Story that dulls a really bright spark

Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century
August 27, 2004

Yet another popular biography of Faraday. Following in the recent footsteps of John and Mary Gribbin, Colin Russell, James Hamilton, Anne Fullick and Anita Ganeri, Iwan Morus' book continues the rather peculiar approach towards biographies of Faraday that has existed since the 1930s if not before. It pursues the well-known story of Faraday's rise from obscurity as a London apprentice bookbinder to fame as the foremost scientific figure of the mid-19th century. Like the other popular biographies, it contains many quite serious errors of fact and does not add anything to our knowledge of Faraday, or indeed of 19th-century physical science generally.

The twist to this book, however, is Morus's rather curious attitude when he suggests that Faraday was not that significant a figure.

For instance, Morus seeks to play down Faraday's influence on James Clerk Maxwell despite Maxwell's frequent assertion that Faraday's concept of the electromagnetic field was the starting point for his own fundamental researches. Such disparagement is, I think, related to class, in that many middle-class university-educated historians have had difficulty in understanding how Faraday, a non-university-educated person of working-class background, came to be in a position to make such fundamental scientific discoveries as electromagnetic induction, the magneto-optical effect and so on. (It must be unconsciously ironic that this book appears in a series titled Revolutions in Science!). Furthermore, Morus plays down the significance of Faraday's discoveries for electrical engineering. While I am inclined to agree that to call Faraday the father of electrical engineering is an overstatement, nevertheless Morus would have done well to consider Faraday's role in the practical electrification of lighthouses which he fails to discuss. Indeed, there are many other areas of Faraday's life and work (for example, in chemistry, his support of orphanages and so on) that are simply not discussed in this book.

Morus suggests that other figures from 19th-century electrical science should be studied along with Faraday. I could not agree more with this, but I find it strange that Morus then chooses to compare Faraday with relatively minor figures such as William Sturgeon - "the head of the second-rate philosophers of London", as the American Joseph Henry described him. What is needed, and what Morus does not provide, are studies of figures such as Charles Wheatstone, William Snow Harris, John Frederic Daniell and so on.

Finally, I cannot close without remarking on the poor sub-editing of the text. This and other matters, such as the lack of an index, are the fault of a publisher attempting to cut costs.

Frank A. J. L. James is reader in the history of science, Royal Institution, and editor of The Correspondence of Michael Faraday .

Michael Faraday and the Electrical Century

Author - Iwan Rhys Morus
Publisher - Icon
Pages - 240
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84046 540 9

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