The Immortal Coil

Richard Barnett

  • The Correspondence of Michael Faraday Vol. VI, 1860-67 by Frank James
    IET, 919 pp, £85.00, December 2011, ISBN 978 0 86341 957 7

In the summer of 1831, James Woods, master of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Wordsworth’s former tutor, decided that his college should have a portrait of its most celebrated living alumnus. He commissioned Henry William Pickersgill – an apprentice Spitalfields silk-weaver turned Royal Academician – to produce a full-length oil painting of Wordsworth in an appropriately sublime setting, and in the early autumn of 1832 Pickersgill made the journey to Rydal Mount. During the day the poet would sit for the painter beneath an open skylight in the high garret of the house. When the light failed the two men turned to talking and walking in the garden. One evening, just after the sun had set, something flashed across the sky and fell into Rydal Water.

When he returned to London Pickersgill brought with him not only a portfolio of sketches and studies, but also an account of the startling atmospheric disturbance he had witnessed. He sent this to the newly appointed Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution, Michael Faraday. Faraday replied immediately: Pickersgill’s report had ‘greatly excited’ his curiosity, not least because ‘the meteor or whatever else it might be’ had been witnessed by ‘men of philosophical & correct habits of observation’. Would Pickersgill, or perhaps even ‘Mr Wordsworth’, oblige a natural philosopher by answering a few questions about what they had seen?

Did the meteor appear as a ball or a spark of fire? i.e. was its outline distinct or was it so brilliant that outline could not be perceived. In other words I may say did it look like the moon definite in form or like a large bright fire at a distance quite indefinite except as a centre of light?

Did it distinctly cut ducks & drakes on the surface of the lake? Were its bounds perceived & traced by the eye?

Were any fish killed? Floating afterwards upon the surface[?]

Was there other thunder & lightning before or after?

Questions, questions – 28 of them in this letter alone. It is not usual to assess volumes of correspondence by the relative frequency of particular punctuation marks, but Faraday’s letters teem with erotemes and interrogations. (Many of the question marks are Frank James’s editorial insertions: Faraday tended to overlook them in his haste to move on to the next inquiry.) Faraday asks, and is asked in turn, by Oxford gentleman-geologists and provincial glassworks clerks, by crown princes and loving nieces. He admits his ignorance. He suggests where answers may be found. He frames careful, practical responses, always taking care to stress the limits of his expertise. In some instances, we might wish we knew the questions that sparked his answers. Writing to thank Charles Dodgson for a photographic portrait taken on a visit to Christ Church in January 1861, Faraday offered the following notes on Dodgson’s (lost) queries:

The ammonia comes from the cheese evolved by a slow action analogous to decay. You may see the attempts to explain it in the various works on Organic chemistry.

It has not as yet been clearly proved that the Sun does put a fire out – but such a power has been supposed to exist in the actinic rays which the luminary sends forth[.]

I do not know ‘Euere d’or fin’.

And in a very few places we can witness Faraday losing his temper with this seemingly endless barrage of requests, as in the unpunctuated pique of his reply to William Tierney Clark, engineer to the West Middlesex Water Company, in 1831: ‘You seem to imagine that I can answer all sorts of questions and that too when you put them almost in the manner of riddles for you tell me nothing relative to the green substance which you sent me or where it came from or under what circumstances found[.]’

All this from a man who was the archetype of a heroic loner according to his earliest biographers, John Tyndall, his friend and colleague, and J.H. Gladstone, a successor in the Fullerian chair. Tyndall and Gladstone gave their readers an alchemist for the age of steam, an inspired and dogged experimenter who found his greatest happiness in the solitude of the Royal Institution’s basement laboratory. James’s distinctive achievement in editing these letters – of which this is the sixth and final volume – is to reconnect the circuits of Faraday’s social and professional life in what Iwan Rhys Morus called ‘the electrical century’. Faraday is seen at work, moving between the worlds in which his private experimentation and his public science were embedded. He worries over the preparation of Friday Evening Discourses for the RI. He analyses white lead paint for Trinity House, the Tudor corporation that maintained Britain’s necklace of lighthouses. During the Crimean War, he advises the Admiralty on the feasibility of an attack on the Baltic port of Cronstadt, using ships filled with four hundred tonnes of burning sulphur. He exchanges ideas, papers and compliments with Pickersgill, Dodgson, the chemist Justus von Liebig, the geologists Louis Agassiz, William Buckland, Charles Lyell and Roderick Murchison, the astronomer John Herschel, the philosopher William Whewell, the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ Ada, Countess of Lovelace, and many others.

And his clubbability did not end with his death. Throughout the 20th century his image, his name and his character – modest, dedicated, optimistic – were recruited in the service of British and American big science, as the inventor of the transformer, the dynamo and the electric motor, those icons of modernity. His reputation survived more than a decade as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite scientist: between 1982 and 1996 Matthew Noble’s bust occupied a place of honour in the entrance hall at Number Ten. His stock has risen slowly and steadily; compare this with the Nasdaq-esque slumps and booms of Darwin’s posthumous standing. Like Darwin, coaxing, flattering, prodding, Faraday knew how to fashion networks of correspondence, how to maintain and repair them, and how to make facts travel along them as smoothly as locomotives on Brunel’s Great Western Railway.

Studies of Faraday’s experimental sophistication (by David Gooding) and his Sandemanian faith (by Geoffrey Cantor) have deepened, rather than challenged, our sense of his eminence. James’s work, meanwhile – in his own publications and his DNB entry on Faraday – has highlighted Faraday’s importance as a public scientist and government adviser. Drawing on the two major Faraday archives in this country (held by the RI and the Institution of Engineering and Technology), and with funding from the British Academy, James’s correspondence project began in 1986. The first volume came out in 1991, to coincide with Faraday’s bicentenary, and this last volume fulfils the customary roles of rounding off and tidying up. In addition to 731 letters to or from Faraday between November 1860 and his death on 25 August 1867, it also includes 143 undateable letters (mostly brief notes on day-to-day matters of business) and 306 letters discovered since the publication of the first volume.

Gooding’s work reflects growing scholarly interest in the practical, manual aspects of scientific work, and Faraday’s reputation as the most gifted experimentalist in the history of science has been assisted by the preservation of his meticulous laboratory notebooks and some of his handmade apparatus. Take the ‘immortal coil’ – as some poetaster must have called it – which Faraday used to demonstrate what would now be called electromagnetic induction in August 1831. This was a hoop of hand-forged iron, roughly as big as the rubber rings thrown into swimming pools for children to retrieve. Faraday wrapped each half in a separate strand of copper wire (intended for making sprays of artificial flowers to adorn women’s bonnets), which itself had to be insulated with cotton thread. As a testament to Faraday’s manual skill and patience this is hard to beat: when a team of engineers set out to make a replica for the RI a few years ago, the process took ten days and several false starts.

Modern physics and engineering is built on the notion of standardised instrumentation, of metrological networks which link the world’s laboratories. What is most striking in Faraday’s notebooks and letters is the sheer difficulty of this enterprise, the amount of effort that went into making science look seamless. Experimental kit had to be built from scratch, in collaboration with craftsmen who were sometimes headstrong or recalcitrant. A good ‘experimental philosopher’ had to know how to cosset and fettle his equipment, to tell when it was singing and when it was bawling. How could you construct devices that would allow you to observe an effect reliably and – crucially – in ways that others could repeat? And what did it mean to claim discovery of a fact, and to orient that fact in a system of explanation? Sometimes nature beat human manufacture in delivering accurate instrumentation, and in a corner of his lab Faraday kept a breeding colony of the most sensitive multi-purpose electrical meters then available – frogs.

But the basement laboratory was as much a space for rehearsal as for research. What looked like the effortless unveilings of nature’s secrets in Faraday’s Friday Evening Discourses were built on weeks of repetitive laboratory work and days of intense, nervous script-writing. Faraday came of age in a time when public science was already noted for its dramatic spectacles, and the RI was a relatively junior player in the field. It had been founded on the claim that its professors would use rational knowledge to improve agriculture and industry. In practice, however, this proved exceedingly difficult, and the Friday Evening Discourses were themselves a kind of public experiment in mixing pure natural philosophy with practical application. This synthesis of the artisan and the philosopher was one thing Whewell was trying to capture when he coined the word ‘scientist’ in 1833.

Faraday was well aware that his demonstrations, just like those of Sir Humphry Davy, his master at the RI, would have to upstage the pyrotechnic and psychedelic delights on offer in the Theatre of Astronomy, the Adelaide Gallery, the Polytechnic Institute, the Panopticon of Arts and Sciences and many smaller venues. He knew just what a genteel RI audience would expect – not least in terms of political and moral tone – and his Friday Evening Discourses were prepared with theatrical rigour. By presenting his own research and that of his metropolitan colleagues he turned the discourses into a sort of pop-science magazine – Bang Goes the Theory in top hats.

Faraday was not a natural performer. ‘I can tell you,’ he admitted to Henry Enfield Roscoe, professor of chemistry at Owen’s College in Manchester, ‘what kinds of habits &c I had to overcome when I was young & thinking of speaking to others.’ But he took pains to learn, and to fashion a suitable character for his performances. Dignified, unostentatious, unforced, he became the handsome, masculine face of Victorian public science, a gentleman who could command his demonstrations without breaking a bead of workmanlike sweat. Nature might be tortured to confession in the privacy of a laboratory, but the Friday Evening Discourses compelled her (even at its most Tennysonian, Victorian nature tended to take a feminine pronoun) to speak with ease and simplicity.

Metropolitan public science could bring many rewards. Following Ruskin’s Friday Evening Discourse on ‘The Forms of the Stratified Alps of Savoy’ in June 1863, Ruskin’s father sent a note thanking Faraday, and attached: ‘a Hamper containing a dozen bottles of the Sherry wine drunk at the tables of Napoleon, 1st and 3rd & a small bottle of Paxarete the only one left of the Dessert wine of Ferdinand IV’. (Ferdinand was king of Naples and of the Two Sicilies.)

Less potable, but more useful, was a connection with the Prince Consort, who joined the RI in 1843, and began to attend lectures with some regularity from 1849. Albert was the apotheosis of what the RI might now call its target demographic: a Christian gentleman and a concerned father, with an educated taste for social and moral progress through science and technology. This confluence of faith and reason in the person of the prince didn’t escape Faraday’s notice. In an 1854 lecture on ‘mental education’, delivered before Albert and several hundred RI members, he used one of his favourite texts – Romans 1.20 – to draw out the connections between natural philosophy and natural theology:

I believe that the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead; and I have never seen anything incompatible between those things of man which can be known by the spirit of man which is within him, and those higher things concerning his future which he cannot know by that spirit.

Cantor has proved beyond question the centrality of Faraday’s Sandemanianism to his natural philosophy. London’s small Sandemanian congregation, founded by the dissenting Dundonian John Glas and his son-in-law Robert Sandeman, lived by a plain – one might say, ‘empiricist’ – reading of Scripture. They preached brotherhood and purity, which in Faraday’s case at least did not preclude moderate drinking and trips to the theatre, and after Sunday morning services they sat down together for a ‘love-feast’: no symbolic mouthfuls of bread and wine, but a hearty and practical bowl of Scotch broth. Faraday’s affiliation, sustained (except for a brief exclusion in 1844) throughout his life, placed him at the margins of the confessional state. But in his 1854 lecture, as in many others, we see Faraday as eminent Victorian, defending faith (if not ‘the faith’ of the established church) in the presence of the husband of the monarch in a centre of metropolitan science. If – in Joseph Priestley’s over-quoted phrase – the rotten English hierarchy had ‘equal reason to tremble even at an air pump’, these shudders might be stilled by a spark coil or a Faraday cage.

Despite this, Faraday was not a Tory. Throughout his career he took great care to triangulate what seems to have been (at least superficially) an apolitical patriotism with his humble and pacific Sandemanian principles. But within twenty years of joining the RI, this working-class Dissenter gained a fellowship of the Royal Society and a doctorate of civil law from Oxford, and had become what Sir Humphrey would call a ‘sound man’. Discreet, considered and practical advice was his forte, whenever a minister, an admiral or a committee required it. He bent his mind to all kinds of mid-Victorian problem: explosions in coalmines, sewage in the Thames, the worrying deterioration of stonework in Barry and Pugin’s Palace of Westminster, smoke damage to paintings in the National Gallery, science teaching in the public schools.

Outside the RI, however, the single greatest occupant of his time and attention was Trinity House. From 1836 until his death, Faraday was ‘scientific advisor in experiments on lights’, and in this period almost a fifth of his correspondence is taken up with the improvement of lighthouses and especially their optics. Much of this business could be conducted through the post – as when he was asked to find a cause for ‘the corroded state of the upper part of the Cooking Range Flue-Pipe at the Light House on Godrevy Island’ – but when site visits were required they could be unusually arduous. In February 1860, the 68-year-old Faraday attempted to visit an experimental steam-powered generator at the South Foreland lighthouse near Dover, but was beaten back by a snowstorm. Four days later he succeeded, ‘by climbing over hedges, walls, and fields’ which were still waist-deep in snow.

A generation of historians have shown that Victorian science was deeply implicated in the Victorian state’s global and imperial projects, and Faraday’s involvement was not limited to the ancient perils of inshore navigation. From 1828, he served alongside Edward Sabine on the Admiralty’s resident scientific committee, and in the next few decades became a minor player in Sabine’s ‘magnetic crusade’ – an international attempt to theorise the Earth’s magnetic field and, in doing so, devise practical techniques for navigation. Using the torrents of magnetic data pouring into the metropolis from experiments and expeditions around the world, he tried (unsuccessfully) to show that fluctuations in terrestrial magnetism were caused by changes in the magnetic state of atmospheric gases. In 1830, he had dined with Sir John Franklin, as a member of the Admiralty committee, and in a note thirty years later lamented the loss of Franklin’s 1845 expedition – a ‘sad subject’ which, as Andrew Lambert has shown, owed as much to Sabine’s magnetic crusade as it did to the quest for the Northwest Passage.

By 1860, Faraday was coming, as these letters reveal and as he baldly acknowledged, to the end of his career. Though his physical health remained strikingly robust, his ‘infirmity of loss of memory’ – the most troubling consequence of a physical and mental collapse in 1839 – grew more apparent, forcing him to ‘cut off all new society as much as possible’. Though he continued (in the words of his wife, Sarah) ‘running about the country on Trinity House business twice to Whitby two or three times to Birmingham & to the North Foreland’, his physician and friend Henry Bence Jones banned him from further sea voyages in February 1864. Only a few months later, Bence Jones provoked the greatest crisis of Faraday’s final decade. When the fourth Duke of Northumberland, then president of the RI, fell ill in May 1864, Bence Jones proposed that Faraday take the position. This suggestion, seemingly well meant, prompted something like a nervous breakdown. Within days Faraday stepped down as a Sandemanian elder, and a letter from Sarah to Bence Jones reveals the harrowed state of his mind:

he says ‘The Dr says it is the only thing he ever asked me, & I cannot do it, it would make my brain turn soft & I should lose my mind I am deeply grieved, but I should feel degraded in my own eyes if I allowed it to go on, it is quite inconsistent with all my life & views.’

The depth of Faraday’s turmoil spilled out in a piece of professional correspondence written the following day. Joseph Henry, secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, had asked Faraday if he wished to be included on an international list of ‘persons known by it to be engaged in original investigations in any branch of science’. Faraday’s distraught reply made it emphatically clear that he did not: ‘has lost his memory – is inactive – tired and worn out – will be 73 years of age next week, i.e. on the 22nd of this month Septr. 1864 and desires to be left without scientific duties & at rest’.

This episode aside, however, the ageing Faraday appears, at least in his letters, to have cut a serene and cheerful figure. He took great pleasure in the adventures of his younger colleagues, particularly Tyndall, whose letters were packed with stories of derring-do in the Swiss Alps, from assaults on the fearsome Morteratsch glacier to a failed attempt at recovering the body of Lord Francis Douglas, the uncle of Oscar Wilde’s Bosie, killed during an ascent of the Matterhorn. Replying from the comfort and security of his grace-and-favour house at Hampton Court, Faraday was glad to be occupied with more quotidian matters – ‘we are progressing in the cleaning at the R.I.’ – and clucked paternally over his protégé’s appetite for risk: ‘Sometimes the very thinking of you and what you may be about wearies me with fears.’

Fears for his friend’s safety were one thing, but if this singularly well-adjusted ‘advisor on philosophical questions’ engaged in agonised soliloquies on faith or science, he did not commit them to paper. Resigning from the RI’s Christmas Lectures in October 1861, he thanked his employers for their ‘fostering care’ over almost fifty years, and reassured them that ‘my life has been a happy one and all I desired.’ And in a long and chatty letter to Margery Ann Reid, Sarah’s niece, two years later he found an appropriately macrocosmic simile for the state of his own human microcosm:

So we turn the times over. Here is the first of a new month, and a new season is coming over us, for the rain falls, and the winds blow, and the sun shines with a strength and in an order, or rather disorder, that reminds me of an old man, who, purposing to do one thing is drawn off to do another, who, intending to communicate with you, is led away to chat with another girl and forgets you. However, she is gone. I forget what the thought was like; its end is confusion, and so I come to wakefulness and life again… .

All these events may well lessen our thoughts and hold of life. But what a blessing it is that there is nothing in them to diminish the hopes belonging to that far better life to which this is only the entrance.

Read one way, letters like this one take us back to the Faraday of his first biographers – humble, contented and hopeful of a future state, both for his soul and for his science. We may, however, prefer to see in it a different story about the fate of scientific modesty. Faraday’s version of this virtue proved particularly susceptible to co-option by states, corporations and individuals who sought – honestly or tendentiously – to identify themselves and their ideologies with hard work, objectivity and the public good. The private man remains stubbornly elusive, glimpsed occasionally through cracks in an otherwise durable façade of polite empiricism and genteel theatricality.

The Michael Faraday Memorial, erected in the early 1960s, is a short but deafening walk from Faraday’s birthplace in Newington Butts. Its designer, the Brutalist Rodney Gordon, originally planned a glass box containing a transformer and a substation for the Northern and Bakerloo Lines – an apt commemoration of Faraday’s status as patron saint of the electrical revolution. In its built form it is equally, if inadvertently appropriate. This dull steel box squats unassumingly in the middle of one of the busiest traffic islands in London, the Elephant and Castle gyratory system, massive and yet modest to the point of silence. In a quiet, wood-panelled hall on the other side of the Thames Faraday is a little more obtrusive. When Tess Barnes was commissioned to make a portrait of James, marking his appointment as the RI’s first professor of the history of science in 2004, she chose to depict him as Faraday. But Faraday’s grey, ghostly face, peering around a shelf of glassware, adds an eerie touch to the painting, and M.R. James himself might have had something to say on the possible fate of a man sitting in Faraday’s chair and wearing his cravat. Modesty, after all, has its limits.