Interactive timeline: Michael Faraday

Explore the extraordinary life and work of one of the world's greatest scientists.


Explore the life and work of Michael Faraday

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    science, history, electicity, faraday, 

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Faraday began his career in science as Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution - helping Humphry Davy with projects such as the miner's safety lamp. He went on to conduct his own research and make many important contributions to natural philosophy.

Starting out

As a young apprentice book binder Michael Faraday developed an overriding interest in science which he put into practice by attending various scientific lectures. He attended the last four lectures given by Humphry Davy in the Royal Institution, and succeeded in getting an appointment here as Chemical Assistant in 1813.

At the Ri

Faraday steadily rose to prominence at the RI, in 1821 he was appointed as Superintendent of the House, responsible for the fabric of the building and in 1825 he was also appointed Director of the Laboratory. 

In 1825 he established the CHRISTMAS LECTURES for children and the Friday Evening Discourses for members of the Royal Institution, and both series continue to this day. Another of Faraday's lasting legacies was the building of the Corinthian Façade in 1837-8, based on a building he saw while touring the Continent with Davy. He was so committed to the project that he donated significantly to the façade fund.

Faraday was an excellent lecturer, he lectured at the Royal Institution from 1824, giving a huge number of public lectures, discourses and 19 series of CHRISTMAS LECTURES. He was appointed the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry in 1833.


Diverse work from 1820 to 1840

In 1821, following Hans Christian Oersted's discovery of electro-magnetism, Faraday discovered electro-magnetic rotations, the principle behind the electric motor. In the early 1820s he also liquefied gases and in 1825 he discovered what was later called benzene.

In the late 1820s much of his time was spent working on a project to improve optical glass for the Admiralty, so it wasn't until 1831 that he was able to return to his research on electricity. His discovery of electro-magnetic induction in 1831 commenced a remarkable decade of work. Amongst other things, he rewrote the theory of electrochemistry (coining many words still in use today such as electrode and ion) and established his laws of electrolysis. In 1836 he built the Faraday cage, which showed that measurements of electric charge depended on the electrical state of the observer. This observation led Faraday to develop his theory that electricity was the result of varying magnetic forces between particles rather than a fluid as previously supposed.

The 1840s and field theory

In the 1840s Faraday argued against two major theories of 19th-century physics - that matter was ultimately divisible into chemical atoms, and that light travelled by flowing through a substance called the aether. Looking for alternative explanations helped him towards his discovery of the magneto-optical effect and diamagnetism in 1845 and culminated in his establishment of the field theory of electromagnetism which, when mathematised by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) and James Clark Maxwell, became (and remains) one of the cornerstones of physics.

Advice to state departments

Alongside his work at the Royal Institution, Faraday was Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, from 1830 to 1851. As one of the leading members of the scientific community, he was frequently invited to provide scientific advice to the state, working for departments such as the Home Office, Admiralty and Board of Trade. 

Furthermore, between 1836 and 1865 he was scientific adviser to Trinity House, the English and Welsh lighthouse authority. He oversaw the programme to electrify lighthouses - more than 10% of his letters are devoted to lighthouse matters. As a result of all this Prince Albert arranged for Faraday to have the use of a Grace and Favour house at Hampton Court from 1858 onwards.

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