A Biography of Michael Faraday, Inventor of the Electric Motor

Engraved portrait of Michael Faraday
Engraving of Michael Faraday, 1873.

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Michael Faraday (born Sept. 22, 1791) was a British physicist and chemist who is best known for his discoveries of electromagnetic induction and of the laws of electrolysis. His biggest breakthrough in electricity was his invention of the electric motor.

Early Life

Born in 1791 to a poor family in the Newington, Surrey village of South London, Faraday had a difficult childhood riddled with poverty.

Faraday's mother stayed at home to take care of Michael and his three siblings, and his father was a blacksmith who was often too ill to work steadily, which meant that the children frequently went without food. Despite this, Faraday grew up a curious child, questioning everything and always feeling an urgent need to know more. He learned to read at Sunday school for the Christian sect the family belonged to called the Sandemanians, which greatly influenced the way he approached and interpreted nature.

At the age of 13, he became an errand boy for a bookbinding shop in London, where he would read every book that he bound and decided that one day he would write his own. At this bookbinding shop, Faraday became interested in the concept of energy, specifically force, through an article he read in the third edition of Encyclopædia Britannica. Because of his early reading and experiments with the idea of force, he was able to make important discoveries in electricity later in life and eventually became a chemist and physicist.

However, it wasn't until Faraday attended chemical lectures by Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London that he was able to finally pursue his studies in chemistry and science. After attending the lectures, Faraday bound the notes he had taken and sent them to Davy to apply for an apprenticeship under him, and a few months later, he began as Davy's lab assistant.

Apprenticeships and Early Studies in Electricity

Davy was one of the leading chemists of the day when Faraday joined him in 1812, having discovered sodium and potassium and studying the decomposition of muriatic (hydrochloric) acid that yielded the discovery of chlorine. Following the atomic theory of Ruggero Giuseppe Boscovich, Davy and Faraday began to interpret the molecular structure of such chemicals, which would greatly influence Faraday's ideas about electricity.

When Faraday's second apprenticeship under Davy ended in late 1820, Faraday knew about as much chemistry as anyone else at the time, and he used this newfound knowledge to continue experiments in the fields of electricity and chemistry. In 1821, he married Sarah Barnard and took up permanent residence at the Royal Institution, where he would conduct research on electricity and magnetism.

Faraday built two devices to produce what he called electromagnetic rotation, a continuous circular motion from the circular magnetic force around a wire. Unlike his contemporaries at the time, Faraday interpreted electricity as more of a vibration than the flow of water through pipes and began to experiment based off of this concept.

One of his first experiments after discovering electromagnetic rotation was attempting to pass a ray of polarized light through an electrochemically decomposing solution to detect the intermolecular strains the current would produce. However, throughout the 1820s, repeated experiments yielded no results. It would be another 10 years before Faraday made a huge breakthrough in chemistry.

Discovering Electromagnetic Induction

In the next decade, Faraday began his great series of experiments in which he discovered electromagnetic induction. These experiments would form the basis of the modern electromagnetic technology that's still used today.

In 1831, using his "induction ring"—the first electronic transformer—Faraday made one of his greatest discoveries: electromagnetic induction, the "induction" or generation of electricity in a wire by means of the electromagnetic effect of a current in another wire.

In the second series of experiments in September 1831 he discovered magneto-electric induction: the production of a steady electric current. To do this, Faraday attached two wires through a sliding contact to a copper disc. By rotating the disc between the poles of a horseshoe magnet, he obtained a continuous direct current, creating the first generator. From his experiments came devices that led to the modern electric motor, generator, and transformer.

Continued Experiments, Death, and Legacy

Faraday continued his electrical experiments throughout much of his later life. In 1832, he proved that the electricity induced from a magnet, voltaic electricity produced by a battery, and static electricity were all the same. He also did significant work in electrochemistry, stating the First and Second Laws of Electrolysis, which laid the foundation for that field and another modern industry.

Faraday passed away in his home in Hampton Court on August 25, 1867, at the age of 75. He was buried at Highgate Cemetery in North London. A memorial plaque was set up in his honor at Westminster Abbey Church, near Isaac Newton's burial spot. 

Faraday's influence extended to a great many leading scientists. Albert Einstein was known to have had a portrait of Faraday on his wall in his study, where it hung alongside pictures of legendary physicists Sir Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell.

Among those who praised his achievements were Earnest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics. Of Faraday he once stated,

"When we consider the magnitude and extent of his discoveries and their influence on the progress of science and of industry, there is no honour too great to pay to the memory of Faraday, one of the greatest scientific discoverers of all time."
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Nguyen, Tuan C. "A Biography of Michael Faraday, Inventor of the Electric Motor." ThoughtCo, Oct. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/michael-faraday-inventor-4059933. Nguyen, Tuan C. (2020, October 28). A Biography of Michael Faraday, Inventor of the Electric Motor. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/michael-faraday-inventor-4059933 Nguyen, Tuan C. "A Biography of Michael Faraday, Inventor of the Electric Motor." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/michael-faraday-inventor-4059933 (accessed March 22, 2023).