The man from the Elephant who helped switch on the world

If we really want to understand climate change - where it came from, but also how to tackle it - we need to talk about electricity. Plus this gives me a chance to talk about Michael Faraday. And he’s great.

Before the 19th century, people had a sense of electricity, but only really played around with it. The ancients knew you could get shocks from some fish - electric eels for example - and had worked out that if you rubbed some stuff (e.g. your cat) with an amber rod, then lightweight things like feathers might fly towards them. There’s evidence of batteries - or at least something like them - from around 200 BC to AD 200 in modern-day Iraq, though no one's quite sure what it was used for.

Even before 1752, when Benjamin Franklin took a damp kite into the middle of a lightning storm, the bourgeois were entertained by tricks like the ‘electric boy’. Find a child, suspend them from the ceiling with silk threads and then rub them with an amber rod so they attract feathers or bits of paper. A more elaborate version had the child standing on a friction generator so their hands might attract small pieces of paper, even turn the pages of a book without touching them. Or you might create a spark if you touched them on the nose.

The electric boy - 18th century electrical demonstration. 

The electric boy - 18th century electrical demonstration. 

In 1780, Galvani discovered he could make frogs legs twitch with an electrical spark. By the 1820s, between Ampère and Ørsted, we had a sense of the connection of electricity and magnetism, after Ørsted noticed a compass needle moving when a current was turned on and off. But no one had really put this to work.

Faraday’s work helped change that, and with he gave us some key bricks for the energy system we now have. It’s an energy system that, so far, has been largely fuelled by fossil fuels. But it could well be an energy system for the future too. We can get electricity from a range of places - not just coal, but wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, etc - and electrifying as much as possible (then making sure that electricity is low carbon) is one of the key things we need to do to tackle climate change.

But back to Mr Faraday himself. He was born in 1791 in Newington Butts, near the Elephant and Castle (if that sounds like something out of Harry Potter, you should know that today it is a massive roundabout surrounded by speedily-gentrified tower blocks). The soon moved north of the river, to Manchester Square near Marylebone. Faraday’s family were far from rich, and he didn't receive much of a formal education. He started working as a delivery boy at a nearby bookbinders and booksellers and was soon promoted to apprentice.

He'd often read the books he was sorting or binding, and developed a strong interest in science. He also go to lectures held nearby, encouraged by his employer, and kept detailed notes about everything he learnt. There’s stories about the young Faraday experimenting with what he’d read about in books too. His first recorded experiment was a sort of early battery - a pile of seven coins stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water.

The bookseller got Faraday to show off his notes to customers. One, a musician called William Dance, was so impressed he gave the young Faraday tickets for lectures given by Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution (which I’ve already mentioned in a post about Tyndall).

The RI has an amazing funnel-shaped lecture theatre. If you ever have the chance to go, do. The young Faraday sat in the gallery, behind the clock. He took meticulous notes and, using his bookbinding skills an , presented them to Davy in a beautifully 300 page book which led to some correspondence between them. A year later, in March 1813, after one of the RI's chemistry assistants was dismissed for fighting, Davy remembered this keen young bookbinder and offered him a job.

Faraday was paid £1.5s a week, less than he got at the booksellers, but it came with a room at the RI. And he get to work on science.

Soon, Davy announced he was going on an 18 month tour of Europe, and Faraday was invited to join. It didn’t sound like the trip was all fun and science for Faraday. He was expected to deputise as Davy’s valet, at least until they reached Paris, and he was very much treated as a servant by Davy’s wife. Plus it was all cut short when Napoleon escaped from Elba. Still, he stayed on, and got to meet people like Alassandro Volta, who gave him a battery. As the Royal Institution puts it, “as if the inventor of the electric battery passed on the torch of electrical research to Faraday.”

He returned to the RI and gradually built his career there. In 1822, he’d developed what we’d now understand as the world’s first electric motor. Developing the work of Ørsted and Ampère and playing around with a magnet, small bath of mercury and a battery, he managed to turn the electrical energy from the battery into something that moved. A key step in the history of humans using electricity.

In his excitement, Faraday published results without acknowledging that he’d worked alongside Davy and another scientist, William Hyde Wollaston. This strained his relationship with Davy, and may well have led to Faraday being shifted to work on other areas, away from electromagnetism.

After Davy’s death, Faraday returned to the topic. He’d already managed to make movement from electricity using a magnet, but could he make electricity using magnets? Working with some simple apparatus - the wire he used seems to be the same stuff made to use bonnets - he fashioned a basic electric generator. Wire was coiled around a tube of some neutral material and insulated in cotton. Faraday realised that if he moved the bar magnet back and forth through the coil of wire, he could generate a current.

It was really inefficient, not practical as a power source itself in anyway. Still, it was the start of something. Virtually all the electricity we use today is produced using this these principles. The initial movement could come from all sorts of sources - coal, wind, hydro - they all power a generator which then produces electrical current we can be passed on and used.

There are loads of other steps before we get to the sort of electrical lives we live today - loads of refinements to the generator, not least further inventions like the lightbulb, the transistor and the microchip - but Faraday’s work was crucial.

Faraday’s life wasn’t all about electromagnetism. He was very committed to his church (he was a Sandemanian). In 1825 started a series of christmas lectures for children which are still going. Apparently he also had a very intense and personal correspondence with Ada Lovelace, but he felt this was inappropriate and later distanced himself from her (there’s some great scientific fanfic in this...). He also helped with the planning for the Great Exhibition of 1851 and, in 1855, famously wrote a letter to the Times about the state of pollution in the River thames (a nice example of politicians ignoring scientists concerns over pollution, until they realise an economic opportunity a few years later).

Faraday publicly stated several times that he would not accept a knighthood, saying he preferred to remain "plain Mr Faraday to the end.” There’s no evidence that he was actually ever offered one, but that’s not to say Faraday was been a massive egotist to assume he might be. There’s a story that he refused to help develop chemical weapons in the Crimean War, though he was also Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, for a couple of decades too, so we shouldn’t mark him up as a pacifist. He also refused the chance to be buried in Westminster Abbey (though there is a plaque to him there, by Newton’s tomb. Newton was nowhere near so modest, but that’s a whole other story…).

In 1848, he did accept an all-expenses-paid home at Hampton Court Palace (the one in all the Henry VIII movies), which is where he retired and then died.

If you want to visit his grave, it’s in the West side of Highgate Cemetery. There’s also a weird metal cube memorial over a electric substation in the middle of Elephant and Castle roundabout. Apparently the first idea was an inverted glazed pyramid revealing glowing mercury vapour, but this idea was ditched in case it distracted drivers. More conventionally, there’s a statue outside the Institution of Engineering and Technology, or you can also visit his old lab at the RI. If you're round the White Cliffs of Dover, you could drop by the South Foreland Lighthouse which, after considerable testing by Faraday, became the first lighthouse in the world to be lit with electric lighting in 1858. Or simply thank him next time you flick a switch and something happens.