Michael Faraday: Biography, Discoveries, and Inventions

Despite his religious beliefs and unusual approach to the world of research, Michael Faraday wanted to be recognized by society.

The scientific initiative covers a wide range of activities. It includes the research conducted in the course of discovery, the construction of new information about the natural world, the use of scientific knowledge and methods for practical and technological purposes, the transfer of this information to others, the ideological role of science in society, the development and implementation of scientific policy, and the management of scientific institutions. Those engaged in science tend to concentrate on one of these issues. However, what distinguishes Michael Faraday from others and makes him the most renowned scientist of all time is his high quality of work in all these areas of science during his career. As a result, he became one of the most famous people in Europe. But these do not say enough about where his success and achievements came from.

Who was Michael Faraday?

Michael Faraday working in the basement lab of the Royal Institute in the 1850s.
Michael Faraday working in the basement lab of the Royal Institute in the 1850s. This painting was made by Harriet Jane Moore, who documented Faraday’s life with watercolors and drawings.

Michael Faraday was born in south London, where his family moved from Westmorland in northwestern England a few years before his birth. His father was a blacksmith and a member of a very small neo-Calvinist Christian group called the Sandemanians, who interpreted the Holy Book. Faraday remained completely committed to this cult throughout his life. The fact that he came from a relatively poor family and was not affiliated with the Anglican Church meant that Faraday could not go to university. Instead, he worked as an apprentice for a bookbinder from 1805 to 1822. However, during this period, he participated in scientific conferences, and conducted a limited number of chemical experiments.

Towards the end of his apprenticeship, with an extraordinary decision, he preferred to have a scientific career instead of being a bookbinder, which was a more secure profession. He expressed his desire to Sir Humphry Davy and got his attention. When Davy was 34 years old, he was about to leave his post as a chemistry professor at the Sir Humphry Royal Institute after marrying a rich widow. Faraday was appointed as a laboratory assistant in 1813 and spent almost all his professional life at the Royal Institute. He was promoted to laboratory management in 1825 and, in 1833, appointed to the position of Fullerian Professor of Chemistry, which was opened specially for him.

During these years, Faraday’s electromagnetic rotation (1821) and induction (1821) discoveries in the basement laboratory of the Royal Institute resulted in the invention of the electric motor, the transformer, and the generator. These works, which he began in the late 1800s, appeared to lay the groundwork for electrical engineering and, by extension, our modern world. Although such a perspective is no longer acceptable, the centenary of the discovery of the induction (including a two-week Faraday exhibition at Royal Albert Hall and a speech commemorated by the British prime minister) and his picture on the 20-dollar bill in the 1990s, significantly contributed to Faraday’s ongoing reputation.

Electromagnetic field theory

Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction on August 29, 1831, through this iron ring: he placed two coils with insulated copper wire on the opposite sides.
Faraday discovered electromagnetic induction on August 29, 1831, through this iron ring: he placed two coils with insulated copper wire on the opposite sides.

But the most important contribution that Faraday made to our understanding of the natural world was the theory of electromagnetic fields that he formulated. This was the result of his discoveries about the magneto-optic effect and diamagnetism in 1845—Faraday’s experiments proved how magnetism influenced the behavior of light and that all matter was sensitive to magnetic force. At least from the beginning of the 1830s, Faraday strongly opposed the idea that matter was made up of indivisible chemical atoms. In 1834, he ceased to believe in the practicality of the matter concept, as the only thing we could work on was the force—weight, electrical repulsion, etc.

Faraday even used lines of force to interpret some of his early experiments, such as rotation. In the early 1840s, he began to see matter as points where force lines meet in space. This meant that all matter was structurally identical. But at that time, only three kinds of matter were known to have magnetic properties, and magnetism was kind of an anomaly. During 1844 and 1845, Faraday intensified his experimental efforts to find a solution to this problem, and his discovery of diamagnetism—including the magneto-optic effect—proved that magnetism was a universal attribute similar to gravity.

These experimental discoveries gave Faraday the confidence he needed to begin formulating the field theory in 1846, which defined how electric fields and magnetism interact with each other. Although the field theory was initially quantitative, it solved the urgent engineering problem of laying a telegraph cable from Ireland to Newfoundland across the Atlantic Ocean and replaced the mathematical electromagnetic influence theories developed by scholars such as Andre-Marie Ampere first in the UK and then in Europe. In the hands of mathematicians William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Clerk Maxwell, Faraday’s field theory has been one of the cornerstones of modern theoretical physics.

Although he was a mathematician and sometimes even doubted the value of mathematics in natural philosophy, Faraday was still one of the top theorists at the time (once he even complained about the hieroglyphs that Maxwell used). Maxwell saw that Faraday’s field theory was essentially geometrical, so it could be subject to the precision of Cambridge’s mathematical algebra analysis. Albert Einstein expressed his thoughts on this matter in 1936: “Faraday and Maxwell represents probably the most profound transformation experienced by the foundations of physics since Newton‘s time.

The government agency Board of Longitude

Page 75 from Faraday’s book, containing the results of his experiments on electromagnetic rotation, is dated September 3, 1821.
Page 75 from Faraday’s book, containing the results of his experiments on electromagnetic rotation, is dated September 3, 1821.

Faraday’s ability to formulate the theory of fields was based on experiments in discovering the magneto-optical effect and diamagnetism, the property that caused an object to create a magnetic field opposite the magnetic field applied from an external source. These experiments were also linked to another aspect of Faraday’s career, scientific consulting. One of the unique functions of the Royal Institute, which was founded in 1799, was to provide scientific advice to those who needed it, mostly the state and its institutions. Michael Faraday fulfilled this task by consulting institutions such as the East India Company, the British Navy Command, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Art Gallery, and, most importantly, the Trinity House—the General Lighthouse Authority for England and Wales. Almost a fifth of Faraday’s letters since 1836, when he was appointed consultant to Trinity House, are related to lighthouses.

In the second half of the 1820s, Michael Faraday worked on the joint committee of the Board of Longitude and the Royal Society, which was responsible for the development of optical glass to be used in telescopes. However, Faraday did not achieve this goal, and by 1829, he had lost so much hope for the project that he started negotiations to be appointed as a professor of chemistry at the Royal Military Academy. However, Davy, who died in May and was the person behind the project, tended to abuse Faraday’s abilities.

Soon, Faraday managed to leave the glass project, and for the next 15 years, he saw it as a complete waste of time. However, in 1845, he reused a piece of lead-borate glass that he had made to discover the magneto-optic effect in the 1820s. The light source he used for this experiment was a very powerful kerosene lamp that he tested for Trinity House. These and other experiments show how closely Faraday’s research and his work in the real world were connected. 

Michael Faraday teaches the public

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Lithograph showing Faraday giving lecture at the Royal Institute on December 27, 1855.

Another main function of the Royal Institute was to inform middle-class and aristocratic listeners about the miracle of science. Davy had quickly earned his reputation at the Royal Institute with very popular conferences. Faraday inherited this role from him and succeeded even more.

He started the Friday Evening Discourses, which became one of the main ways of transmitting science knowledge in the early Victorian era and continue to this day. Every week, one-hour lectures were given by competent scientists on their topics. At these conferences, Faraday was able to show the important scientific discoveries he made in his laboratory to the members of the Royal Institute, and thus to the rest of the world through print media.

He held a series of lectures on the value of scientific education, despite his strong opposition to the craze of spirit removal and hypnotism that emerged in the early 1850s. He provided evidence supporting his view on this craze to the Royal Committee dealing with education. He allowed the last two of the Christmas lessons (19 in total) to be printed for teenagers, probably due to his deep concerns about this issue. The Chemical History of a Candle is the most-read science book ever written. Since 1861, the English edition has never run out, and at least a dozen other languages have translated it.

As a result of his research, conferences, and practical work, Michael Faraday became the most famous person of his time (and later, indeed). He was a personal friend of Prince Albert, and the Prince allowed him to be given a house at Hampton Palace to honor him. Faraday spent more and more of his time in this house from 1858 to 1867, until his death. He was one of the eight foreign lecturers of the French Academy of Sciences; this was the most important indicator of reputation and approval after the Nobel Prize.

The depiction of Michael Faraday in the 1850s, from the tile series at Cafe Royal in Edinburgh, built in 1886 by John Eyre in memory of this famous scientist.

He was proposed twice as president of the Royal Society, the top post in British science. But unlike Davy, who was interestingly unsuccessful in this business, Faraday was not fooled by such fame. In both cases, he refused the position, saying that it was a corrupt and degenerating position, and when he refused it for the second time, he said that he could not vouch for a single year in honor of his intellectual effort if he had accepted the position. Although Faraday claimed that he was powerless in the face of the Sandemanian god and advocated humility in scientific research, he frequently had to keep his ego in check. It unconsciously emerged in some ways, expressed itself, and resulted in many striking images in the media: he published oil paintings, pastel paintings, marble drawings, prints, and mostly photos (he announced the discovery of photography at a conference in 1839).

Despite his religious beliefs and unusual approach to the world of research, Faraday wanted to be recognized by society. The tension he felt inside could have been the source of his creativity and his desire to do everything perfectly. It could also explain why he made such important contributions to how we understand the world.

Michael Faraday’s inventions

Michael Faraday produced an electric current from a magnetic field, invented the electric motor and dynamo, demonstrated the relation between electricity and chemical bonding, discovered the effect of magnetism on light, and discovered diamagnetism—the peculiar behavior of certain substances in strong magnetic fields. The transformer and generator were his inventions, along with many other achievements, including the “Faraday cage.”

Michael Faraday quotes

“Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature.”

“There’s nothing quite as frightening as someone who knows they are right.”

“It is right that we should stand by and act on our principles; but not right to hold them in obstinate blindness, or retain them when proved to be erroneous.”

“A man who is certain he is right is almost sure to be wrong.”

“Shall we educate ourselves in what is known, and then casting away all we have acquired, turn to ignorance for aid to guide us among the unknown?”

“But still try for who knows what is possible!”

“I will simply express my strong belief, that that point of self-education which consists in teaching the mind to resist its desires and inclinations, until they are proved to be right, is the most important of all, not only in things of natural philosophy, but in every department of daily life.”

“In place of practising wholesome self-abnegation, we ever make the wish the father to the thought: we receive as friendly that which agrees with, we resist with dislike that which opposes us; whereas the very reverse is required by every dictate of common sense.”

“No matter what you look at, if you look at it closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe.”


  1.  “The Faraday cage: from Victorian experiment to Snowden-era paranoia”The Guardian. 22 May 2017.
  2. The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell Volume 1 p. 360; Courier Dover 2003, ISBN 0-486-49560-4
  3. Reiser, Anton (1930). “VI”. Albert Einstein: A Biographical Portrait. New York: Albert and Charles Boni. p. 194.
  4. James, Frank A. J. L. (2011) [2004]. “Faraday, Michael (1791–1867)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9153. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  5. For a concise account of Faraday’s life including his childhood, see pp. 175–183 of Every Saturday: A Journal of Choice Reading, Vol III published at Cambridge in 1873 by Osgood & Co.
  6. Jerrold, Walter (2018). Michael Faraday: Man of Science. Books on Demand. ISBN 3734011124. p. 11.
  7. The implication is that James discovered job opportunities elsewhere through membership of this sect. James joined the London meeting house on 20 February 1791, and moved his family shortly thereafter. See Cantor, pp. 57–58.
  8. “Michael Faraday.” History of Science and Technology. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 4 June 2007
  9.  Plaque #19 on Open Plaques
  10. Jenkins, Alice (2008). Michael Faraday’s Mental Exercises: An Artisan Essay-Circle in Regency London. Oxford University Press. p. 213. ISBN 9781846311406.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.