Michael Faraday was born in Newington Butts, Surrey, near what is now the Elephant and Castle in South London, England on 22 September 1791. His father, James Faraday, was a Yorkshire blacksmith who suffered ill-health throughout his life, his mother was a country woman of great calm and wisdom who supported her son emotionally through a difficult childhood (name unrecorded?).
After the most basic of school educations, Faraday had to educate himself. At 14 he became apprenticed to a local bookbinder and bookseller and during his seven-year apprenticeship he read many books. He developed an interest in science and specifically electricity. In particular, he was inspired by the book Conversations in Chemistry by Jane Marcet.
In 1812, aged 20, he finished his apprenticeship. He attended lectures by the eminent English chemist and physicist Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution and Royal Society. Faraday sent Davy a three hundred page book based on notes taken during the lectures. Davy's reply was immediate, kind and favorable. When Davy damaged his eyesight in an accident with nitrogen trichloride, he decided to employ Faraday as a secretary. When John Payne, one of the Royal Institution's assistants, was sacked, the now Sir Humphry Davy was asked to find a replacement. He appointed Faraday as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution on March 1 1813.
The first experiment which he recorded was the construction of a voltaic pile (battery) with seven halfpence pieces, stacked together with seven disks of sheet zinc, and six pieces of paper moistened with salt water. With this pile he decomposed sulphate of magnesia (electroylsis).
In the class-based English society of the time, Faraday was not considered a gentleman. When Davy went on a long tour to the continent in 1813-5, his valet did not wish to go. Faraday was going as Davy's scientific assistant, and was asked to act as Davy's valet until a replacement could be found in Paris. Davy failed to find a replacement, and Faraday filled the role of valet as well as assistant throughout the trip. Davy's wife refused to treat Faraday as an equal and treated him as one of the servants. This made Faraday so miserable that he contemplated returning to England alone and giving up science altogether. The trip did, however, give him access to the European scientific elite and a host of stimulating ideas.
Faraday married Sarah Barnard (1800-1879) on June 2, 1821, although they would never have children. Also in 1821 Davy and British scientist William Hyde Wollaston tried but failed to design an electric motor. Faraday, having discussed the problem with the two men, went on to build two devices to produce what he called electromagnetic rotation: a continuous circular motion from the circular magnetic force around a wire, and, a wire extending into a pool of mercury with a magnet placed inside would rotate around the magnet if supplied with current from a chemical battery. The latter device is known as a homopolar motor. These experiments and inventions form the foundation of modern electromagnetic technology. Faraday published his results without acknowledging his debt to Wollaston and Davy, and the resulting controversy caused Faraday to withdraw from electromagnetic research for several years.
He was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1824 and appointed director of the laboratory in 1825. In 1833 he was appointed Fullerian professor of chemistry in the institution for life.
During the 1830s he worked on developing his ideas about electricity. He was partly responsible for coining many familiar words including 'electrode', 'cathode' and 'ion'.
In 1831, he began his great series of experiments in which he discovered electromagnetic induction, though the discovery may have been anticipated by the work of Francesco Zantedeschi. His breakthrough came when he wrapped two insulated coils of wire around a massive iron ring, bolted to a chair, and found that upon passing a current through one coil, a momentary current was induced in the other coil (hey! he's just invented the transformer!). The iron ring-coil apparatus is still on display at the Royal Institution. In subsequent experiments he found that if he moved a magnet through a loop of wire, an electric current flowed in the wire, he also noted that the current also flowed if the loop was moved over a stationary magnet (and an alternator/dynamo!). His demonstrations established that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field. This relation was mathematically modelled by Faraday's law, which subsequently went on to become one of the four Maxwell equations. These in turn have evolved into the generalization known today as field theory. He later used the principle to construct the electric dynamo, the ancestor of modern power generators.
Faraday's scientific knowledge was harnessed for practical use through various official appointments, including scientific adviser to Trinity House (1836-1865) and Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich (1830-1851). In his work on static electricity, Faraday demonstrated that the charge only resided on the exterior of a charged conductor, and exterior charge had no influence on anything enclosed within a conductor. This is because the exterior charges redistribute such that the interior fields due to them cancel. This shielding effect is used in what is now known as a Faraday cage.
In the early 1840s, Faraday's health began to deteriorate and he did less research. In 1848, as a result of representations by the Prince Consort, Michael Faraday was awarded a Grace and favour house in Hampton Court, Surrey free of all expenses or upkeep. This was the Master Mason's House, later called Faraday House, and now No.37 Hampton Court Road. In 1858 he retired to live there. He died on 25 August 1867 at 37 Hampton Court. He has a memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey, near Isaac Newton's tomb, but he turned down burial there and is interred in the Sandemanian plot in Highgate Cemetery.