Today, a learning-disabled boy is saved in a
bookbindery. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The great English scientist
Michael Faraday was born poor in 1791 -- the
son of an out-of-work blacksmith. His prospects
were terrible. But Faraday had an ace up his
sleeve. He was dyslexic.
On the one hand, he spoke and wrote with great
difficulty. His memory played tricks on him. He did
poorly with the symbolic language of mathematics.
But, on the other hand, he was gifted with an
expanded ability to visualize -- to see things
Faraday's break came at 14. He was apprenticed to a
London bookbinder. There he gained the manual and
mechanical dexterity that made him one of the great
experimentalists of all time.
He also gained an education there. Not all people
who handle books feel they have to read every word.
But Faraday did. He took notes. He ingested. One of
those books was
Jane Marcet's Conversations in
Chemistry. It came out when he was 15.
Jane Marcet wrote technical books for young people.
After chemistry she wrote about economics and
philosophy. She wrote about Africa. She knew how to
weave the grand fabric of science without math.
Marcet was just what Faraday needed.
During Faraday's last year as an apprentice, Sir
Humphry Davy was giving a series of dazzling
public lectures in chemistry. Faraday went and took
careful notes. He bound them in a book and sent it
to Davy. In 1813 Davy hired him as an assistant.
By 1824 the Royal Society had made Faraday a fellow
for work on electromagnetism. In one experiment,
he'd used an electric field to spin a magnet. That
led to the invention of electric motors. He went on
to explain induction, electrolysis, dielectric
constants. He eventually set the stage for
Maxwell's field theory.
All that would -- and does -- fill books. The quiet
Faraday had found his voice. His lecture
demonstrations were eloquent.
He was part of a gentle, off-beat, fundamentalist
sect -- the Sandemanians. They believed in forming
loving communities. So, while other scientists
waged scientific priority wars, Faraday created
science lectures for young people.
He used science to express his belief in the unity
of nature. The agnostic physicist John Tyndall said
Faraday "drinks from a fount on Sunday which
refreshes his soul for a week."
He must have. For this genius educated in a
bookbindery -- this lover of children and nature --
this reader of books -- this electric inventor --
had near mystic means for seeing through to the
very core of things.
A German physicist, rightly in awe of Faraday's
electric genius, said it best: "Faraday," he said,
"smells the truth."
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Williams, L.P., Faraday, Michael. Dictionary of
Scientific Biography (C.C. Gilespie, ed.).
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1980.
West, T.G., In The Mind's Eye. New
York: Prometheus Books, 1991. See especially
Agassi, J., Faraday as a Natural
Philosopher. Chicago: The University of
Chicago Press, 1971.
Jerrold, W., Michael Faraday: Man of
Science. London: S.W. Partridge & Co.,
Alic, M., Hypatia's Heritage. Boston:
Beacon Press, 1986, Chapter 12.
Jones, T.P., New Conversations on
Chemistry ... Philadelphia: John Grigg,
1833. (This is an updating of Marcet's book which
was published in 1805. I couldn't find her
Marcet, J. Conversations on Political
Economy ... (5th ed.). London: Longman etc.,
Marcet, J., The History of Africa ...
London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1830.
See also the Encyclopaedia Britannica
entry on Faraday.
For more on Faraday see Episodes 905, 1011, 1046, and 1067. For more on Marcet's
textboooks, see Episodes 744, 745,
828, 900, and 950.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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