Written by Vanessa Pupavac.
Recently I was in Derby and, arriving early to an event, I popped into the Derby Art Museum. There are two famous paintings on the wall next to each other by the Derby enlightenment painter Joseph Wright – one celebrating the new Newtonian physics and the other celebrating the dangerous work of the blacksmith as a heroic figure. Wright’s painters are a reminder that the Enlightenment was not just in Paris or other national capitals but that its intellectual ferment had a broader social reach.
If there is one figure whose life combines the enlightenment ideals celebrated by Joseph Wright’s eighteenth century paintings, it is the nineteenth century Michael Faraday (1791-1967), autodidact son of a blacksmith who became the leading Victorian physicist. Faraday came from a working class dissenting artisan community and was apprenticed to a bookbinder, His apprenticeship allowed him to sneak a read at the manuscripts he was binding amid the toxic chemicals and the noxious smells. Resolute about educating himself, and inspired by the books he was binding, Faraday was one day given a ticket to attend some lectures by the famous chemist Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution in London. Faraday took notes of the lecture. Afterwards the enterprising Faraday used his bookbinding skills to create a bound volume of his notes on Davy’s chemistry lectures which he then presented to the chemist. And later when Davy urgently required a new assistant at short notice he contacted Faraday.
From such humble personal scientific beginnings, Faraday went on to make great scientific advancements. Faraday’s discoveries and inventions significantly advanced electricity’s development. He was keen to open the world of science to the public, and offer his findings to humanity. Faraday avowed a democratic pursuit of scientific knowledge, where the scientific road is open to all travel – men, women and children. Here Faraday’s ideals resonate with the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s call for a public high road of knowledge or the poet William Wordsworth’s call for science ‘familiarized’ to the ordinary household. It is in this spirit that Faraday published his three volume Experimental Researches in Electricity [1839, 1844, 1855] and helped establish the Royal Institution’s annual Christmas lectures for children. Meanwhile his humanist scientific outlook refused to help the military develop poisonous gas and pursue chemical warfare in the Crimean War.
Faraday’s short 1818 essay ‘On Argument’ upholds a spirit of freedom and independence he found in his dissenting artisan intellectual circles in terms anticipating the philosopher J.S. Mill’s On Liberty:
By the very act of condemning unheard they assume that they themselves know every thing, the person before them nothing: it is, therefore, not much afterwards to give the offender any character that may be convenient…
‘On the Trust of No One’ is the motto of the Royal Society. Faraday believed the existing authorities should not be taken on trust, but their assumptions questioned if science and society were to advance. Faraday’s most well-known lecture on the ‘Chemical History of a Candle’ invited his juvenile audience to engage with high ideals:
We come here to be philosophers, and I hope you will always remember that whenever a result happens, especially if it be new, you should say, “What is the cause? Why does it occur?” and you will, in the course of time, find out the reason.
Just as Faraday pioneered the frontiers of knowledge, he also affirmed the humble beginnings of knowledge. Science for Faraday:
teaches us to be neglectful of nothing — not to despise the small beginnings, for they precede … all great things in the knowledge of science.
Faraday wanted us to build on our everyday curiosity and ingenuity. His cultivation of wonder took up ordinary everyday objects – a candle, a kettle, a bottle of beer – and explains the scientific principles operating behind them. He would speak of the school boys illicitly improvising cigars or firecrackers, or market street traders improvising lights, to illustrate people’s untapped innate capacity for scientific endeavour.
Faraday considered the imagination vital to sparking creative scientific endeavour, along with sustained study, hard graft and experimentation. Faraday’s work was infused with the ideals of humanist natural philosophy walking ‘in the midst of wonders’ and finding with Shakespeare ‘Tongues in trees – books in the running brook’. Indeed Faraday would have liked to have been both a Faraday and a Shakespeare, a scientist and a poet.
With Faraday, we keep the Enlightenment spirit aloft – daring to know, daring to imagine and daring to act for a better more humane and democratic world.
Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations. Image credit: CC by Wikimedia Commons. This defence of Faraday was given at the University in One Day balloon debate at the 2016 Telegraph Festival of Education.
Bragg, Melvyn (2007) 12 Books That Changed the World. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Derby Museum http://www.derbymuseums.org/joseph-wright-gallery/
Faraday, Michael (1858) ‘On Wheatstone’s Electric Telegraph in relation to Science (being an argument in favour of the full recognition of Science as a branch of education).’ Proceedings of the Royal Institution, Vol. II, pp. 555-560.
Faraday, Michael (1997)  A Course of Six Lectures on the History of a Candle. Edited by William Crookes. London: The Electric Book Co.
Faraday, Michael (2004) [1839, 1844, 1855] Experimental Researches in Electricity. London: Dover.
Faraday, Michael (2008) Michael Faraday’s Mental Exercises: An Artisan Essay-Circle in Regency. London. Edited by Alice Jenkins. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Hamilton, James (2002) Faraday: The Life. London: HarperCollins.