Michael Faraday

The convenience of electrical power is all around us. Like many things it is so much the background to our lives that we take it utterly for granted. Yet, in this case as in so many others, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. One giant to whom we should be grateful is Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Faraday).

Geoffrey Cantor (http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/profile/20042/52/geoffrey_cantor, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geoffrey_Cantor) offers this book as a study in the life, thought and influences of Michael Farady. It is Cantor’s principal thesis that we have an impoverished view of the man and his science if we fail to see his pre-occupation with Biblical religion. If this sounds odd, think of Isaac Newton and his obsession with the New Testament. The pursuit of science was, for Faraday, a profoundly religious experience: not as a secular alternative to sacramental religion, but in perfect harmony with the simple piety of the Sandemanian community in London with whom he shared his deepest and most cherished values. The Sandemanians were a Christian fundamentalist sect originally founded as ‘the Glasites’ in Scotland in 1730. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandemanians)

The Sandemanian connection has often been noted but rarely explored, and never in as exciting and challenging a way as here. Other facets of Faraday’s biography have tended to displace it. More accessible images of his life and career have been constructed. There is the Faraday publicly admired by Margaret Thatcher, the Faraday who without the privilege of a university education but with bags of initiative rose from book-binder’s apprentice at the age of 14 to such eminence in science that he was offered the Presidencies of the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. There is the romance of Faraday the great ‘discoverer’: of electro-magnetic rotation, of electro-magnetic induction, and of the laws of electrochemical equivalence. Because he valued the application of science and enjoyed long-term links with government agencies, he has appealed to those suspicious of the secluded ‘pure’ scientist. At least one historian of the Royal Institution has described him as a Mr. Fixit, the compliant servant of capitalist interests. Historians and philosophers of science, having reason to believe that no amount of experimental dexterity can by itself generate significant knowledge, have even fashioned a Faraday with unswerving theoretical conceptions of the world derived ultimately from Roger Joseph Boscovich, a Jesuit natural philosopher of the 18th century who had described the workings of nature not in terms of material atoms but of attractive and repulsive forces emanating from non-material centres. In an age of concern about the public understanding of science, yet another image of Faraday finds favour: the great communicator of natural knowledge, whose Friday evening discourses and children’s Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution are but the visible symbols of a lifetime’s concern about the poverty of scientific education in England. He has indeed become an icon of science. Settle down with your electric reading lamp, and get to know a man who made it all possible.


Enquire at your local library or consult http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-Faraday-Sandemanian-Scientist/dp/0333550773/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1451822226&sr=8-1 for full bibliographic detail.


If pressed for time, reach for Michael Faraday: A Very Short Introduction by Frank A.J.L James  in Oxford University Press, 2010 (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Michael-Faraday-Short-Introduction-Introductions/dp/0199574316/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1451824656&sr=8-1&keywords=very+short+introduction+faraday)


For a 45 minute podcast on this subject, listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time‘ discussion chaired by Melvyn Bragg. With Geoffrey Cantor  (Professor Emeritus of the History of Science at the University of Leeds), Laura Herz (Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford), and Frank James (Professor of the History of Science at the Royal Institution). Click on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06s9rz9


371 pages in Palgrave Macmillan

First published 1991

ISBN  978-0333550779



Professor Geoffrey Cantor


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