Faraday’s Education and the Scientific Dark Age

Michael Faraday was the leading experimental scientist of his time, and along with James Clerk Maxwell was one of the founders of electromagnetism. Similar to Darwin, his education was nothing like the standard schooling route used by most people who now become scientists. It is my hypothesis that the standard schooling route nowadays contributes to the very low “advancement : money + time invested” ratio we now have in science. Consider Faraday’s education:

– Goes to a day-school for several years.

– At 13 becomes the errand-boy for a local bookbinder, Mr. Riebau.

– At 14 becomes an apprentice of the bookbinder.

– During this time he reads from the books he is working with that interest him, including ones on reasoning, chemistry, and electricity.

– Curious about some of the experiments he has read about, he begins his own experiments in chemistry and electricity in the kitchen of his own house. (He later delivers his first lecture from the end of his kitchen table to friends.)

– At the same time, he meets a Frenchman lodging with the bookbinder, M. Masquerier, who is an artist. Masquerier teaches Faraday perspectival drawing, and lends him his books.

– One day while out walking Faraday sees a notice for lectures on natural philosophy by Mr. Tatum. He can’t afford it, but his brother, a blacksmith, gives him enough money to attend. There he meets a variety of like-minded people, and chats and strikes up correspondences.

– He meets Mr. Dance, a member of the Royal Institution and customer of the bookbinder, who takes Faraday to hear four lectures by Sir Humphry Davy, one of the leading scientists at the Royal Institution.

– At 20, his apprenticeship expires. He writes Davy, seeking employment at the Royal Institution. Soon after, Davy’s laboratory assistant gets in a brawl, and is discharged. Faraday is interviewed, and is hired as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution.

– Faraday promptly nearly gets killed in an experiment, as Davy is working with “chloride of nitrogen”, which explodes at seemingly random points.

– He is admitted as a member of the City Philosophical Society, 30-40 men who meet to discuss various topics.

– Mostly from this group he draws half a dozen or so to make a “mutual improvement plan,” who meet in the attics of the Royal Institution among other places. These people

“met of an evening to read together, and to criticise, correct, and improve each other’s pronunciation and construction of language. The discipline was very sturdy, the remarks very plain and open, and the results most valuable.” (p. 22)

– After 7 months as laboratory assistant, Sir Davy decides to travel to the Continent (having received a special pass from Emperor Napoleon), and offers to take Faraday as his amanuensis (transcriber). For 1.5 years, they travel from France to Italy to Switzerland, and then return by the Tyrol, Germany, and Holland, doing experiments, meeting natural philosophers, and absorbing the culture. As Gladstone puts it:

“This year and a half may be considered as the time of Faraday’s education; it was the period of his life that best corresponds with the collegiate course of other men who have attained high distinction in the world of thought. But his University was Europe; his professors the master whom he served, and those illustrious men to whom the renown of Davy introduced the travelers. It made him personally known, also, to foreign savants, at a time when there was little intercourse between Great Britain and the Continent; and thus he was associated with the French Academy of Sciences while still young, his works found a welcome all over Europe, and some of the best representatives of foreign science became his most intimate friends.” (p. 27)

(Extracted from Michael Faraday, by J.H. Gladstone (1872).)

The pattern seems to be a development of autonomous interest in scientific topics and experimenting – not compulsory schooling.

2 thoughts on “Faraday’s Education and the Scientific Dark Age

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