No table left unturned in varied life of science

The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, Volume Four

September 22, 2000

In the seven years covered by this engrossing volume of correspondence, Michael Faraday moved visibly towards the late afternoon of his scientific life. His stature as a man of science remained undimmed and his opinion was sought as eagerly as ever on subjects ranging from lighthouses, telegraphy and the state of the River Thames to table-turning and the conservation of objects in the British Museum. As a lecturer, too, he had lost none of his power to captivate the public that attended his Friday-evening discourses at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street. In the words of George Eliot, who had just attended a discourse on the magnetic properties of gases (in 1851), "Faraday's lectures are as fashionable an amusement as the opera".

But even as he enjoyed this adulation, the clouds that darkened his later life were gathering. His wife's mounting infirmity and his own disabilities - headaches, giddiness, lapses of memory and depression - imposed constraints. The visits to the continent that he had undertaken in the 1840s ceased, and his annual escapes from the Royal Institution took him no further than the outskirts of London.

As Frank James suggests in his introduction, Faraday was beginning to adopt a more relaxed attitude to life. Yet he retained the directorship of the house and laboratory of the Royal Institution and his more relaxed outlook brought with it no diminution of power once his mind was fixed on a problem. A number of letters show him distributing diagrams composed of iron filings on waxed paper as part of his resolve to convince waverers of the physical reality of lines of force. But now practical rather than purely scientific matters tended to attract Faraday's interest. The most visible of these was the problem of the retardation and consequent distortion of telegraphic signals. As the letters he exchanged with George Biddell Airy and Macedonio Melloni after a discourse on the subject in January 1854 show, Faraday was a resolute campaigner for his opinions. Properly so. For his innovation, of associating the phenomenon with the theory of electromagnetic induction that he had advanced in the 1830s and of conceiving the metal core of the cable and its gutta-percha insulation as equivalent to a Leiden jar, set enduring parameters for the discussion of the theory of telegraphic signalling.

Resolution also marked his dismissive response to the craze for table-turning that swept Europe in the early 1850s. He was not of a temperament to stand idly by as the craze took hold. Letters from John Allen, a Shropshire clergyman, and William Edward Hickson, the former editor of the Westminster Review, described in rare detail seances in which circles of people, seated and with their fingers touching, had caused tables to rotate. Faraday's letter to The Times (June 28 1853) and an article in The Athenaeum four days later systematically ruled out electricity, magnetism, rotation of the earth, an unknown physical power and, most important, diabolical or other supernatural agency as possible causes. For Faraday, the effect resulted from "a quasi-involuntary muscular action" that caused participants' hands to exert a lateral force sufficient to cause the movement of the table.

The images of Faraday that historians have advanced since John Tyndall and Bence Jones fashioned their Faradays in the immediate aftermath of his death (in 1867) are legion, and most make at least a walk-on appearance in the 887 letters, almost two-thirds of them previously unpublished, that appear in this volume. Faraday the Sandemanian, disputing the church's ruling that a second exclusion from the community was final and irrevocable; Faraday the public yet serene man of science; and Faraday the solitary philosopher, portrayed at work in Harriet Jane Moore's painting of him in his laboratory (1852), are all present. So too are fascinating glimpses of the fabric of Victorian science. For these broader perspectives, Tyndall, Faraday's friend, admirer and eventual successor at the head of the Royal Institution, is an especially revealing correspondent. His conclusion, following the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Glasgow in 1855, that he would have contributed more to the cause of science by staying at home and avoiding an unpleasant disagreement with William Thomson on the polarity of bismuth, penetrates intriguingly behind the polite facade of the BAAS reports - and fires an early warning shot against the intrusive influence of the press, which, in Tyndall's view, blew the disagreement out of all proportion.

While our perceptions of Faraday are unlikely to be fundamentally altered by these letters, they will be enriched and Faraday's wider world will move into sharper focus. We now await two remaining volumes and the completion of one of the most important publishing ventures in the history of science in recent years.

Robert Fox is professor of the history of science, University of Oxford.

The Correspondence of Michael Faraday, Volume Four: January 1849-October 1855

Editor - Frank A. J. L. James
ISBN - 0 86341 251 3
Publisher - Institution of Electrical Engineers
Price - £75.00
Pages - 1,003

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