Physicist Michael Faraday was born into poverty on September 22, 1791. Fortunately for us, the world-changing genius refused to let his background stand in his way.
1. Michael Faraday was mostly self-educated.
In Faraday's boyhood home, money was always tight. His father James was a sickly blacksmith who struggled to support his wife and four children in one of London's poorer outskirts. At age 13, Michael Faraday started helping the family make ends meet. Bookseller George Ribeau (sometimes spelled Riebau) took him on as an errand boy in 1804, delivering and recovering loaned-out newspapers.
Shortly after Faraday's 14th birthday, Ribeau offered him a free apprenticeship. Over the next seven years, Faraday mastered the trade of bookbinding. After hours, Faraday remained in Ribeau's store, reading many of the same volumes he'd bound together.
Like most boys of the lower classes, Faraday's formal schooling was limited. Between those bookshelves, however, he taught himself chemistry, physics, and a mysterious force called "electricity."
2. A 300-page notebook launched Michael Faraday’s scientific career.
Sir Humphry Davy left a huge mark on science. In the year 1808 alone, he discovered no fewer than five elements, including calcium and boron. 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 discredited) and tried to block his admission to the Royal Society.
3. If it weren’t for Michael 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 Institution basement, he began a 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 comprised a simple ring of wires and cotton through which he passed a magnet. By doing so, he found that a current was generated. Most electricity is still made using the same principles.
4. Michael Faraday invented the rubber balloon.
By today's balloon standards, his early models look shabby. Faraday's balloons, made from pressing two sheets of rubber together, 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. You can thank Michael Faraday for your refrigerator.
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 yellow liquid was starting to form. He broke open the tube, which triggered a violent explosion of glass shards. Faraday, uninjured, detected a strong scent of chlorine in the air.
It didn't take him long to figure out what had happened. Pressure built up within the tube and liquefied the gas. Puncturing the glass released the pressure and the liquid reverted into a gas. This sudden evaporation cooled down the surrounding air. Unintentionally, Faraday had set the stage for the first ice-making machines and refrigeration units.
6. Michael Faraday campaigned against pollution.
As London grew more crowded during the 19th century, garbage and fecal matter were dumped into the River Thames regularly. You can imagine the stench. In 1855, Faraday penned an 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 to hold their noses. Dubbed “the Great Stink,” the warmer months of 1858 sent the Thames' rancid odor wafting all over the city. Parliament responded with a comprehensive sewage reform bill.
7. Michael Faraday began the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures.
Faraday understood the importance of making science accessible to the public. In 1825, while employed by the Royal Institution, he spearheaded an annual series that's still going strong. That holiday season, engineer John Millington delivered a set of lay-friendly lectures on “natural philosophy.” Every year thereafter (excluding 1939–1942 because of World War II), a prominent speaker has been invited to follow in his footsteps. Well-known Christmas lecturers include David Attenborough (1973), Carl Sagan (1977), and Richard Dawkins (1991). Faraday was the presenter on 19 occasions.
8. Michael Faraday struggled with math.
Faraday’s lack of formal education resulted in a sub-par understanding of mathematics, which sometimes hampered his work. In 1846, he hypothesized that light itself is an electromagnetic phenomenon, but because Faraday couldn't demonstrate the theory in mathematical form, it wasn't taken seriously. In 1864, physicist James Clerk Maxwell published equations [PDF] that helped prove Faraday's theory.
9. Michael Faraday might have suffered from mercury poisoning.
Faraday's memory started faltering when he was 48. He experienced vertigo and other neurological symptoms, but the cause was a mystery. Following a three-year hiatus, he returned to the Royal Institution, where he experimented in his laboratory until his early 70s.
Faraday still had inexplicable spurts of 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 the syndrome, though some believe his exposure to mercury was the source.
10. Albert Einstein kept a portrait of Michael Faraday in his home..
A version of this story originally ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.