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About electric motors and Michael Faraday


Michael Faraday, 1842
Painted by Thomas Phillips
National Portrait Gallery

Today, in 1831, Michael Faraday demonstrated how to produce electricity. His discoveries led to the invention of the electrical transformer and the electric motor. He is the man behind the electric car.

The son of a blacksmith, Michael Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder in London where he read every scientific book he could get his hands on, and conducted experiments. He joined a Philosophical Society, meeting every week to hear lectures on scientific topics and discuss scientific ideas.

When he was twenty-one, he heard scientist Humphrey Davy speak. Faraday persuaded Davy to employ him. He served as Davy's Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution and for two years as Davy's assistant and valet.

Faraday was an experimental genius, but it took him some time to break free and do the research he longed to do.

Finally, on 3–4 September 1821, Faraday proved that "a vertically mounted wire carrying an electric current would rotate continuously round a magnet protruding from a bowl of mercury. This phenomenon, which Faraday called electromagnetic rotation, showed that it was possible to produce continuous motion from the interaction of electricity and magnetism" (DNB).

Ten years later, on 29 August 1831, he discovered electromagnetic induction – the production of electric current by a change in magnetic intensity.

"Very quickly after this discovery, Faraday found how electricity could be generated by passing a magnet in and out of a helix wound with wire. These devices were, in effect, the first transformer and dynamo" (DNB). His discoveries established the practical use of electricity.

Faraday also liquefied chlorine, isolated benzene, and established the laws of electrolysis. With William Whewell he coined many concepts - electrode, electrolyte, anode, cathode and ion.

In the 1840s he seemed to be at a loss to decide what he would explore next. Then William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) asked him a question at a lecture. Faraday began experimenting with heavy glass, and discovered that magnetism was a universal property of matter. He gave a lecture attended by James Clerk Maxwell that laid the foundations of the field theory of electromagnetism - and modern communications.

Faraday was a charming man able to explain complex ideas simply. He taught chemistry to a generation of Royal Engineers. He began a popular science lecture series for adults and another for children that continue today. In the 1840s he made sure that women could become members of the Royal Institution.

Calmly confident that "The book of nature which we have to read is written by the finger of God", Faraday faithfully served the poor and ill all his adult life, and refused to develop poison gas for use during the Crimean War.

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