Advent Calendar of Science Stories 15: An Unusual Resume

"...and take care that all the signatures go in the right way round, eh, James? I was able to soothe Mr. Dance last time, but if another copy comes back to be rebound, M. de la Roche will put you out."


"A little more care, there's a good lad. Run home, now, we'll see you in the morning." The apprentice scurried off.

The journeyman bookbinder checked again that the shop door was securely closed, pulled his coat tighter against the March chill, and turned to make the short walk to his own meagre rooms. Stuffing his hands in his pockets, he felt the folded pamphlet advertising tonight's lecture at Mr. Tatum's house, and sighed.

What to do? Tatum's house had always been a bright spot, but it seemed less grand compared to the spectacle of the Royal Institution. And he could scarce afford the shilling-- Robert might lend him another, but he owed his brother so much already... The money might better be spent on buying another sheet of copper, to make a bigger battery in the tiny cramped space set aside for his apparatus...

Or, given that he seemed doomed to a career in bookbinding, perhaps he ought to save it up for more practical purposes. Not that it was a bad life, but running de la Roche's shop allowed so little time for other pursuits, and there were so many questions he wanted to explore. He thought longingly again of his electrical notes, so carefully bound and sent off, for so little gain...

As he turned the corner toward his lodging, he slowly became aware of an oddity. The sounds of the street were... off. The normal chatter was more hushed than it should be, even for early evening. It wasn't hard to spot the cause-- a carriage, of all things, standing in the street, with a tall fellow in a footman's outfit standing by it, talking up to the driver. Not at all the sort of thing one expected to see in Weymouth Street.

The coachman said something, and the footman turned "Ah! There you are at last!"

"Mr. Jenkins! What brings you to my neighborhood?"

"A carriage, obviously. But more importantly, you. I have a note for you from Sir Humphrey, who asks that you come to see him first thing tomorrow."

"Regarding... what?" He took the paper Jenkins proffered, hands trembling slightly, more from hope than the chill.

"I can't really say. But, strictly in confidence, there was a dreadful row at the Institute. Cartwright, the junior assistant, came to blows with one of the instrument makers. Knocked over a table and smashed a couple of alembics."


"Truly. That's the third time, and the most expensive. He's been sacked. Turned out in the street this very afternoon, most of his goods confiscated to cover the damage."

"I see." A summons from Sir Humphrey, an opening at the Royal Institution? "My deepest thanks, Mr. Jenkins. I shall call at Albermarle Street first thing in the morning."

"Right, then. We'll see you tomorrow." Jenkins climbed up beside the coachman. The coachman shook the reins, and the carriage headed off down the street, scattering a small crowd of gawking children. "A good night to you, Mr. Faraday," Jenkins called, and then they rounded the corner and were gone.

I've gone away from the fictionalized thing a bit as we move toward more recent history, as it's much easier to go wrong when people have more detailed knowledge of the era. I like this story enough, though, that I couldn't really resist, though I'm sure I've gotten all sorts of things wrong about Regency London.

Anyway, today's story is an allusion to one of the more unusual job applications of all time, which launched the career of one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, Michael Faraday. Faraday came from a poor family, and received little formal education beyond learning to read, but had an insatiable curiosity about the world and an impressive drive to improve himself.

Moving up in British society in the early 1800's was an exceedingly difficult thing to do, though. Faraday was apprenticed to a bookbinder at 14, where he learned a good deal about science by reading books that passed through the shop. He also saved and borrowed money to attend some of the public lectures that were popular in that day, and conducted experiments of his own in a bit of space set aside in the back of the shop run by his first boss. But after the completion of his apprenticeship, his employer as a journeyman was less supportive, and he seemed to have a dreary career ahead of him in the trade.

The turning point for Faraday came when a customer gave him tickets to see a set of four lectures by Sir Humphrey Davy, one of the most celebrated scientists in Britain. Faraday took careful notes, and in his spare time bound these up and sent them to Davy as a demonstration of his interest, and inquiring whether it might be possible to get a job as one of the assistants at the Royal Institution. Davy's own origins were not terribly exalted, so he responded kindly, but didn't have a position to offer; Faraday clearly made a strong impression, though, because when one of the assistants was dismissed for brawling, he sent for Faraday and hired him on.

Davy was justly famous for his chemical and electrical discoveries, but in later years, it was said that his greatest discovery was Faraday, who rose to become one of the greatest scientists of the Victorian era. He was meticulous and endlessly curious, and made important discoveries in chemistry, optics, thermodynamics, and others. By far his most important contribution, though, was his discovery of the connection between electricity and magnetism, which is what allows you to read this story today. Faraday's law of electromagnetic induction shows that a changing magnetic field will induce current to flow in a loop of wire, and is the basis for the vast majority of the electrical power generation that drives modern technology.

Faraday's story is important for a couple of reasons. First, it indicates the contingent nature of a lot of science-- had Faraday not been given tickets to Davy's lecture, and had Davy not been exactly the right person to be moved by Faraday's bound notes (an earlier appeal to Joseph Banks at the Royal Society did not fare well), the history of science might be very different. It's also a reminder of how little is actually required to do science-- a self-taught apprentice bookbinder in the highly stratified society of Britain in the 1800's was able to make discoveries that have utterly transformed society, through careful observation and meticulous testing.

Anybody can do science, regardless of race, gender, or class. All it takes is curiosity about the world, dedication to pursuing answers, and a willingness to take the occasional chance in pursuit of a career.


(Part of a series promoting Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist, available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, and anywhere else books are sold.)

(Faraday's life story really is fascinating, and I recommend Alan Hirshfeld's biography if you'd like to know more...)

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I read this on feedly, so I didn't see the photo at the top until I came to comment. As I was reading, I got more and more curious who he was. Great story!

By Sue VanHattum (not verified) on 15 Dec 2014 #permalink