effect the evolution of electricity from magnetism.

Round a welded iron ring he placed two distinct coils of covered wire, causing the coils to occupy opposite halves of the ring. Connecting the ends of one of the coils with a galvanometer, he found that the moment the ring was magnetized, by sending a current through the other coil, the galvanometer needle whirled round four or five times in succession. The action, as before, was that of a pulse, which vanished immediately. On interrupting the circuit, a whirl of the needle in the opposite direction occurred. It was only during the time of magnetization or demagnetization that these effects were produced.

The induced currents declared a change of condition only, and they vanished the moment the act of magnetization or demagnetization was complete. The effects obtained with the welded ring were also obtained with straight bars of iron. Whether the bars were magnetized by the electric current, or were excited by the contact of permanent steel magnets, induced currents were always generated during the rise, and during the subsidence of the magnetism. The use of iron was then abandoned, and the same effects were obtained by merely thrusting a permanent steel magnet into a coil of wire.

A rush of electricity through the coil accompanied the insertion of the magnet; an equal rush in the opposite direction accompanied its withdrawal. The precision with which Faraday describes these results, and the completeness with which he defines the boundaries of his facts, are wonderful. The magnet, for example, must not be passed quite through the coil, but only half through; for if passed wholly through, the needle is stopped as by a blow, and then he shows how this blow results from a reversal of the lectric wave in the helix.

He next operated with the powerful permanent magnet of the Royal Society, and obtained with it, in an exalted degree, all the foregoing phenomena. And now he turned the light of these discoveries upon the darkest physical phenomenon of that day. Arago had discovered, in 1824, that a disk of non-magnetic metal had the power of bringing a vibrating magnetic needle suspended over it rapidly to rest; and that on causing the disk to rotate the magnetic needle rotated along with it.

When both were quiescent, there was not the slightest measurable attraction or repulsion exerted between the needle and the disk; still when in motion the disk was competent to drag after it, not only a light needle, but a heavy magnet. The question had been probed and investigated with admirable skill both by Arago and Ampere, and Poisson had published a theoretic memoir on the subject; but no cause could be assigned for so extraordinary an action. Now, however, the time for theory had come.

Faraday saw mentally the rotating disk, under the operation of the magnet, flooded with his induced currents, and from the known laws of interaction between currents and magnets he hoped to deduce the motion observed by Arago. That hope he realized, showing by actual experiment that when his disk rotated currents passed through it, their position and direction being such as must, in accordance with the established laws of electromagnetic action, produce the observed rotation.

Introducing the edge of his disk between the poles of the large horseshoe magnet of the Royal Society, and connecting the axis and the edge of the disk, each by a wire with a galvanometer, he obtained, when the disk was turned round, a constant flow of electricity. The direction of the current was determined by the direction of the motion, the current being reversed when the rotation was reversed. He now states the law which rules the production of currents in both disks and wires, and in so doing uses, for the first time, a phrase which has since become famous.

When iron filings are scattered over a magnet, the particles of iron arrange themselves in certain determinate lines called magnetic curves. In 1831, Faraday for the first time called these curves ‘lines of magnetic force’; and he showed that to produce induced currents neither approach to nor withdrawal from a magnetic source, or centre, or pole, was essential, but that it was only necessary to cut appropriately the lines of magnetic force. Faraday’s first paper on Magnetoelectric Induction was read before the Royal Society on the 24th of November, 1831.

On January 12, 1832, he communicated to the Royal Society a second paper on Terrestrial Magnetoelectric Induction, which was chosen as the Bakerian Lecture for the year. He placed a bar of iron in a coil of wire, and lifting the bar into the direction of the dipping needle, he excited by this action a current in the coil. On reversing the bar, a current in the opposite direction rushed through the wire. The same effect was produced when, on holding the helix in the line of dip, a bar of iron was thrust into it. Here, however, the earth acted on the coil through the intermediation of the bar of iron.

He abandoned the bar and simply set a copper plate spinning in a horizontal plane; he knew that the earth’s lines of magnetic force then crossed the plate at an angle of about 70. When the plate spun round, the lines of force were intersected and induced currents generated, which produced their proper effect when carried from the plate to the galvanometer. ‘When the plate was in the magnetic meridian, or in any other plane coinciding with the magnetic dip, then its rotation produced no effect upon the galvanometer.

And then his thoughts suddenly widen, and he asks himself whether the rotating earth does not generate induced currents as it turns round its axis from west to east. In his experiment with the twirling magnet the galvanometer wire remained at rest; one portion of the circuit was in motion relatively to another portion. But in the case of the twirling planet the galvanometer wire would necessarily be carried along with the earth; there would be no relative motion. What must be the consequence? Take the case of a telegraph wire with its two terminal plates dipped into the earth, and suppose the wire to lie in the magnetic meridian.

The ground underneath the wire is influenced like the wire itself by the earth’s rotation; if a current from south to north be generated in the wire, a similar current from south to north would be generated in the earth under the wire; these currents would run against the same terminal plate, and thus neutralize each other. Seven-and-thirty years have passed since the discovery of magneto-electricity; but, if we except the extra current, until quite recently nothing of moment was added to the subject.

Faraday entertained the opinion that the discoverer of a great aw or principle had a right to the ‘spoils’–this was his term–arising from its illustration; and guided by the principle he had discovered, his wonderful mind, aided by his wonderful ten fingers, overran in a single autumn this vast domain, and hardly left behind him the shred of a fact to be gathered by his successors. And here the question may arise in some minds, What is the use of it all? The answer is, that if man’s intellectual nature thirsts for knowledge, then knowledge is useful because it satisfies this thirst.

If you demand practical ends, you must, I hink, expand your definition of the term practical, and make it include all that elevates and enlightens the intellect, as well as all that ministers to the bodily health and comfort of men. Still, if needed, an answer of another kind might be given to the question ‘What is its use? ‘ As far as electricity has been applied for medical purposes, it has been almost exclusively Faraday’s electricity. You have noticed those lines of wire which cross the streets of cities all over the world. It is Faraday’s currents that speed from place to place through these wires.

What has been the practical use of the labors of Faraday? But I would again emphatically say, that his work needs no such justification, and that if he had allowed his vision to be disturbed by considerations regarding the practical use of his discoveries, those discoveries would never have been made by him. ‘I have rather,’ he writes in 1831, ‘been desirous of discovering new facts and new relations dependent on magneto-electric induction, than of exalting the force of those already obtained; being assured that the latter would find their full development hereafter. ‘

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