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Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics

Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics

by Nancy Forbes

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The story of two brilliant nineteenth-century scientists who discovered the electromagnetic field, laying the groundwork for the amazing technological and theoretical breakthroughs of the twentieth century

Two of the boldest and most creative scientists of all time were Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). This is the story of


The story of two brilliant nineteenth-century scientists who discovered the electromagnetic field, laying the groundwork for the amazing technological and theoretical breakthroughs of the twentieth century

Two of the boldest and most creative scientists of all time were Michael Faraday (1791-1867) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). This is the story of how these two men - separated in age by forty years - discovered the existence of the electromagnetic field and devised a radically new theory which overturned the strictly mechanical view of the world that had prevailed since Newton's time.

The authors, veteran science writers with special expertise in physics and engineering, have created a lively narrative that interweaves rich biographical detail from each man's life with clear explanations of their scientific accomplishments. Faraday was an autodidact, who overcame class prejudice and a lack of mathematical training to become renowned for his acute powers of experimental observation, technological skills, and prodigious scientific imagination. James Clerk Maxwell was highly regarded as one of the most brilliant mathematical physicists of the age. He made an enormous number of advances in his own right. But when he translated Faraday's ideas into mathematical language, thus creating field theory, this unified framework of electricity, magnetism and light became the basis for much of later, 20th-century physics.

Faraday's and Maxwell's collaborative efforts gave rise to many of the technological innovations we take for granted today - from electric power generation to television, and much more. Told with panache, warmth, and clarity, this captivating story of their greatest work - in which each played an equal part - and their inspiring lives will bring new appreciation to these giants of science.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
American science writer Forbes (U.S. Dept. of Defense; Imitation of Life: How Biology Is Inspiring Computing) has coauthored with Mahon (retired, British Govt. Statistical Svc.; The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell) an excellent biography of two "discoverers" (in the parlance of their time) who truly brought about the modern scientific age. Daringly, but with exacting experiments and proofs, Faraday (a scientifically adept Englishman) and his contemporary and successor Maxwell (a mathematically adept Scotsman) broke with the long tradition of the mostly mechanical worldview promulgated by Isaac Newton and uncovered much about how electricity and magnetism work. This book is rich in details about the social, scientific, and personal contexts in which these 19th-century geniuses worked, much as Daniel Kevles's The Physicists is about their 20th-century successors and is even more readable than that well-regarded work. The simple diagrams of some of Faraday's and Maxwell's devices, as well as excerpts from their letters, plus some photographic portraits, add further appeal to the title. VERDICT Fans of biographies, as well as anyone interested in science and technology (without these men, we would not have electric motors, televisions, or most of our current electronic devices) will enjoy reading about these "two modest and genial men whose combined endeavors changed the world."—Sara R. Tompson, Jet Propulsion Lab Lib., Pasadena, CA
Publishers Weekly
Science writers Forbes (Imitation of Life) and Mahon (The Man Who Changed Everything) explore the lives of ground-breaking physicists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell in this work that blends science history and lively biography. The authors describe how Faraday, a blacksmith’s son, abandoned a promising career as a bookbinder in 1813 to study the young science of electricity. Faraday’s attention to detail and skill as a “compulsive experimenter” led to the first electric motor, the first generator, and the idea that electricity and magnetism travel as waves, like sound and light. His work supported the concept of fields, but his lack of mathematical ability meant few took him seriously. Then Maxwell, a young professor from Marischal College in Aberdeen, Scotland, developed the math to back up Faraday’s ideas. A prodigy with a “quicksilver mind” prone to expressing his feelings through verse, Maxwell was fascinated with Faraday’s fields. Through Maxwell, these fields became a means of storing electromagnetic energy and transmitting forces to cause magnetic attraction and repulsion. Accessible writing and a feel for character make this an interesting look at two scientists whose work defined an era and set the course for modern physics. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
"It's just the best book of its kind I have ever read, and I just hugely enjoyed it. Couldn't put it down. [Their discovery] was a fabulous human achievement."
Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, on CNBC's "Squawk Box"

“Compelling. …A lively account of the men and their times and a brilliant exposition of the scientific circumstances and significance of their work.”
Kirkus Reviews, STARRED REVIEW

“The life and science of these two giants of nineteenth-century physics is beautifully documented and narrated in this riveting book.”
Eric D’Hoker, Distinguished Professor of Physics, UCLA; past president, Aspen Center for Physics

“Perhaps the names of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell aren’t as well known as Newton or Einstein, but they should be. The book traces their amazing collaboration.... But as equally fascinating as the tale of the discovery is that of the men behind it.... A fascinating true tale of the lives of two essential men of physics!” —AstroGuyz
“Blends science history and lively biography. …Accessible writing and a feel for character make this an interesting look at two scientists whose work defined an era and set the course for modern physics.”
Publishers Weekly

“Fans of biographies, as well as anyone interested in science and technology…will enjoy reading about these ‘two modest and genial men whose combined endeavors changed the world.’”
Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-09
Forbes (Imitation of Life: How Biology Is Inspiring Computing, 2004, etc.) and Mahon (Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity, 2009, etc.) offer a compelling new interpretation of the seminal importance of the discoveries of Michael Faraday (1791–1861) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879). The authors explain "the way that Faraday and Maxwell's concept of the electromagnetic field transformed scientists' view of the physical world," beginning with Faraday's anticipation of a unified field theory that would include the force of gravity as well as electromagnetism and the propagation of light. His ideas were so advanced that not only did he reject the Newtonian concept of action-at-distance, then prevalent among scientists, but also the existence of an ether. "From today's perspective…Faraday, the bold theorist, was making an advance announcement of a scientific transformation that has given us not only electromagnetic theory but special relativity," write the authors. Faraday is credited as the brilliant experimentalist who "discovered the principle of the electric motor," while Maxwell, with his groundbreaking Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, laid the groundwork for modern field theory. Forbes and Mahon show that Maxwell adhered to Faraday's hypothesis that the propagation of electricity and magnetism in space occurred through the vibration of lines of force. He developed his famous equations by first adapting the mathematical treatment of fluid flow and a mechanical model of spinning cells with minute ball bearings as heuristic models. Only then did he dispense with these models and directly employ the "mathematical laws of dynamics" to electromagnetism, thus laying the basis for modern field theory. The authors emphasize that, for Maxwell, his use of models "didn't purport to represent nature's actual mechanism, it was merely a temporary aid to thought." A lively account of the men and their times and a brilliant exposition of the scientific circumstances and significance of their work.

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon
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ISBN: 978-1-61614-942-0



There are many places where one could begin this story. Perhaps the best is the rugged moorland on the windswept western side of the Pennines in the north of England. This was the kind of country depicted by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights, sparsely populated by hardy souls who eked out a living in a land where crops barely grew and sheep had to search hard to find sustenance. It was home to Michael Faraday's forbears.

The Faradays had joined a small sect of Christians that came to be called the Sandemanians, after Robert Sandeman, a Scot who had broken from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and come to England in the mid-1700s. The Sandemanians worked hard, lived simply, and spoke plainly. Rejecting all the trappings of the established churches, they held to the simplest possible form of Christianity—their whole doctrine was contained in the epitaph on Sandeman's tombstone: "The bare death of Jesus Christ, without a thought or deed on the part of man is sufficient to present the chief of sinners spotless before God." Though friendly to outsiders and tolerant of those with different views, they largely kept to their own society. This didn't stop them doing business: Faraday's father, James, was a blacksmith, and among his uncles were a weaver, a grocer, an innkeeper, and a tailor.

The life of Michael Faraday might have begun and passed quietly in the remote seclusion of rural Westmorland but for the pressure of wider events. In the mid to late 1700s, Britain had been fighting rival colonial powers at sea for many years, and it finally lost an expensive war against its own colonists in America. The cost of these ventures had taken its toll at home, and a looming revolution in France held the prospect of a new cross-Channel war. Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was drawing people from the English countryside to the towns and cities: farmworkers left the land for the ironworks, potteries, and textile mills. Against this background, trade in Westmorland fell, but James Faraday, newly married, had his wife, Margaret, to support and wanted to start a family. In 1786, he decided to leave his ailing smithy in Outhgill and try his luck in London.

The Faradays settled in a poor area called Newington Butts, about a mile to the south of London Bridge. Two children, Elizabeth and Robert, soon arrived, and a third, Michael, was born in 1791. James may have picked up some farrier work from a nearby coaching inn called the Elephant and Castle (which now gives its name to the whole neighborhood), but business was slack, his hopes of prosperity came to nothing, and, to make things worse, his health began to fail. The dread of being committed to a debtors' prison or, worse still, to the workhouse must have been ever present. At times he had to accept charity, probably from fellow Sandemanians, to keep his family from starvation. But he did so with no bitterness or envy of those more fortunate. The children grew up in a lively and loving household, though a crowded one—Michael was soon followed by a young sister, called Margaret after their mother. The family moved again, first to Gilbert Street and then to rooms over a stable near Manchester Square, just off the newly named Oxford Street. Now home to fashionable department stores, this road had other associations in Faraday's time: it was formerly Tyburn Street, along which condemned men made their last journey to the gallows from Newgate Prison.

After a rudimentary education, thirteen-year-old Michael Faraday began work as an errand boy for George Ribeau, who ran a book and newspaper shop on nearby Blandford Street. He became a familiar figure in the neighborhood—a lively boy with "a load of brown curls and a packet of newspapers under his arm." Ribeau was a French émigré with progressive views who took a warm interest in his young charges. He thought he had found a gem in Faraday and soon took him on as an apprentice bookbinder—a seven-year contract in those days. As far as we know, none of Ribeau's apprentices actually became a bookbinder, but his liberal regime allowed them the freedom to develop their talents in other directions: one became a comedian and another a professional singer.

Binding books hour after hour, day after day, was tedious work, but it required immense care and skillful hands—qualities that were to serve Faraday well later in life. What opened up the world for him, though, were the books themselves: picture books, adventure stories, novels, books on philosophy, and, most of all, anything about the physical world and men's attempts to find out how it worked. He became a seeker of truth. As he later recalled: "I was a very lively, imaginative person. I could believe in the Arabian Nights as easily as in the Encyclopaedia. But facts were important to me and saved me. I could trust a fact but always cross-examined an assertion."

The more he read on any topic, the more he became aware of his own lack of education. Then, just when he needed it, he found a book that could have been written for him alone, The Improvement of the Mind, by the Reverend Isaac Watts. Faraday threw himself with all the vigor of youth into Watts's program for self-improvement. He tried to learn correct speech and told friends to put him right every time he made a grammatical slip in conversation. He took every opportunity to widen his knowledge and began to keep a "commonplace book," setting down facts, especially scientific ones, for future reference. Even in these simple notes he strove to follow Watts's advice always to use precise language and be guided by observed fact. And he took to heart another of Watts's instructions: one should "be not too hasty to erect general theories from a few particular observations, appearances or experiments." One can see here the seeds of the scientific method Faraday later made his own: take imagination to its limits but draw no conclusions without solid experimental proof.

Yet another of Watts's suggestions was to supplement reading with the "living discourse of a wise, learned and well-qualified teacher," so Faraday borrowed a shilling from his brother and went to a lecture on electricity by John Tatum, a silversmith who had founded the City Philosophical Society. This was a kind of common man's Royal Society, which held weekly meetings attended by a motley collection of self-improvers, all eager to hear of the latest scientific discoveries. Faraday soon joined the City Philosophical Society and became its most diligent student; at every lecture he took rough notes that he copied out in a fair hand at home. He enjoyed the boisterous company of his fellow students, several of whom became lifelong friends. The closest was Benjamin Abbott, a Quaker with a job in a mercantile house. He became Faraday's soul mate, someone who could help him acquire the social poise and the speaking and writing skills he lacked, and to whom he could pour out his innermost thoughts. Faraday loved music and later, when he could afford it, became a keen operagoer. As with all his interests, he had to try things for himself—he took up the flute and enjoyed taking the bass part in choral singing.

He also made his own experiments, for example, he would use glass jars lined with metal foil to store static electricity, with which he could charge up household objects and administer mild shocks to himself and anyone else who wanted to join in. He was already beginning to think about how electricity worked and questioned the truth of an ostensibly authoritative article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Its author, James Tytler, had confidently propounded Benjamin Franklin's "one-fluid" theory, which ascribed positive charges to an excess of a mysterious electrical fluid and negative ones to a dearth. Most British scientists favored this theory, but Faraday's early preference was for the French "two-fluid" theory, in which one type of fluid gave rise to positive charges and the other to negative. Even there, he thought there was something amiss with the standard interpretation. The young upstart was right to doubt his elders and betters, but the problem turned out to be more difficult than anyone had imagined. It was many years before Faraday came close to explaining static electricity to his own satisfaction, and it was half a century before his own follower, Maxwell, put the last piece in the puzzle.

Just as Faraday thought he was beginning to come to grips with electricity, his plans for further work were knocked sideways by an astonishing discovery made in Italy. John Tatum had learned of the voltaic cell, or battery, invented ten years earlier by Alessandro Volta, and he described it to his audience at a City Philosophical Society meeting. Familiar devices for storing electricity, like the foil-lined glass jars Faraday had used, released all their charge in one burst, but the battery produced something hitherto undreamed of—a continuous flow of electricity. What was more, the new electric currents could be used in simple experiments to investigate the structure of matter. A vast new region of science was opening up. And it was easy to make a battery: in 1800, Volta had provided detailed instructions. Make a stack of metal plates, alternately copper and zinc, interleaved with layers of pasteboard dampened with salt water, and, amazingly, an electric force will be generated through the stack—the more plates, the greater the force. Connect the two end plates with a metal wire, and a continuous current flows. This was not all. Experimenters had found that if they fixed a wire to each end plate and dipped the two wire ends in a solution of a chemical compound, the electric force would cause the constituent parts of the compound to separate, with one part gathering at one wire's end and one at the other.

Simply hearing or reading of such things was never enough for Faraday. When assessing the work of others, he always had to repeat, and perhaps extend, their experiments. It became a lifelong habit—his way of establishing ownership over an idea. Just as he did countless times later in other settings, he set out to demonstrate this new phenomenon to his own satisfaction. When he had saved enough money to buy the materials, he made a battery from seven copper halfpennies and seven discs cut from a sheet of zinc, interleaved with pieces of paper soaked in salt water. He fixed a copper wire to each end plate, dipped the other ends of the wires in a solution of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), and watched.

Both wires became covered in a very short time with bubbles of some gas, and a continued stream of very minute bubbles, appearing like small particles, ran through the solution from the negative wire. My proof that the sulphate was decomposed was, that in about two hours the clear solution became turpid: magnesia [magnesium oxide] was suspended in it.

If there was one moment that confirmed the course of Faraday's working life, this was surely it. Nothing less than a career in science would do. He had already found the perfect instructor: Jane Marcet, who spoke to him through her remarkable book Conversations on Chemistry. Originally published anonymously in 1805, it became hugely popular, especially in America, where pirated versions abounded. In a manner reminiscent of Galileo in his Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems, the author's alter ego, Mrs. B., instills in her pupils, diligent Emily and flighty Caroline, a scientist's curiosity about the physical world and a delight in discovering a little about it. They do experiments, using materials from around the house, and learn about heat and light, all the while being careful to draw conclusions only from observed fact. All this chimed precisely with Watts's guidance on life in general, so even before Faraday's experimental career started in earnest he had the procedure clear in his mind: explore; observe; experiment; eliminate sources of error; compare theory with experimental findings; keep thinking; and finally, draw whatever conclusions stand the test but even then be open to challenge—don't become a prisoner of your own ideas.

The daughter of a rich London merchant, Jane Marcet had married Alexander, a Swiss-born physician, and had come to share his passion for science. They took a well-informed interest in the latest developments, and their social circle included many of the leading scientists. One can picture their elegant dinners, at which prominent fellows of the Royal Society might gather to discuss Thomas Young's wave theory of light or Johann Ritter's discovery of ultraviolet radiation. This world was far removed from Faraday's. The rules of society were well described in the hymn "All Things Bright and Beautiful," written a few years later by Fanny Alexander. One verse runs:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

Blacksmiths' sons and bookbinders' apprentices did not, indeed should not, aspire to friendship and fellowship with people of higher rank. But science transcends class distinctions, and Jane Marcet had mentioned in the preface to her Conversations the two factors that were to transform Faraday's life—the Royal Institution and Humphry Davy.

Compared with the venerable Royal Society, the Royal Institution was an upstart establishment. Some of its fifty-eight founders were already prominent fellows of the Royal Society, and they intended the new Institution to complement rather than rival its older sibling. Its purpose, formally agreed to at the inaugural meeting on March 7, 1799, was to further "the Application of Science to the Common Purposes of Life" by means of "courses of Philosophical Lectures and Experiments." It was financed initially by subscription, and the prime mover among the founders was one of the most extraordinary characters in the history of science—an anglicized American named Benjamin Thompson who bore the title Count Rumford. Thompson had overlapping careers as fortune hunter, rake, philanderer, spy, military governor, inventor, park designer, scientist, and social reformer, and he can be described fairly as outstanding in all these roles. His title of count (of the Holy Roman Empire) had been bestowed by a grateful elector of Bavaria for transforming the Bavarian army from a rabble into a fit and efficient fighting force—he chose the Rumford part of the title from the town in New Hampshire where, in a part of his life little known to his British colleagues, he had abandoned his wife and daughter two decades earlier. Thanks in the main to Thompson's vision and drive, the Institution gained its Royal Seal in 1800 and set up business at 21 Albemarle Street in London, an address it still occupies today. Ever unpredictable, Thompson decamped to Paris after nearly ruining the fledgling organization with his over-ambitious plans for educational courses, but before going he saved the situation by a masterstroke that would make the Institution famous and fill its coffers. He recruited Humphry Davy, a cocksure twenty-three-year-old from the West Country with a marked Cornish accent, to run the chemical laboratory and act as assistant lecturer.

Davy, debonair and strikingly handsome, had already acquired notoriety from some widely reported exploits with mind-altering nitrous oxide, laughing gas, so the people from London's fashionable elite who bought expensive tickets for his early lectures were probably drawn as much by the hint of scandal as by scientific interest. They were not disappointed—Davy amply satisfied their wish for excitement. But there was more: he enlightened and inspired them at the same time by presenting the wonders of science with romantic eloquence, passion, and pyrotechnical demonstrations. Word spread, and even bigger crowds came to the next course of lectures. Albemarle Street had to be made London's first one-way thoroughfare to prevent it from being blocked by carriages. When he was ill in 1807, there were so many inquiries about his health that the Royal Institution posted hourly notices outside its headquarters. Nothing like Davy's popularity had been seen before. Half his audience were women—many of them young, enraptured by the dashing young man. One wrote "those eyes were made for something besides poring over crucibles."

Davy was not only a showman. His groundbreaking work in the Royal Institution laboratory put him in the front rank of scientists. He discovered the elements potassium and sodium by sending an electric current through molten compounds in order to separate their components. The method was the same in principle as that by which Faraday managed to decompose Epsom salts in Ribeau's workshop, but rather larger in scale: Faraday's battery, made from halfpennies and home-cut zinc discs, had seven voltaic cells while Davy's had two thousand. At the end of another series of experiments, Davy concluded that chlorine, the green gas given off when hydrochloric acid (then called muriatic acid) reacted with manganese dioxide (then called pyrolusite) did not contain oxygen, as was generally believed, but was an element in its own right. This was close to heresy according to followers of the great French chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, who had assured everyone that oxygen was a necessary element in all acids, and it was some years before Davy's correct view prevailed.


Excerpted from FARADAY, MAXWELL, AND THE ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD by NANCY FORBES, BASIL MAHON. Copyright © 2014 Nancy Forbes and Basil Mahon. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Nancy Forbes is an experienced science writer with over twenty-five publications in the area of science and technology including Imitation of Life:  How Biology Is Inspiring Computing. She has also served as a contributing editor for The Industrial Physicist of the American Institute of Physics, and IEEE's Computing in Science and Engineering. Currently, she works for the US Department of Defense.

Basil Mahon is the author of The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell and Oliver Heaviside: Maverick Mastermind of Electricity, among other publications. With degrees in engineering and statistics, Mahon was formerly an officer in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and until his retirement worked for the British Government Statistical Service.

From the Hardcover edition.

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