Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 741:
MICHAEL FARADAY

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 741.

Today, a learning-disabled boy is saved in a bookbindery. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The great English scientist Michael Faraday was born poor in 1791 -- the son of an out-of-work blacksmith. His prospects were terrible. But Faraday had an ace up his sleeve. He was dyslexic.

On the one hand, he spoke and wrote with great difficulty. His memory played tricks on him. He did poorly with the symbolic language of mathematics. But, on the other hand, he was gifted with an expanded ability to visualize -- to see things whole.

Faraday's break came at 14. He was apprenticed to a London bookbinder. There he gained the manual and mechanical dexterity that made him one of the great experimentalists of all time.

He also gained an education there. Not all people who handle books feel they have to read every word. But Faraday did. He took notes. He ingested. One of those books was Jane Marcet's Conversations in Chemistry. It came out when he was 15.

Jane Marcet wrote technical books for young people. After chemistry she wrote about economics and philosophy. She wrote about Africa. She knew how to weave the grand fabric of science without math. Marcet was just what Faraday needed.

During Faraday's last year as an apprentice, Sir Humphry Davy was giving a series of dazzling public lectures in chemistry. Faraday went and took careful notes. He bound them in a book and sent it to Davy. In 1813 Davy hired him as an assistant.

By 1824 the Royal Society had made Faraday a fellow for work on electromagnetism. In one experiment, he'd used an electric field to spin a magnet. That led to the invention of electric motors. He went on to explain induction, electrolysis, dielectric constants. He eventually set the stage for Maxwell's field theory.

All that would -- and does -- fill books. The quiet Faraday had found his voice. His lecture demonstrations were eloquent.

He was part of a gentle, off-beat, fundamentalist sect -- the Sandemanians. They believed in forming loving communities. So, while other scientists waged scientific priority wars, Faraday created science lectures for young people.

He used science to express his belief in the unity of nature. The agnostic physicist John Tyndall said Faraday "drinks from a fount on Sunday which refreshes his soul for a week."

He must have. For this genius educated in a bookbindery -- this lover of children and nature -- this reader of books -- this electric inventor -- had near mystic means for seeing through to the very core of things.

A German physicist, rightly in awe of Faraday's electric genius, said it best: "Faraday," he said, "smells the truth."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Williams, L.P., Faraday, Michael. Dictionary of Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.). Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.

West, T.G., In The Mind's Eye. New York: Prometheus Books, 1991. See especially Chapter 4.

Agassi, J., Faraday as a Natural Philosopher. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Jerrold, W., Michael Faraday: Man of Science. London: S.W. Partridge & Co., after 1891.

Alic, M., Hypatia's Heritage. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986, Chapter 12.

Jones, T.P., New Conversations on Chemistry ... Philadelphia: John Grigg, 1833. (This is an updating of Marcet's book which was published in 1805. I couldn't find her original.)

Marcet, J. Conversations on Political Economy ... (5th ed.). London: Longman etc., 1824.

Marcet, J., The History of Africa ... London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1830.

See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Faraday.

For more on Faraday see Episodes 905, 1011, 1046, and 1067. For more on Marcet's textboooks, see Episodes 744, 745, 828, 900, and 950.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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