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 Peter Takes on History 

September 22, 1791

Michael Faraday, brilliant theoretician

Electricity was always there. No one “invented it” of “discovered” it. But for a long time no one could “picture” it.
The Egyptians described electric fish and associated electricity with lightning. The Greeks knew that you could produce a static charge by rubbing fur on an amber rod. Oh, and the Greek word for amber is “elektron.”
By the mid 1700’s scientists learned the difference between conductors and insulators and had demonstrated capacitance. Crazy Ben had flown his kite in a storm-dark sky. Luigi Galvani recognized electricity in our neurons. Allesandro Volta had built a battery. André-Marie Ampère had connected electricity and magnetism. And Gerg Ohm was working out the mathematics of circuits. In the early 19th century everyone was writing about the new science of electricity and a lot of that writing ended up in the third edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica which was being printed in a London shop where young Michael Faraday apprenticed.
Michael Faraday, born on this day, September 22nd, in 1791, was a grammar school dropout; partly because his family couldn’t afford to pay for school but also because learning, at least in the traditional sense, was very difficult. Faraday was dyslexic. With the jumble of numbers and symbols he never could learn math. And he was a painfully slow reader but, despite the difficulty, Faraday was clever and curious and compelled to read everything he could find … including the Encyclopedia Britannica where, in the E’s, he stumbled upon an article about electricity that really sparked a lifelong passion.
Before Faraday the prevailing theory was that electricity was an invisible liquid that flowed through the ether; around and inside us. Faraday didn’t buy it. He conducted scores of clever experiments, recorded oodles of observations and began to construct a portrait of electricity. He explored the connection between magnetism and electricity. You know that elementary school experiment with the magnet, some paper and iron filings? Faraday did it first.
Faraday, like many dyslexics, had an extraordinary ability to “envision,” to use his imagination to see the “big picture.” He could see the forest despite the trees! He envisioned waves and lines of force and began to see how they interacted. He laid the theoretical foundations of field theory, an early step along the path to relativity and quantum mechanics.
And Faraday, like many dyslexics, excelled at reason and high order thinking. And like other dyslexics often benefited from sudden, unorthodox insights.
His observation of electrical forces led to his development of the electric motor and the electric generator; two devices that have allowed us to turn electricity from a curious natural phenomenon to a powerhouse of industrial progress.
Faraday’s success was certainly due to his intelligence, motivation and imagination but, in the beginning, being kinda lucky helped too.
One afternoon a printshop patron offered Faraday tickets to a lecture series by Sir Humphrey Davy, a great chemist of the day. Fascinated by the subject, Faraday took 300 pages of notes, took them back to the shop where he bound them and later presented them to Davy who was delighted and impressed.
Davy soon hired Faraday as a lab assistant at the the Royal Institution of Great Britain where despite little formal education and no training what-so-ever in chemistry, Faraday soon equaled his employer prompting Sir Humphrey to quip, “My greatest discovery was Michael Faraday.”.
Among his notable accomplishments, Faraday identified benzene, the basic carbon ring found in hydrocarbon fuels.
He worked out the principles of induction and refined the process of electrolysis popularizing terms like ion, cathode, anode and electrode.
He learned electric current could affect polarized light and imagined “field” theory, an early step along the path to quantum physics.
Faraday determined gasses were liquids with low boiling points. He was the first to liquify chlorine and hydrogen.
But Faraday's work wasn’t all theoretical. His work with gas expansion led to the first practical refrigerator.
His advances in the production of optical quality glass improved England’s lighthouses.
His need for a ready heat source on his lab bench led him to develop an early Bunsen Burner. When he needed a means to store experimental gasses in his laboratory, he invented an airtight elastic bladder that when filled would accommodate the volume of gas by inflating. Yes, Michael Faraday, the brilliant theoretician whose portrait hung above Albert Einstein’s desk, also invented the toy balloon.

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