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  • Writer's pictureSheldon Goodman

Keep the Candle Burning

A bustling street in Camden is hardly the place you’d expect time to rewind itself to the 1840’s. From the outside, the brutalist Christopher Ingold Building in Gordon Street would seem to embody everything from the 1950’s onward. And it does. At an event at UCL, a lady in a bustling Victorian costume ushered us to the auditorium, where one of the greatest men of Science, for 40 minutes only, was to return from the other side and show the likes of Brian Cox a thing or too about making science understandable to the masses.

Our MC and intermediary for the proceedings was Professor Steven Miller, from UCL’s Chemistry department. “Be prepared as he will take you into the realms of the less familiar” he bellowed. Dry ice came from the door to the right of the demonstration table and after introductions to his assistants, Professor Miller welcomed Michael Faraday to the floor.


Well; not quite. He was represented by Professor Frank James, an expert of Faraday who edited his correspondence, Miller handily pointing out that Faraday ‘didn’t have a moustache’.

Faraday, until recently was one of the most well-recognised figures of our times. To put his achievements to one side for the moment, it was he who appeared on the British £20 note until respected Composer Edward Elgar ousted him in 2001.

Faraday was a self taught man, who hailed from Surrey. A didactic man by nature, he became an apprentice to Humphrey Davy, an eminent Chemist (who also invented by the Davy Lamp, which has recently had its bicentenary since its invention) after presenting him with a 300 page volume of the notes he’d taken during his lectures. Impressed, he became his assistant and so began his career as a scientist.


Known for his pioneering work understanding the magnetic field around a conductor carrying a direct current that Faraday established the basis for the concept of the electromagnetic field. His work with electromagnetic rotary devices paved the way for electricity becoming widely used and available to all, as well as discovering Benzene.

The lecture sought to recreate a talk that Faraday had given; its popularity so great that a very successful book came from his research and is still available today. Faraday’s great skill was explaining scientific principles and making them understandable to the common man, particularly, to children. ‘The Chemical History of a Candle’ was performed several times at the Royal Institution in 1849, 1856 and 1860-61.


The Royal Institution, where Faraday lectured and was Professor of Chemistry. I also thought this was where the lecture itself was, then discovering it was actually on the UCL campus, had to throw myself to the Victoria Line to make it there on time.

From a painting depicting a lecture given at the Royal Institution in 1856

Faraday lecturing. From a painting depicting a lecture given at the Royal Institution in 1856

‘He found an ordinary thing and constructed a Universe’

The forty minute demonstration summarised his six lectures and explained, impressively, how a candle worked, from how the current of air is drawn up the flame, the parts of the flame itself and how a candle, observing its shadow on a piece of paper, is actually the brightest part of its fire. Capillary action, the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of external forces like gravity, was also demonstrated with salt and a green solution.

“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.”

Faraday/James also told us of how a towel left over the side of a basin, would absorb all the water and transfer almost all of it to the floor that the other end of the towel was resting on. Simple experiments which were designed to enthuse and entertain juveniles and adults alike. Miller then reminded the children in the audience to not try this themselves…!

In the 148th anniversary since his death, further research into Faraday provided some interesting tidbits; he declined the offering of the British Government in creating chemical weapons to be used in the Crimea for ‘ethical reasons’ and is the only scientist with two units of measurement named after him; the Farad and the Faraday.

© Caroline Swan 2015

© Caroline Swan 2015

Far away in Highgate Cemetery, Faraday’s headstone, imposing amongst an onslaught of weeds and other memorials is but a small part of the legacy he left to the modern world.


References & Source Material

Click to access Faraday_1860_History_Candle.pdf

#Chemistry #Electromagnetism #christmas #Physics #Lectures #Faraday #HumphreyDavy #RoyalInstitution #Cage #Experiments

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