10 Electrifying Facts About Michael Faraday

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iStock

This world-changing genius was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, Michael Faraday refused to let his background stand in his way.

1. HE WAS LARGELY SELF-EDUCATED.

In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father, James, was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support a wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, young Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, with the teen's primary job being the delivery and recovery of loaned-out newspapers.

Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, he mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, hungrily reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.

Like most lower-class boys, Faraday's formal schooling was very limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself a great deal—especially about chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."

2. A 300-PAGE NOTEBOOK LAUNCHED HIS SCIENTIFIC CAREER.

Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0 

Sir Humphry Davy (above) left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, the man discovered no less than five elements, including calcium and boron. An excellent public speaker, Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution consistently drew huge crowds. 

Twenty-year-old Faraday attended four of these presentations in 1812, having received tickets from a customer. As Davy spoke, Faraday jotted down detailed notes, which he then compiled and bound into a little book. Faraday sent his 300-page transcript to Davy. Duly impressed, the seasoned scientist eventually hired him as a lab assistant. Later in life, Davy was asked to name the greatest discovery he'd ever made. His answer: "Michael Faraday."

Tension would nevertheless erupt between mentor and protégé. As Faraday's accomplishments began to eclipse his own, Davy accused the younger man of plagiarizing another scientist's work (this rumor was swiftly discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.

3. IF IT WEREN'T FOR FARADAY, WE MIGHT NOT HAVE ELECTRIC POWER.

On September 3, 1821, Faraday built a device that ushered technology into the modern era. One year earlier, Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted had demonstrated that when an electric current flows through a wire, a magnetic field is created around it. Faraday capitalized on this revelation. Inside the Royal Society basement, he began what was arguably his most groundbreaking experiment by placing a magnet in the bottom of a mercury-filled glass container. Dangling overhead was a wire, which Faraday connected to a battery. Once an electric current was conducted through the wire, it began rotating around the magnet.

Faraday had just built the world's first electric motor. How could he possibly top himself? By building the world's first electric generator. His first experiment was comprised of a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. To this day, most electricity is made using the same principles.

4. FARADAY INVENTED THE RUBBER BALLOON.

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By today's standards, his early models would look shabby. Made via pressing two sheets of rubber together, Faraday's balloons were used to contain hydrogen during his experiments. Faraday created his first in 1824 and was quick to praise the bag's “considerable ascending power.” Toy manufacturers started distributing these the following year.

5. HE'S ALSO THE GRANDFATHER OF MODERN REFRIGERATORS.

In 1823, Faraday sealed a sample of chlorine hydrate inside a V-shaped tube. As he heated one end and cooled the other simultaneously, the scientist noticed that a peculiar yellow liquid was starting to form. Curious, he broke open the tube. Without warning, a sudden, violent explosion sent glass shards flying everywhere. Mercifully uninjured, he smelled a strong scent of chlorine in the air.

It didn't take him very long to figure out what had happened. Inside the tube, pressure was building, which liquefied the gas. Upon puncturing the glass, he'd released this pressure and, afterwards, the liquid reverted into its gaseous state. This sudden evaporation came with an interesting side-effect: it cooled down the surrounding air. Quite unintentionally, Faraday thus set the stage for the very first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.

6. HE BECAME AN ANTI-POLLUTION CRUSADER.

Britain's industrialization came at a malodorous price. As London grew more crowded during the mid-1800s, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames with increasing regularity. Naturally, the area didn't smell like a rose. In 1855, Faraday penned an oft-reproduced open letter about the problem, imploring the authorities to take action. “If we neglect this subject,” he wrote, “we cannot expect to do so with impunity; nor ought we be surprised if, ere many years are over, a hot season give us sad proof for the folly of our carelessness.”

Just as Faraday predicted, a broiling summer forced Londoners of all stripes to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament hastily responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill. Gradually, the putrid stench began to dissipate.

7. HE STARTED THE ROYAL SOCIETY'S CHRISTMAS LECTURE TRADITION.

Alexander Blaikley, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Society, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong today. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of layman-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of WWII), a prominent scientist has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday himself was the presenter on no less than 19 occasions.

8. BRILLIANT AS FARADAY WAS, HE STRUGGLED WITH MATH.

Towards the end of his life, Faraday's lack of formal education finally caught up with him. An underprivileged childhood had rendered him mathematically illiterate, a severe handicap for a professional scientist. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't support the notion with mathematics, it wasn't taken seriously. Salvation for him came in the form of a young physicist named James Clerk Maxwell. Familial wealth had enabled Maxwell to pursue math and—in 1864—he released equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's hunch.

9. AS TIME WORE ON, HE STRUGGLED WITH MEMORY LOSS.

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At the age of 48, Faraday's once-sharp memory started faltering. Stricken by an illness that rendered him unable to work for three years, he wrestled with vertigo, unsteadiness, and other symptoms. Following this "extended vacation" [PDF], he returned to the Royal Society, where he experimented away until his early 70s.

However, Faraday was still prone to inexplicable spurts of sudden giddiness, depression, and extreme forgetfulness. “[My] bad memory,” he wrote, “both loses recent things and sometimes suggests old ones as new.” Nobody knows what caused this affliction, though some blame it on overexposure to mercury.

10. EINSTEIN KEPT A PORTRAIT OF FARADAY IN HIS BERLIN HOME.

Fittingly, the father of modern physics regarded Faraday as a personal hero. Once, upon receiving a book about him, Einstein remarked, “This man loved mysterious Nature as a lover loves his distant beloved.”

Kodak’s New Cameras Don't Just Take Photos—They Also Print Them

Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Your Instagram account wishes it had this clout.
Kodak

Snapping a photo and immediately sharing it on social media is definitely convenient, but there’s still something so satisfying about having the printed photo—like you’re actually holding the memory in your hands. Kodak’s new STEP cameras now offer the best of both worlds.

As its name implies, the Kodak STEP Instant Print Digital Camera, available for $70 on Amazon, lets you take a picture and print it out on that very same device. Not only do you get to skip the irksome process of uploading photos to your computer and printing them on your bulky, non-portable printer (or worse yet, having to wait for your local pharmacy to print them for you), but you never need to bother with ink cartridges or toner, either. The Kodak STEP comes with special 2-inch-by-3-inch printing paper inlaid with color crystals that bring your image to life. There’s also an adhesive layer on the back, so you can easily stick your photos to laptop covers, scrapbooks, or whatever else could use a little adornment.

There's a 10-second self-timer, so you don't have to ask strangers to take your group photos.Kodak

For those of you who want to give your photos some added flair, you might like the Kodak STEP Touch, available for $130 from Amazon. It’s similar to the regular Kodak STEP, but the LCD touch screen allows you to edit your photos before you print them; you can also shoot short videos and even share your content straight to social media.

If you want to print photos from your smartphone gallery, there's the Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer. This portable $80 printer connects to any iOS or Android device with Bluetooth capabilities and can print whatever photos you send to it.

The Kodak STEP Instant Mobile Photo Printer connects to an app that allows you to add filters and other effects to your photos. Kodak

All three Kodak STEP devices come with some of that magical printer paper, but you can order additional refills, too—a 20-sheet set costs $8 on Amazon.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

15 Fascinating Facts About Fatbergs

A piece of fatberg from the sewer systems under London's Whitechapel neighborhood on display at the Museum of London. And if you think this piece is gross, you should have seen the fatberg when it was in the sewer.
A piece of fatberg from the sewer systems under London's Whitechapel neighborhood on display at the Museum of London. And if you think this piece is gross, you should have seen the fatberg when it was in the sewer.

Lurking in the sewer systems under your feet could be a threat so horrifying, so disgusting, that the mere mention of it sends a shiver down the spines of sanitation specialists everywhere: Fatbergs, mounds of grease capable of growing to massive proportions and blocking the flow of sewage with expensive—and potentially disastrous—consequences. Here’s what you need to know about fatbergs, and how you can help prevent them.

1. The word fatberg was coined in 2008.

It takes inspiration from the word iceberg, and first appeared in print in a story referencing photos of pollution on a beach in the January 22, 2008 edition of the Birmingham Post: “particularly memorable are the large, rock-like lumps of cooking fat [Alistair] Grant calls ‘fatbergs,’” the paper said. The word was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015.

2. Fatbergs are made of fats, oils, and greases, or FOG.

“Fatbergs form from a buildup of fats, oils, and greases—called FOG for short—in the sewer pipes,” says Kimberly Worsham, founder of FLUSH (Facilitated Learning for Universal Sanitation and Hygiene), a company that, through edutainment events and advisory consulting, aims to change how the world perceives and does sanitation work. “This can include soap scum, dairy dregs, congealed fat from food, industrial grease, etc.”

Lots of the grease comes from restaurants whose sinks aren’t equipped with grease traps, but individual households contribute to fatbergs, too. “Your Thanksgiving food scraps are part of the next fatberg,” Worsham tells Mental Floss by email. “There’s a lot of fat in our holiday meals that are prime for fatberg parties in the sewers—all because we’re lazy and don’t want to open the trash bin.”

All that FOG, along with human waste, settles into crevices in the sewer pipes. The fat interacts with calcium—which can either come from concrete pipes or water in the system that has flowed over concrete—and undergoes the process of saponification, or turning into soap. “After a while, more FOG bits build up together on the sides of the pipes, creating congestion in the sewers,” Worsham says.

3. Fatbergs are as old as sewers.

“Fatbergs have been around since as long as humans had sewers—at least since the Roman Empire had its Cloaca Maxima,” Worsham says. “We have evidence that Roman slaves would have to go pull out the stuck fatty bits from the sewers. Fatbergs were actually the reason a guy developed the grease trap in the 1880s because he was rightfully sure that fat would destroy the sewer systems eventually. But most fatbergs were relatively small compared to the ones we see nowadays—the magnitude has just increased a ton in the last decade or two.”

4. We have wet wipes to blame for today’s fatbergs.

Wet wipes are a scourge upon the world’s sewer systems. Despite what their packaging claims, wet wipes are not flushable—and doing so has contributed to fatbergs in a big way. “We started seeing the instances of these larger and sometimes mega fatbergs popping up in big cities like London around the time the popularity of adults using wet wipes really started to boom, which was about a decade ago,” Worsham says. She describes wet wipes as “absorbent cotton bastards” that, unlike toilet paper, don’t dissolve in water but instead are great at grabbing grease. “Imagine a bunch of fat-soaked wet wipes in a sewer about 2 feet wide—they’re going to get together and clump up.” Because they don’t dissolve, wet wipes also wreak havoc on our waste treatment plants.

5. Weird things are found in fatbergs.

People put a lot of things in their toilets, so a wide range of stuff has turned up in fatbergs, including condoms, tampons, dental floss, syringes, drugs, and wet wipes. Bones and false teeth have also been found in fatbergs, as have a typewriter and a bowling ball. “I think the fact that they’ve found stuff like whole toilets and mop heads in fatbergs is pretty weird—it’s very meta,” Worsham says. “Those probably somehow fell through a manhole or something, maybe.”

The composition of fatbergs, along with their size and even color, vary largely, and depends on the community where it formed. “We’re still learning quite a lot about fatbergs, and really fatbergs are not homogenous in their contents at all!” Worsham says.

But there are still some insights we can glean from them—like whether there are a lot of restaurants in an area, for example. “Some things they do find in some of the fatbergs are concentrations of drugs in certain regions,” Worsham says. “There’s this story about the South Bank fatberg in London that had a lot of performance enhancement drugs in it—more than other drugs like cocaine and MDMA—and I recall people speculating was because that was connected to an area of London that has a lot of clubs and public places where the area has a fit culture.”

6. Fatbergs can take a while to form.

According to Worsham, how long a fatberg takes to form depends on things like the type and size of pipes and what, exactly, is going into those pipes. “In London, some of the bigger fatbergs that they’ve pulled out—those 130 tons or more—took probably about a decade to create,” she says. “But I’m sure in a lot of places it takes much less time, especially in places where the pipes are smaller, and people are more careless with dumping stuff into sewers.”

7. Fatbergs show up in sewer systems around the world.

In the United States, fatbergs have been found in Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; New York City; and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Around the world, these massive mounds of fat and trash have plagued sewage systems in Canada, the UK, Singapore, and Australia. (A fatberg the size of a gas tanker truck, found in Melbourne in April 2020, is thought to have grown so big due to a toilet paper shortage brought on by COVID-19, which spurred people to buy more wet wipes.)

8. Fatbergs smell awful.

Worsham has never encountered a fatberg herself (“that could be either a good thing or a bad thing knowing me, I guess,” she says), but those who have likely wish they could forget the stench. John Love, a professor at the University of Exeter who was part of a group of scientists that performed a study on portions of a fatberg found in the sewage system in Sidmouth, England, told The New York Times that “It was my first time analyzing a fatberg, and when you smell it, you think this is going to be the last time because the smell was honking. It was awful to do, it smelled gross.” The Guardian described the smell as “a heady combination of rotting meat mixed with the odor of an unclean toilet,” while the BBC said it’s “a bit like vomit, with undertones of poo.”

9. Finding a fatberg can be a shock.

What’s it like to come upon a fatberg in a sewer? Charlie Ewart, a sewer worker in southwest England, found a 209-foot-long fatberg in Sidmouth when he went through a manhole in January 2019. He described his experience to The Guardian:

“I saw it and thought: ‘What on Earth?’ It was completely unexpected … It’s really eerie in that bit of the sewer and it does look like something out of a horror scene, all congealed and glossy and matted together with all kinds of things.”

10. Fatbergs can be massive.

It can be hard to comprehend just how big these masses of fat and debris can grow, so some comparisons can help helpful. According to Newsweek, fatbergs can reach 800 feet long, stand 6 feet tall, and weigh as much as four humpback whales. Other fatbergs in the UK have been as big as airplanes and double-decker buses and longer than the Leaning Tower of Pisa is tall. One fatberg found in the sewers under Liverpool weighed as much as 13 elephants.

11. It’s not easy—or cheap—to remove a fatberg.

Removing these giant masses clogging the sewers is no easy task. “My understanding is that they have to be removed really slowly, and with blunt force,” Worsham says. “You don’t want to break the sewer pipes by chiseling away with sharp stuff—that kind of defeats the purpose.”

Workers must don special suits to protect themselves against the contents of the fatbergs—which could potentially include things like needles—as well as noxious gases and fumes. Then, crews of workers use shovels and other blunt objects to chip away at the mass. “They’re often hard, so it takes a while,” Worsham says. “Think weeks, or maybe even months if it’s big enough.” The process is time-consuming and expensive: Cities spend millions of dollars a year fighting fatbergs. “Scientists are trying to figure out how to create bacteria that can eat up the fatbergs without needing to put people into the sewer to manually remove it,” Worsham says.

Once a fatberg is removed, “Places either study them to understand them, or they go into landfill[s],” Worsham says. “There are stories that in China, they scoop up the fatberg oils from sewers and crudely refine them to use at sidewalk food stalls as gutter oil … so there’s that.”

In 2018, scientists at the University of British Columbia developed a method for turning fatbergs into biofuel and implemented it in pilot testing programs, but there’s more work to be done in that area.

12. Fatbergs are dangerous.

As fascinating as fatbergs are, there’s no question that they’re bad news. “Fatbergs work like the clogging of a heart artery,” Worsham says. “If we don’t move them, they start to build up, and the sewer system has something like the equivalent of a heart attack.” With no way to get through the fatberg, the waste in the sewer backs up into your home and the surrounding environment, including waterways and wetlands.

“There’s still pathogenic poo in the fatbergs, too, on top of other wacky and hazardous things like needles,” Worsham says. “Once the fatbergs cause sewage spills, those pathogens become intermingled in our communities and surroundings, and we can get sick from that.”

Then there’s the fact that fatbergs are dangerous to the people removing them: “If you’re a sewer worker trying to clean up a fatberg, getting pricked by a sharp object in a fatberg has more personal and acute dangerousness to it—you don’t know what is in the needle, or who was using it, or why they were using it, or how,” she says.

13. A fatberg was put on display in London.

In 2017, workers discovered an 820-foot fatberg in the sewer system under London’s Whitechapel neighborhood, which took nine weeks to clear. A piece of that fatberg, which was nicknamed “The Beast” and “The Monster of Whitechapel,” went on display at the Museum of London in 2018. The exhibit was aptly called “Fatberg!” and featured a mannequin dressed in protective gear alongside the tools needed to get rid of a fatberg. The specimen itself was contained in a special sealed unit that was placed inside a display case.

“Displaying part of a fatberg has been on the museum’s wish list for a few years and when we heard about the Whitechapel fatberg—the biggest one ever found in the UK—we knew we had to act quickly to secure a sample,” curator Vyki Sparkes said in an interview on the museum’s website. “It’s grand, magnificent, fascinating, and disgusting. The perfect museum object!”

Flies hatched from the fatberg while it was on display; the specimen also changed color and sweated a bit. According to collections care manager Andy Holbrook, who is the only person to handle the fatberg outside of the display, and had to wear full protective gear while doing so, “The fatberg samples were lighter than they looked, it felt a little bit like pumice stone, but crumbly in texture. But Fatberg has evolved since it’s been on display.” When it was first acquired “it was waxy and wet,” but a year after its removal from the sewer, it was “much lighter, with a bone-like color and the texture has become like soap.”

These days, the fatberg is off display and in quarantine under Holbrook’s supervision. It’s the only item in the collection with a livecam (called the “Fatcam”), which you can watch here. The fatberg was air-dried to preserve it, but that hasn’t stopped it from changing—in fact, it’s developed a toxic aspergillus mold “in the form of visible yellow pustules,” according to the museum’s website.

14. Scientists are studying fatbergs.

There’s a ton we don’t know about fatbergs. “We don’t understand how to get rid of them cheaply, what happens to them over time and how they evolve, or all of the things they could potentially tell us about our communities,” Worsham says.

But science is on the case: In addition to performing “autopsies” on fatbergs, scientists have also performed molecular analysis on a fatberg, which revealed the presence of parasite eggs and bacteria like Campylobacter, E. coli, and Listeria, as well as antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Scientists have even analyzed the DNA of a fatberg. Worsham likens it to “a new kind of forensics study.”

15. You can help stop fatbergs.

Are you concerned about having sewage backing up into your home or business after reading this piece? There’s action you can take.

The No.1 thing commercial businesses can do to stop fatbergs is to install grease traps. “A lot of fatbergs in recent history have been located near restaurant districts, and restaurants dump their fats and oils down the drain. So, don’t do that, and that helps prevent fatbergs a lot,” Worsham says.

Individuals can do their part, too, by not throwing just anything in the toilet. “Our sewers are often used as trash bins, but they don’t work the same way. That means you need to not flush anything down the toilet that’s not coming directly out of your body, water, or isn’t legitimate toilet paper. Literally, nothing else can go down the toilet,” Worsham says. “And when you’re putting stuff down the drain, don’t dump coffee grounds, tea leaves, whole bits of foods and fats, or any of that stuff. You’d be surprised how things easily bind up fats and greases in the sewers. For instance, floss works almost like a lasso, binding up fats together that can contribute to larger fat stores.”

Finally, Worsham says, “please, never ever put wet wipes down the toilet. Personally, I’m a big bidet fan and I think that everyone should dump their wet wipes habit and start using bidets. They’re glorious.” If you’re interested in buying a bidet, we have a few recommendations here.