A prolific man of letters, Frank James talks to E&T about Michael Faraday and uncovers the personality behind the well-known image.
A lone genius with a peculiar religious bent who toiled away in the Royal Institution basement laying the foundations of electrical engineering. This was how we pictured Michael Faraday until the late 1970s. Since then, historians studying Faraday's experimental notebooks, letters, and religious background have gradually revealed a more sociable, well-connected and complex individual.
Frank James, the Royal Institution's Professor of the History of Science, has been particularly influential in this process, having spent a quarter of a century in Faraday's close company editing his letters. James has just finished the sixth and final volume of the Complete Faraday Correspondence, a mammoth project published by the IET that shows Faraday as a man at the centre of a social hub, where his work in the lab and in religious and state institutions were interconnected. 'What is revealing is how he was able to achieve so much in his experimental and theoretical researches and how such knowledge related to the world outside the controlled environment of the laboratory,' says James.
Faraday was a man of contradictions. He was a pillar of the establishment while belonging to a literalist Christian sect – the Sandemanians – founded in direct opposition to the state church. His work on electromagnetic field theory contributed to the greatest change in our conception of the structure of reality since Newton. And yet the inventor of the electric motor, transformer and generator did not believe in atoms but thought the properties of chemical molecules were a result of combinations of force lines meeting at a point.
James has mixed feelings about saying goodbye to Faraday: 'I like Faraday's attention to detail, I like the way he relates detail to theory, and I like the way he ignores the standard orthodoxies,' he says. But as an acquaintance, James admits that he would have found Faraday unduly 'Presbyterian'.
'He's not someone I could go to the pub with and have a pint! With Humphry Davy, I think I could,' he says, referring to the RI Professor of Chemistry who recommended appointing the 21-year-old Faraday as a lab assistant in 1813 only to see the younger man eclipse him as a scientific researcher. Over the next ten years, Faraday discovered the liquefaction of gases and electromagnetic rotation. By 1833, he had risen to become director of the RI Laboratory and the RI's Fullerian Professor of Chemistry.
Davy and Faraday
Davy tied up as much of Faraday's time as he could with projects such as founding the Athenaeum, protecting the copper bottoms of the Navy's boats from barnacles, and trying to improve optical glass. Despite marrying into the gentry and becoming president of the Royal Society, Davy continued to see Faraday as a threat, to the extent that before Faraday's election to the fellowship of the Royal Society in 1823, 'president' Davy walked around the courtyard of Somerset House shouting that no-one should vote for his protege. 'Davy had a personal problem with Faraday – he was the coming man,' explains James.
Faraday achieved so much partly because he was obsessive but also because he managed his time carefully (see excerpt from letter 4878, above). 'So long as he can earn around £800 a year, he's happy and he dumps anything superfluous,' says James. Faraday was extraordinarily tactful too so he didn't upset the establishment. He was opposed to 'aether' and the wave theory of light and did not believe in atoms on scientific grounds, but avoided controversy by describing such things as human constructs. David Brewster, a Scottish physicist, mathematician and astronomer who was one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland held similar views, according to James, but was marginalised because he did not express them so carefully.
Science and religion
Faraday rarely discusses the relationship between science and religion in his letters, but one notable example is his correspondence with the rather frisky Ada Lovelace, Byron's daughter. 'She throws herself something rotten at Faraday, writing to him to say that she wants to be his student and to learn from him,' says James. Faraday is nonplussed and writes a long reply saying he is a member of a poor despised sect called the Sandemanians and that there is no philosophy in his religion. 'It means that he did not accept the English natural theological tradition that one of the objects of science was to prove the existence of God. Faraday comes from the point of assuming God exists and his job being in finding out how God operates in the Universe,' James explains.
In fact, many of Faraday's major experimental discoveries stem from his belief that each force can be turned into every other one. Electromagnetic rotation is converting electricity and magnetism into motion, electromagnetic induction converts motion and magnetism into electricity, magneto-optics shows that light, electricity and magnetism are connected, diamagnetism shows that you can get motion from magnets and so on.
'Before his death in 2009, the historian David Gooding was looking at how Faraday had a hierarchy of forces with electricity at the top and gravity, motion, light, and magnetism below. Putting electricity at the top strikes me as a Zeus-like image, standing on Mount Olympus casting lightning bolts down,' he adds.
Newly discovered letters
Faraday corresponded with everyone of scientific note from James Clerk Maxwell to Thomas Young (of Young's modulus fame) as well as authors, poets, actresses and members of the royal family. Faraday's personal scrapbooks contain prints and photographs of many of his correspondents with their letters tipped in opposite. The letters and images of figures such as the Prince of Wales aged 11, poet Robert Southey, polymath Mary Somerville, author Madame De Stael, and actress Sarah Siddons, are particularly touching.
The IET's predecessor organisation, the IEE, gave James a grant to edit the correspondence in 1984 after he found material in the RI archives that had been ignored by the American academic LP Williams, author of what was then considered the definitive Faraday biography. James eventually identified 2,000 letters from Faraday (double the number Williams had published) in 260 archives around the world. He has worked with 5,054 letters in total, to and from Faraday, to complete the project.
Among the discovered letters were many from William Whewell, an English polymath and Anglican priest who was master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Whewell researched ocean tides, published work about mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to translate the works of Goethe. Correspondence between him and Faraday contain the earliest use of electrode, cathode and anode, cation and ion.
But the largest stash of unpublished correspondence comprised 500 letters dealing with lighthouses, which appeared when Trinity House (the general lighthouse authority for England and Wales) transferred its papers to the Guildhall Library. Faraday was appointed as scientific advisor to Trinity House from 1836 to just before his death in 1867, taking on tasks ranging from analysing lighthouse paint to supervising the conversion of some lighthouses to electric power. 'The position arose from his RI post, but neither the RI's agenda of aiding the state and its agencies, nor the salary of £200 a year are sufficient to explain Faraday's huge commitment,' says James. It can be understood, he believes, in the light of Faraday's moral imperative to help save lives using scientific knowledge.
Faraday's final years
Volume Six of the Correspondence runs from November 1860 to Faraday's death in August 1867. There are no signs of Faraday wanting to retrench until he is in 70s. 'He was still going up lighthouses and out to sea in 1862, and getting sea sick – until his doctor banned him,' says James.
In 1863, Faraday steps down from the senate of the University of London, and a year later tries to leave the Royal Institution. 'But the RI wants to retain Faraday because he is one of the most famous men in Britain and arguably Europe. Faraday keeps writing saying he wants to retire and they write back saying, you can retire from giving lectures, or directing laboratories so he is kept on,' says James.
In the end, Faraday never stepped down and died while still holding the posts of Fullerian Professor of Chemistry and Superintendent of the House of the Royal Institution.
Towards the end of Faraday's life, the kind of science he and his contemporaries pursued into the early 1850s was beginning to be seen as old-fashioned as physical science became increasingly mathematical and professionalised. 'By the 1850s, the influence of George Stokes, William Thomson [later Lord Kelvin], and James Clerk Maxwell on thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, the distribution of electric charge and so on, was beginning to have an impact,' says James.
Faraday and his contemporaries had little mathematical education unlike those who followed. 'Thompson and Maxwell realised that Faraday's work in field theory could be turned into mathematical form and this is when it becomes so important,' says James. Faraday is flattered by this attention to his work ' in a letter to his niece he says that 'Professor Maxwell has mathematised my lines of force'. But he is not comfortable with the new-fangled notation and writes to Maxwell asking whether he really has to use hieroglyphics, can't he use proper language? Maxwell's reply to that letter has not been found.
James has two research topics that fascinate him: how do you move scientific knowledge generated in the laboratory into the real world; and how does scientific method and knowledge impact on technology.
'We see all this in Faraday's correspondence,' James says. Back in the 1970s, experiment by itself was considered just 'trial and error', whereas over the following decades, detailed study of Faraday's work and others have shown that experiment is an active exploratory process producing knowledge in its own right.
James has distilled some of his views on Faraday in the Oxford University Press's excellent 'A Very Short Introduction' series, but it is the letters themselves that give us a the most extraordinary insight into the man. *
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