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This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Royal Institution's online course, Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp . Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Humphry Davy is sometimes referred to as the “discoverer of Michael Faraday”, the distinction he’d not have relished. Now, standing in Faraday’s magnetic laboratory, we will look at the difficult, frequently ambiguous relationship between the two men, whose age difference was only 13 years. Faraday was born in 1791 in the south London district of Newington Butts. His parents had moved there from Westmorland three years before. His father, a blacksmith, was a member of the Sandamanian Church, a small neo Calvinist sect of literalist Christianity that no longer exists. Faraday was committed to it throughout his life, making his Confession of Faith in 1821, later serving as a deacon and elder, and marrying into another Sandamanian family.

Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds His religious commitments were one of the issues that sharply differentiated him from Humphry Davy. As a religious Dissenter, Faraday could not attend either Oxford or Cambridge universities, which at that time required their students to sign the Anglican Church’s Thirty-nine Articles of Faith. Instead, at the age of 14, he became apprentice for seven years as a book binder with George Riebau of Blandford Street. During that time, Faraday read many of the scientific books he had to bind, and the scientific entries from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Furthermore, Riebau allowed him to carry out small scale chemical and electrical experiments in his shop. Riebau also permitted Faraday to attend lectures at the City Philosophical Society that met in Fleet Street.

Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds Faraday’s detailed notes of these lectures are in these four volumes. One of Riebau’s customers saw these notebooks and gave Faraday tickets to attend Davy’s final four lectures at the Royal Institution in 1812. These were Davy’s final lectures, because his marriage to a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece, meant he could retire at the age of 33. Faraday took detailed notes of Davy’s lectures and sent them to Davy asking for a job in science. After a highly contingent set of circumstances, he was appointed Laboratory Assistant in the Royal Institution in spring 1813. Six months later, Davy was given permission to visit France, despite the continuing war with Britain, then in its 21st year.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds He invited Faraday to accompany him as an assistant, amenuensis, and reluctant valet. With Lady Davy and her maid, the group toured the Continent for 18 months, returning after Napoleon’s escape from Elba made a political situation too unstable. After their return in the spring of 1815, Faraday helped Davy with inventing the safety lamp, and generally learnt his new career as a chemist. Following Hans Oersted’s discovery of electromagnetism, Faraday was asked in 1821 to write a review article on the enormous amount of work subsequently undertaken by men of science throughout Europe. Faraday found the descriptions of the experiments incomprehensible, and decided to repeat them. On the 3rd and 4th of September he discovered electromagnetic rotations, the principle behind the electric motor.

Skip to 3 minutes and 14 seconds Because he had seen some experiments performed by Davy and his friend, William Wollaston, Faraday was accused of plagiarism. Then in 1823, Faraday, while performing an experiment undertaken at Davy’s suggestion, entirely unexpectedly liquefied a gas, chlorine, for the first time. In his publication, he gave Davy no acknowledgment. This may have led to Davy, from the Presidential chair of the Royal Society of London, reviving the accusation of plagiarism. The details are obscure, probably deliberately so, and Davy and Faraday eventually drew up a joint statement attempting to clarify the matter. Faraday was then nominated for election to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of London. But Davy as President, probably with a mixture of personal and political motives, opposed this election.

Skip to 4 minutes and 1 second Nevertheless, Faraday was elected, and Davy admitted him as a Fellow in early 1824. This led to a permanent breakdown in relations between the two men. Davy now turned to exploiting Faraday’s undoubted abilities. For example, Davy got Faraday to be the founding, unpaid secretary at the Athenaeum Club, which involved him in writing hundreds of letters. A longer term instance of Davy’s exploitation of Faraday was involving him in the joint Royal Society of London and Board of Longitude project to improve optical glass. This took up much of Faraday’s time in the latter years of the 1820s. He became so frustrated that in 1829 he opened negotiations to move to the Royal Military Academy.

Skip to 4 minutes and 46 seconds But Davy then died in Geneva, and Faraday quickly dropped the glass work. Ideally, in a patronage relationship both sides should benefit. However, Davy does not seem to have known how to cope with Faraday’s growing stature, and so simply exploited Faraday’s talents. An unhappy end to what was a significant relationship for both of them, in that it established Faraday’s career, but cast a shadow on Davy’s subsequent reputation, which it continues to do.

Davy and Faraday

Watch this video, in which Professor Frank James discusses the difficult and complex relationship that existed between Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday.

(You might remember that in Week 1, Dr Peter Wothers recreated an experiment that Faraday witnessed at Davy’s lecture).

  • How do you account for the difficulties Davy had in his relationship with Faraday?

  • Does knowing about Davy’s treatment of Faraday alter the way that you think about Davy?

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University