Inducing an electrical revolution

The Royal Institution

You will probably recognise the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) in London if you’ve watched the Christmas Lectures now on the BBC. (These were started by Michael Faraday in 1825). It remains an important part of the scientific landscape of today through its education programmes however it’s past is of historic consequence. Its mission is “diffusing science for the common purposes of life” which has been a summary of its guiding principles since founding back in 1799. Ten elements of the periodic table were discovered here and fifteen Nobel laurates are associated with the Institution. But we’re here to talk about just one notable part of the Royal Institution’s illustrious history.

Faraday

Michael Faraday may be one of the most influential scientists in history and Einstein had a picture of Faraday in his study. Faraday had little scientific training but developed a keen intertest in science through his work at a bookbinder and bookseller in London. He developed this interest further through talks he attended including by Humphrey Davy. Faraday took so much interest at these lectures, that he wrote a 300 page summary which made such an impression on Humphrey Davy that he hired Faraday as a laboratory assistant in 1913 at the Royal Institution and subsequently asked Faraday to accompany him around Europe on a tour for two years.

Electricity had been understood before Faraday and notably it was Alessandro Volta (who’s name is known to every child due to volts being named after him) who gave Faraday a battery in 1814 on the tour (above is the actual battery). Volta invented the chemical battery in 1799. Both Davey and Faraday experimented with electricity from batteries they made at the RI for decades. Faraday held several more notable posts at the Royal Institution from 1921 onwards. And it’s from this time through the 1830’s that we really get into this story.

One of the biggest breakthroughs in science happened when the electric generator was invented here on the 17th October 1931. A magnet was pushed through a coiled wire generating a small voltage (the actual generator is seen above). The link between electricity and magnetism is a fundamental scientific relationship and one that we exploit every day. In 1831 Faraday also developed the first electric transformer seen as the featured doughnut image which can change voltages of electric currents. These two devices lie at the heart of our electric infrastructure.

Understanding Electricity

Now more than ever this revolution is still going, electric motors, transformers and batteries which all developed immeasurably at Albermire St. in London are at the heart of our push to e-mobility and one can only hope institutions like this continue to inspire and develop the scientists of the future. Faraday’s laboratory as seen below remains exactly as it was in 1831, not a replica; well worth a visit.

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