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September 22, 2018

MICHAEL FARADAY, THE FATHER OF ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING, WAS BORN 227 YEARS AGO TODAY: He was the son of a blacksmith and received only a basic formal education. But at the age of 14, he was lucky enough to apprentice to a kindly bookbinder and bookseller. Reading the books in his master’s shop was an eye-opening experience for him. In that way, he educated himself.

At the age of 20, Faraday impressed Britain’s then-leading scientist/inventor, Humphry Davy, who hired him as his scientific assistant. But there was a small catch: In addition to his scientific duties, Faraday was assigned to act as Davy’s valet while Davy and his wife were on an extended tour of Europe. This would have been a somewhat unusual arrangement. Scientific assistants were ordinarily well-educated and hence well-treated. But Davy’s wife was keen on keeping the low-born Faraday in his place. She saw to it that he would eat and sleep with the servants.

Still, that didn’t stop him from being one of the most consequential men of his generation—surpassing even Davy himself. Faraday’s experiments with electromagnetism and electrochemistry were groundbreaking. It was through his painstaking efforts that electricity became a practical source of energy that could fuel the new technologies that mushroomed around it.

As his fame grew, Faraday was called upon to give public lectures at which he tried his best to convey that beauty of the natural world as he saw it. “I am no poet,” his lecture notes read, “but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your mind.”

The poets of the day–like Percy Bysshe Shelley, author of The Necessity of Atheism—were sometimes atheists. Many were convinced that the natural world as it was being revealed by scientists like Faraday was inconsistent with a belief in God. But Faraday himself saw no such inconsistency. He was a devout Christian—specifically a Sandemanian. On his deathbed, he was asked, “Have you ever pondered by yourself what will be your occupation in the next world?” His last words: “I shall be with Christ, and that is enough.”