Faraday’s motivation

Yesterday David Colquhoun send me this on Twitter:


I had a look at the article and decided that it would take a bit too much time and space to add my thoughts on this to a comment stream really focusing on Vice Chancellors at UCL, so I’ll do it here.

Among his comments, David had written: “A lot of those who have commented here are obsessed with idea that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on education or research. I expect if “Pete”, “Anon” and “Sean” had lived in the days of Michael Faraday, they would have told him to stop wasting time playing with wires and coils, and told him to do something really useful, like inventing better leather washers for steam engines.

One reply suggested that Faraday was doing applied research – leading to electric motors – suggesting that “Industry today would have no problems in supporting Faraday as whatever did had immediate applications“. David responded that the applications were not obvious “at the time [Faraday] was playing with wires and coils“, since the electric motor was 40 years off. Again, in response, it was suggested that Faraday “was a person who was interested scientific applications , and was not merely interested dong it for its own sake“.

Further down, another commenter, John Dainton, added “The Royal Institution employed Michael Faraday to improve the quality of optical glass. He asked to leave to study some questions that interested him concerning electricity and magnetism (presumably because he was interested in understanding what electricity and magnetism were all about?). Without Faraday’s individual curiosity, no-one would have been able to invent the electric motor, in industry or indeed anywhere“, before going on to name and describe the curiosity-driven or authority-ignoring work of other heroes: James Lovelock, George Gray, Alec Gambling, Max Perutz, John Kendre and Tim Berners Lee.

Anyone else who’s interested can comment on this argument as they wish. I’ll stick with Faraday.

It is hard to think of anyone more closely linked to the idea that scientific work would lead to practical applications. The Royal Institution, which dominated Faraday’s working life, was founded on such an idea: for “diffusing the knowledge, and facilitating the general introduction, of useful mechanical inventions and improvements; and for teaching, by courses of philosophical lectures and experiments, the application of science to the common purposes of life“. On the agenda were topics like tanning, brewing, fertilisers, analysis of foodstuffs etc. Educating people to understand the importance and usefulness of science was also practical, applied work.

At the RI, as correctly pointed out above, Faraday was employed on eminently practical work to develop better optical glass (for, in fact, a Board of Longitude and Royal Society committee). He didn’t particularly enjoy this task but, like Davy, his day-to-day work was also to include carrying out chemical analysis for private individuals, companies, including the East India Company, and advising government, the Admiralty, Trinity House and more.

Work on electricity and magnetism was not separate to this. Davy, of course, pioneered the use of electricity in chemical analysis, and, unsuccessfully, applied his scientific knowledge in recommending to the Admiralty the use of copper sheeting on ships to prevent corrosion by sea water. Faraday did the follow-up analysis, he also made recommendations about the possibilities and practicalities of electrifying lighthouses and bouys (from the 1840s) and in making and laying telegraph cables. Finding a new way to generate, and sustain, electric power, and to understand its relationship with magnetic attraction, was never going to be seen as merely curious. Applications for electricity had been found or imagined since the 18th century, and everyone, Faraday included, would have assumed that any discoveries or workable theories in this field would be very useful indeed.

As I wrote some time ago in my post about the history of ‘pure’ science, it was during Faraday’s career that the claim that speculative scientific work should be supported by government because it would, someday, have practical pay-offs took root, even if it was only really acted on in the later 20th century. Such a claim was, undoubtedly, possible and meaningful in part because of the successes of Faraday’s career in linking his science with practical applications. The need for scientific workers and their funders to know likely or possible ‘impact’ or work being done is, over history, much more the norm than the notion that scientists can’t or shouldn’t consider the applications of their work.

Faraday was deeply embedded in a culture – in his nation, his time and his institution – that said science should be supported because it was useful. None of this is to say that he was not curious, that his curiosity did not drive him to new experiments, nor that he did not appreciate the beauty of the physical world. Faraday was, perhaps, most deeply motivated by his religious belief and his sense that he was making discoveries about God’s creation. However, he undoubtedly also believed that God had given man the ability to make sense of his creation not just in order to worship, but also to benefit humankind.

So, I must respectfully disagree with David on the matter of Faraday’s fiddling with wires and coils. No industrialist, business entrepreneur or Vice Chancellor, would have told him to stop, even if they would also like him to continue with a whole range of other activities and advising roles at the same time.



11 thoughts on “Faraday’s motivation

  1. I think that the mistake that you make (and it’s partly my fault for not mentioning it) is to ignore the fact that most research, whatever its motive, fails. It’s very easy now to say that Faraday’s work was phenomenally successful, but how many other things that were investigated by the Royal Institution at the time were not successful? The huge, and still unsolved, problem is to tell in advance what will turn out to be useful and important. That has proved to be quite impossible, and it is why curiosity-driven research has to be encouraged.

    It has been said time and time again that the price of successful innovation is to accept that there will be a great deal of failure. That is very true, though it seems impossible for politicians to grasp it.

    I’m not sure why you say “No industrialist, business entrepreneur or Vice Chancellor, would have told him to stop”. That is surely sheer guesswork. It’s something that we’ll never know. And even if it were true then, I doubt it would be true now.

    Neither is it true that much, perhaps most, research, even in the 19th Century, was driven by practical applications. Huge amounts of research in biology and astronomy that was done in the 19th century had no practical application, and still hasn’t. It has never made money for anyone. I doubt that you believe that that means it wasn’t worth supporting, any more than you believe that the study of the history of science isn’t worth supporting.

    • Many thanks for the response. Here’s mine.

      Research often fails, of course. What’s at issue is: what questions, materials, topics etc. do a research choose to focus on? what kinds of problems? Faraday, with electricity, was working on a field that he and many others considered likely to yield practical applications. He was also looking at ways to put this knowledge – and other areas of his knowledge – to practical work straight away. His work, and science in general, were seen to have practical applications, hence he was courted as an advisor to the Admiralty and many other bodies throughout his life. While some discoveries may have much later, and unexpected, benefits, it does not mean that the original research was not intended to address practical problems (or that it was not put to use in a number of other ways).

      My statement about industrialists etc. was reflecting the fact that Faraday’s skills were made use of by businessmen and governments, and it was anticipated that his discoveries would be something that could be capitalised on. Again, all these groups today would be delighted to support a scientist working on a field that clearly had so much potential.

      Regarding your final paragraph I’d make two points. 1) very little if any research before the late 19th century would have received *funding* or allowed scientific careers to be made if it did not have pretty clear benefits and applications 2) where more speculative research did occur (with private funding) there was usually an assumption about longer-term benefits – a kind of Baconian belief that any knowledge is power. I also suspect that much of the botanical and astronomical research you are thinking of as having no practical application probably *did* have some sort of idea of benefit at the time, even if it came to naught. Botany, for example, was always considered beneficial as linking directly (if at further and further remove as specialisms developed) to food, land, trade etc.

  2. “What’s at issue is: what questions, materials, topics etc. do a research choose to focus on?”
    Yes that is precisely what matters at the moment, and my aim was to point out that nobody can tell.

    What we can be fairly sure about is that most guesses, from Research Council apparatchiks, from vice-chancellors, and even from people doing the work, will be wrong.

    Faraday was, perhaps, a bad example. precisely because it was so successful. The examples produced by John Dainton, in the painful discussion in THE, make the point better, if only because they are more recent. My aim was not to speculate about history, but to argue against a lot of trolls (or perhaps just one with a lot of pseudonyms) who were saying that research should have no public funding at all, but should be financed entirely by industry.

    • We may not be able to predict acturately the results of research, but you can certainly decide, on one level, whether or not to research a way to stop ships hulls corroding and, on another, to investigate a phenomena like electricity that has already had several useful applications, thrown up various problems that require solutions and appears likely to have a range of potential benefits.

      It is also the fact that directed research can throw up both results useful to the original question and other knowledge that may not (or not for a long time) prove financially or otherwise beneficial – or dangerous, for that matter. On twitter you suggested that astronomy, evolution and anatomy didn’t make money, but I’d beg to differ. There is plenty of business for those who understand anatomy (hence we have doctors), astronomy supports timekeeping, navigation, cartography and more. Evolution was the result of people doing work that the Admiralty found useful (new resources to exploit etc) and understanding how species develop is applicable, potentially, to animal breeding and (perhaps) medicine.

      There is, for sure, a change. When government funded started going into, for example, astrophysics rather than merely positional astronomy in the later 19th century, something very new started to happen.

      I don’t by any means argue that the government should not fund a whole range of scientific research, and ditto arts and humanities. But I think it is also reasonable for questions to be asked about what this money is for, and for those questions to be answered meaningfully. History would suggest that directed research, and research focused on practical applications, has an important role to play.

  3. I expect that I may have had in mind the story about Gladstone, who, on asking Faraday what use
    his invention would be, is said to have replied

    “Sir, I do not know, but someday you will tax it”

    This remark was allegedly made in 1854, almost 20 years before the first real electric motor, which makes it feasible. I do seem recall having read somewhere that there is doubt whether this famous encounter ever happened. Even if it didn’t. the fact that the quotation became so popular that one can, must suggest that the idea was not considered outrageous.

    I do think your indirect implication that Faraday might be used to justify the current obsession with “impact” is quite wrong. It is very easy to see in retrospect that he might well have been able to write a convincing impact statement before he did the work. But then so, no doubt, would all the people who did nor succeed.

    • Probably apocryphal – and its staying power reflects what a useful myth it is for scientists. “Give us money, we’re not sure what for, but I promise it will be good!”

      Faraday could have written a very nice impact statement – it might not have been exactly the same one as he’d write retrospectively, but it would reflect the fact that he had an eye on real-world applications. Remember, he was looking into electric lighthouses by the 1840s….

  4. You say “probably apocryphal”. Is it not known for sure?

    Whether or not the quotation is a myth, the principle most certainly isn’t. As historian, you must surely realise that just about every important development discovery has resulted from curiosity-driven research. Time and time again, attempts to predict what will be useful have failed. The latest example, and a good one, is graphene.

    I fear that you evading the thing that matters for the present problems. Yes of course Faraday could have written an impact statement. Just about anyone can.write one. Impact statements are an invitation to bullshit and make-believe. They are the sort of encouragement to exaggeration and hype that is doing active harm to science. A sort of compulsory dishonesty. Of course a small fraction of them will turn out to be true, but you don’t know which until 20 years later. Most will not be true.

    I think it could be said that the work of my great heroes, people like Huxley, Katz, Neher & Sakmann, have had no direct economic consequences. Most space science has had even less. I do think you are being quite unrealistic about how progress is made.



    • I wrote “probably” because I couldn’t be bothered to double-check late at night! If I get a chance later I’ll let you know – but I’ll move to “almost certainly”.

      As for “As historian, you must surely realise that just about every important development discovery has resulted from curiosity-driven research” – this is not at all what history tells us, especially pre-20th century. But even in the 20th century, in for example John Agar’s recent book on Science in the Twentieth Century and Beyond, very large amounts of scientific knowledge is made when people have focused on real-world issues and problems, often in industrial or government contexts.

      We should always remember that the large amounts of funding for directed research associated with war time is hugely productive for science and technology. I’d say the pattern has more often been real world problem -> search for practical solutions -> new scientific knowledge than the other way round.

  5. “I’d say the pattern has more often been real world problem -> search for practical solutions -> new scientific knowledge than the other way round.”
    I think that has never been true in my lifetime.

  6. By accident I have found that discussion searching twitter for “Faraday”. Please forgive me when I take the chance to make some promotion for a homopolar machine invented by me in 2001. The physics of my invention are partly based on an experiment which was conducted by Michael Faraday in 1831, when he found that a voltage was induced between the centre of a conductive disc and the rim if it was spun together with a magnet. Until now the result of that experiment stayed unutilized and my hope is that the time has come for a change.

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