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Chemical History of the Candle

Introduction to Chemistry and the Candle Lectures

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An Introduction to the Study of Chemistry
Using The Faraday Lectures on the Chemical History of the Candle

Contents of this webpage

Read the Introduction and Preface

Faraday Lectures

The introduction, by J. Arthur Thomson, gives you some background on Faraday's life.

  1. What does Thomson think makes scientific knowledge different from other kinds of knowledge?
  2. How did Faraday learn about chemistry?
  3. Why did Faraday repeat the experiments someone else had already done?
  4. Where did Faraday live for most of his working life?
  5. What challenges did Faraday face in gaining recognition for his discoveries?
  6. Thomson claims that the value of Faraday's work was in the theoretical discovery, rather than in the practical value. Why were his discoveries so important? What were some of the "practical" results of his work?

The preface, written by E. N. Da C. Andrade, tells you something about the Royal Institute and the history of the Christmas letters.

  1. When was the Royal Institute established? What other events were happening about the same time?
  2. Who was Humphrey Davy? How did his lectures on science influence Faraday?
  3. What were some of the things that made Faraday a successful lecturer?

The picture to the right is a portrait of Faraday giving a lecture in 1856. Notice the children in the first rows!

Michael Faraday's accomplishments

One of the many members of the general public who attended Sir Humphry Davy's popular lectures on electrical phenomena was a bookbinder named Michael Faraday. Faraday's formal education ended when he was 13, but his position in the book bindery gave him the opportunity to read about many subjects. He took notes at Davy's lectures, studied, and eventually applied to Davy for a job as an assistant. Davy hired at less money than Faraday made binding books, but took him on a grand tour of Europe, where Faraday met Ampère and Volta.

Inspired and encouraged by these contacts, Faraday continued to train himself. He was driven not only by his own curiosity but also by an abiding conviction in the unity of the created order, a conviction which grew out of his Christian faith. Despite frequent illness (probably from the same mercury poisoning which appears to have caused Davy and Newton problems), he managed to not only put in long hours at his laboratory, but also to give public lectures and to support his local church.

Today Faraday is universally acknowledged as one of the finest experimentalists in the history of science. His researches included studies of chemical compounds, electromagnetic phenomena, the behavior of gases, and the nature of light. He invented the first electric motor (in 1821), in which current flowing through a coil of wire caused a magnet to move. Having shown that electricity could cause magnets to move, he then spent the next decade trying to produce the reverse phenomenon, and generate electrical current in a coil by moving a magnet. Finally, in October of 1831, he was able to successfully produce electromagnetic induction; this invention is the electric generator or dynamo.

Faraday's two inventions, the electric motor and the electric generator, are fundamental necessities in our modern dependence on electrical power. Faraday was not interested in their commercial application, however; he left the development of his discoveries into practical applications to others. He was primarily interested in satisfying himself of the underlying principles of electricity, or chemistry. After publishing his successful attempt at electromagenetic induction, Faraday went on to determine how much electricity was necessary to separate elements during electrolysis, the process of passing current through solutions which Davy had used to isolate sodium, calcium, barium, and other substances from their compound forms. In the 1840s, Faraday showed that polarized light passing through a magnetic field would change its direction of polarization, but he lacked the mathematical theory to explain why this worked.

Faraday tried to develop a way of thinking about electricity and magnetism that would be more useful than the limited concepts of "electrical fluids", which could not explain how magnetic and electrical phenomena interacted. Since he was not a mathematician, he tended to think in pictures, and it is to Faraday that we owe the idea of force fields, which we now use to explain how all kinds of forces­electromagnetic, gravitational, and nuclear­work.

Discussion points

Web Resources

If you are interested in more details about Faraday, you might look at the following sites: