Children's Stories of the Great Scientiests - H. C. Wright

Faraday and the Production of Electricity by Magnetism




The year following the death of Franklin was marked by the birth of Michael Faraday, whose work in electricity brought that comparatively new science to a still more practical plane than had been reached by the American philosopher.

Faraday was born at Newington, South London, and was the son of a blacksmith, whose delicate health made it often impossible for him to earn a comfortable living for his family, and Michael's early years were spent in the manner usual to the poorer class of city children.

He played in the streets with the children of other mechanics, and took care of his younger sister while his mother was busy about household matters, and ran on errands to neighboring shops; and, in fact, had his life filled with that mixture of responsibility and duty which usually falls to the lot of the younger members of the families of city workmen, and which develops so early the shrewdness and self-reliance which characterize that class of children.

There was nothing in the surroundings of the boy to lead to the study of nature, and although the older members of the family had memories of a country home in Yorkshire, life to Michael meant only the crowded streets, and uninteresting sights and sounds which mark the poorer districts of a great city. But happily for him the very humbleness of his circumstances was made the opening for something better. The serious business of life begins early for the children of the poor, and when he was thirteen years of age Michael was placed as errand boy to a bookseller who lived near by. He had learned to read, write, and cipher, at a common day-school in the neighborhood, and this meagre education, supplemented however by good health, an honest purpose, and excellent home training, formed his capital in his venture with the world. It was his business, among other things, to deliver newspapers to his master's customers, and so well did he acquit himself of these duties that after a year in the shop the master received him as a regular apprentice in the bookbinding and stationery business, exempting him from the usual premium in consideration of his faithful services.

And, as in the case of Franklin, it was while he was an apprentice that his mind was first directed toward serious study. The handling of books was his daily work, and their contents could not fail to be of interest to the curious boy who had always been noted for his talent for asking questions about everything that came under his notice. And so he began to read, and learned straightway that the world was a very wonderful place. He had known before that if he left London and travelled through all the ways that civilized man has traversed, he should come across many strange things, and undergo many strange adventures, while becoming familiar with the different countries and races of the earth; this was an experience common to the lot of every traveller. But it was new to him to learn, from the pages of a popular work on chemistry, or the articles on electricity in the "Encyclopaedia Britannica," that there existed in the poor little neighborhood, where he made his home, wonders as great as any that had ever been seen by the most adventurous traveller; and that, in fact, he was not living in a dingy London court, but in a fairyland where the most marvellous events were constantly transpiring, and that water, and fire, and air, which he had only hitherto known as familiar agencies for supporting life, were in reality great magicians who held sway over mighty, secret forces, and most marvellous of all, that their secrets could be learned even by so humble a person as himself, provided he brought the necessary care and sincerity to the work.

Faraday stood astounded at the magnitude of this discovery, and immediately set about putting it to a practical test. His reading was followed by such simple experiments as could be carried on at a slight expense, and the results showed that he had read to good purpose, and that science stands ready to unlock her treasure house to her humblest follower, if he bring but an honest purpose with him.

The success of these little experiments encouraged Faraday to such a degree, and gave natural philosophy such a strong interest, that he was glad to accept the money from his brother to attend a course of lectures on the subject which were given at a private house, and he learned drawing in order that he might illustrate these lectures and preserve them for future use. And there is every reason to believe that his future career was decided at this time. Science had such a fascination for him that he longed for occupation more congenial than bookbinding, and declared that the humblest work of the laboratory would seem a delight if he could but enter upon it. Pushed on by this desire he wrote to the President of the Royal Society, in the hope that something advantageous might result from it, but in this he was disappointed, the president paying no heed to the solicitation of the unknown apprentice.

But notwithstanding this rebuff Faraday kept to his purpose, and his apprentice life was largely filled with experiments and theories in natural philosophy.

Since the time of Franklin various discoveries had been made in electricity, and as this subject interested Faraday peculiarly, some of his earliest experiments were based upon these discoveries.

In 1800, the Italian scientist, Volta, made an electric apparatus which possessed the wonderful power of constantly recovering the charge, thus forming a perpetual source of electricity. The apparatus was a very simple one, consisting only of alternate disks of copper and zinc, separated by pieces of paper or leather saturated with salt water. This combination formed a perfect electric machine and solved the question of preserving electricity indefinitely, and its invention is said to be the greatest effort of a single mind that the world has ever seen. This battery is called the Voltaic Pile, and one of Faraday's first experiments consisted in constructing one of these piles, and finding that it would decompose Epsom salts; afterward, with a larger pile he decomposed sulphate of copper, and made some experiments on the decomposition of water, and this pastime of his apprentice days eventually led to one of his greatest discoveries.

Very soon after his apprenticeship had expired Faraday wrote to Sir Humphry Davy, whose lectures he had attended, sending with his letter the notes he had taken of the lectures, and signifying his desire to enter upon some business of a scientific nature. This letter was favorably received by the great scientist, and an opportunity occurring soon after, Faraday was received by him as his assistant. A journey to the Continent was made in company with Davy, and here Faraday was brought in contact with the most celebrated scientists of the time and found his enthusiasm for his chosen calling increasing with every day. He made notes of the experiments that he saw, and on his return to England carried on his studies with greater vigor than ever.

His connection with Sir Humphry Davy was of the greatest service to him at this time, and was always warmly appreciated by Faraday, whose generous acknowledgment of benefits was no less a characteristic of his mind than his own great modesty about his achievements.

Three years after his entrance at the Royal Institution as Davy's assistant he delivered a course of lectures at the City Philosophical Society, on the general properties of matter, and the same year he published one of his experiments in the journal of Science, showing that his progress as a thinker and as a public man was very rapid; and his work for the five following years, devoted almost exclusively to experiments in chemistry, placed him among the first chemists of the day.

When he was thirty years old Faraday began his researches in electricity which resulted in the discoveries that made him famous. A few years before this Professor Oersted, of Copenhagen, while lecturing before his class, noticed that a magnetic needle that happened to be lying on the table before him was set in motion by the current of electricity from a Voltaic pile with which he was experimenting. Oersted immediately followed up the suggestion contained in this occurrence, and before long gave to the world his famous discovery that electricity will deflect the magnetic needle, or cause it to change its position, though the current may have to pass through a wire of considerable extent—a discovery which in time led to the invention of the telegraph.

Faraday conceived the idea that if electricity would affect the needle, and magnetize iron as Oersted had discovered, it might be possible to accomplish the reverse of this, and therefore at the beginning of his work in electricity set about finding the relation between it and magnetism, starting with the proposition that they were identical. For seven years he worked over this problem and at last his efforts were crowned with success, and he proved that a magnet would induce electricity in a coil of wire.

Oersted's discovery is called electro-magnetism, and Faraday's magneto-electricity, and both discoveries rank among the greatest in electrical research. Previous to this very little was known about magnetism. The lodestone had been shown to have the power of giving its attraction to a few other substances, such as steel, cobalt, and iron, but Faraday's experiments threw new light on this interesting subject. He proved that many other substances were susceptible of polarity—the peculiar property of the magnetic needle in pointing to the north and south, and having its attraction at the poles—and that certain other bodies were repelled by both poles of the magnet. He also discovered the magnetism of the air, and that nearly all substances are affected in one way or another by a powerful magnet.

His discovery of magneto-electricity, one of the results of which is the electric light, was hardly more important than the discovery that is known as voltaic induction, or the power of a current of electricity passing through a wire to develop a current in a parallel wire which does not touch it. This discovery led to the invention of the induction coil by Ruhmkorff, which has been the means of many later important discoveries in electricity.

Faraday's third great contribution to electrical science, which was preceded by the discovery of the identity of all kinds of electricity however produced, was the establishment of the law which governs the decomposition of bodies by electricity.

Besides the electric light, the practical results of Faraday's labors are shown in many ways, but even if his discoveries had been found impractical for the uses of daily life, his researches would have still been of the greatest value to science, where an isolated fact often leads to the most important consequences.

Faraday's genius was allied to that of the old philosophers who sought to find the secret of life, and he entertained the idea that gravitation, electricity, heat, light, and all the forces of nature might be identical, or different expressions of one governing power.

This fancy led to many of his most important discoveries, and contains a suggestion which may in time lead to the solution of the world-old problem; but, however that may be, his work for science will bear fruit to the latest day.