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.


Cutting a dash: men of science as ‘historical hotties’

I had a bit of fun this week tweeting links to portraits of some 19th-century men of science, suggesting that they were ’19thC scientific hotties’. Such a phrase is not, I should add, my usual vocabulary, and nor is a focus on people’s looks. And thus explanation is in order. My tweets brought a response from Vanessa Heggie – “trying to tell myself this ‘historical hotties’ thing is OK, as is clearly subversion of patriarchal power” – and linking to Bangable Dudes in History.  Was I making a feminist point? Or was I objectifying these men in a way that I would naturally find uncomfortable if it were living women? Was I, perhaps, attempting to claim that men of science can be attractive, in some sort of historical, masculine version of the (for me) dubious Cheerleaders for Science.

I was, in fact, playing with a few ideas that I didn’t want to develop in 140-character chunks on Twitter. One was exploring this as a hook for introducing less-well-known scientific figures to an unsuspecting public, another was thinking about how such men chose to be portrayed in their lifetimes, and the third was my own response to these portraits, and how they may have coloured views of these historical characters.

The whole thing started in response to this post by Beth Dunn on Thomas Say and the utopian project that had Robert Owen sending a ‘Boatload of Knowledge‘ – in the form of men of science, writers and artists – to New Harmony in the mid-West. It was not Beth’s contention, but someone had suggested that Say was a “19th century hottie”. I retweeted the post, but also suggested that I had another favourite portrait of a man of science and adventurer, the NMM’s portrait of James Clark Ross by John R. Wildman.

Ross, who travelled to both the Arctic and Antarctic, located the north magnetic pole and carried out a huge range of scientific observations, was reckoned by Jane Franklin “the handsomest man in the navy”. He was the “scientific serviceman” par excellance: a heroic naval figure who could cut a dash and demonstrate his manly devotion to nation in time of peace. He’s fascinating, but I don’t fancy him (he’s dead, for a start), I just love the portrait: a Romantic shock of dark hair, passionate glance, icebergs, polar bearskin, Pole Star and, beautifully delineated in the foreground, an instrument known as a dip circle, used to measure variation in magnetic inclination.

As my tweet got a reasonable response, I followed it up over the next couple of days with links to Thomas Phillips’ portrait of Michael Faraday and Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Henry Brougham. Again, these are Romanticised images of men who, in very different ways, took on public roles that were undoubtedly enhanced by their intelligence and charismatic personalities. Faraday was, of course, a star public lecturer (the Brian Cox of his day, dare I say?) as well as a hugely important figure in the history of chemistry and physics. Although modest and discrete, he certainly knew – or learned – how to capture his audiences through look, voice and gesture as well as knowledge and dexterity. Brougham, in reality, was probably no looker but I was captured by his portrait when it was displayed in a NPG exhibition, The British Portrait 1660-1960, way back in 1991 (when I just about knew of the Great Reform Act, but had never heard of history of science). It is Lawrence at his best: capturing a light of fierce intelligence in the eye of this young, ambitious, passionate lawyer.

I think I would have to admit, if challenged, that my knowledge of these portraits probably pre-disposed me to some level of sympathy for the sitters. Quite probably it was more than I might have felt had I first seen their much later photographic portraits. It’s never nice to admit, but looks and first impressions inevitably colour our impressions of people and, I think, the same can be true of those we meet through paintings and archives, although better acquaintance can often override early opinions. Other times, an interest, familiarity or admiration can build up from knowledge of the archive, only to be challenged when finally seeing a portrait that misses by a country mile the mental image built up.

What interests me particularly about these portraits, and others of the period like Humphry Davy or William Whewell, is that they depict relatively young men, in a period when youth, imagination, intellect and genius were unabashedly romanticised and celebrated. Although there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, before this date portraits often appear more formal, and later the dominance of photography brings a distinctly unflattering stiffness or realism to our heroes. By and large, too, men of science tended not to have portraits done until they had reached rich or honoured old age, usually long after their best work was behind them. And how much do they affect our assumptions? Flamsteed, the first Astronomer Royal is usually thought of as dull, plodding, uptight and downright grumpy. There is certainly plenty of this in what his wrote in old age, and it is underlined by our best-known image of him, a frontispiece to a posthumous volume, but do we think a little more kindly of him when presented with his more youthful image?

John Flamsteed (1646–1719)

These themes are particularly pertinent in a museum setting. People and the personal are very often dominant in our displays, either reflecting the kind of material that has been collected (relics, provenances) or assumptions about how audiences best respond to the themes we are treating. If you want people to care about the bunch of stuff (scientific instruments, documents, tools, trinkets, whatever) we are showing, the usual tactic is to provide a name, some biography and a portrait. If those portraits evoke sympathy and interest, all the better. Thus, while I have concluded that my ’19thC scientific hotties’ are not the answer to eschewing anniversaries as a hook for introducing my historic characters, I nevertheless found it helpful to think about personal reactions to these images, with their ability – part of their original intention – to inspire the viewer with a whole range of emotions.