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December 09, 2004

Horatio Alger must not die: The Bicentenary of Michael Faraday's Apprenticeship and the Idea of an Exemplary Life

Posted by Seamus Sweeney

The rags-to-riches story, the story of how persistence, hard work and the desire for self-betterment can bring the poorest of the poor to the heights of achievement, is now seldom told, or at least seldom told with sincerity. The spirit of the age is against it. One of the chapters of Michael Moore's Dude, Where's My Country? is called Horatio Alger Must Die, referring to the popular nineteenth century author whose stories of plucky youngsters overcoming all obstacles in the way of achievement exemplify the genre.

To the worldview Michael Moore represents, the from-log-cabin-to-White-House type of story is at best hopelessly nave, at worst a heartless illusion, the gullible souls who swallow it suffering from the a miserable gap between expectation and reality.

Like any view of life, taken to an extreme the Horatio Alger attitude does produce misery. After all, endless striving can lead to endless anxiety. No doubt there is something to be said for a more sober appraisal of life's possibilities. There is something more dehumanising however, about the "Horatio Alger Must Die" attitude.

If all striving is pointless and futile, surely Michael Moore should be moping around Flint, Michigan, writing occasional letters to the editor of the local paper? In contrast to the "Horatio Alger Must Die" attitude, socialism of the old school was a serious-minded, self-improving creed, which held that the working classes were as entitled to high cultural expectations as anyone else.

As well as living in a cultural climate where the idea of exemplary lives seems somewhat absurd, the idea of the Great Man achieving Great Things is deeply unfashionable. In the history of science, we are encouraged to see the "progress" of science as the story of ideologies, or class interests, or anything except the old heroic view of disinterested scientists having eureka moments. Again, there is something to be said for this scepticism. Scientists are no more insulated from the rest of society and from political issues than anyone else, and the heroic view of calm, reasonable progress betrays a misunderstanding of how research and discovery really work.

Nevertheless, with the academic unfashionability of the Great Man school of the history in general and history of science in particular, there is a concomitant popular interest in the lives of the scientists. In many ways this is analogous to the popularity of books and television programmes about battles and royalty the "maps and chaps" sort of history that is frowned on in teaching and academia. Children (and undergraduates) are supposed to be interested in how the Romans made porridge, not Julius Caesar.

Since the success of Dava Sobel's Longitude, there has been a mini-boom in books about the personalities of the history of science. Lively biographies of the names best known as units or constants proliferate. The titles alone demonstrate the popular resistance to the death of the "Great Man" school of history of science with the likes of The Man Who Changed Everything: The Life of James Clerk Maxwell and The Man Who Invented the Twentieth Century: Nikola Tesla. The success of these books must be, in part, due to a yearning for exactly those tales of exemplary lives that we have allegedly grown out of.

Two hundred years ago a friendly, short-for-his-age boy with a head that seemed somewhat too big for the rest of his body was forced to give up what little formal schooling he had had and find a trade. The continuing ill health of Michael Faraday's father led his son to begin as a messenger boy for George Ribeau, a Huguenot bookbinder based in Blandford Street. Evidently too bright to be a messenger boy for long, Faraday was made an apprentice bookbinder by Ribeau. As is well known, Faraday did not see this a simply a tedious, repetitive task but the opportunity to read what he bound. Articles on chemistry and electricity inspired him to begin his own experiments with glass jars bought with a few spare pennies.

Aged eighteen, he joined the City Philosophical Society one of the innumerable educational associations formed to bring enlightening lectures and courses of learning to the young rural males who flocked to the cities, creating the urban working class. Again, these kind of associations would be derided as paternalistic sops from the ruling class in modern history. There may well have been a certain amount of what we would find earnest dullness attendant on their proceedings. Nevertheless, it isn't hard to mourn the loss of whatever it was that made these organisations so attractive to young men.

Involvement in the City Philosophical Society led to his attendance at Humphrey Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution. It is delightful to read of the detailed notes he made of these lectures, and the excitement evident in his correspondence with like-minded friends.

Faraday sent a copy of his closely kept lecture notes to Davy, who was so impressed that he gave him a job as an assistant in the Royal Institution fortune creating a vacancy when the Institution's Instrument Maker and Chemical Assistant brawled in the main lecture hall. Thus began Faraday's long association with the Royal Institution, which became synonymous with him.

Faraday was forced to begin a new apprenticeship in chemistry. These years of patient, difficult work were hardly made more congenial by the attitude of Davy's wife Jane, who - on a scientific tour of the continent Faraday accompanied the Davys on - insisted on treating the Chemical Assistant as a valet. In 1821 Faraday was promoted to Superintendent of the House, as well as marrying Sarah Barnard and carrying out the series of experiments that lead to the discovery of electromagnetic rotation. Over the following ten years practical duties kept him from the further work on electromagnetism that would lead to the invention of the electric motor - the invention which transformed electricity from curio to social and economic dynamo (in all senses). This launched the glittering career, skilfully told by James Hamilton in his 2002 biography.

On the one hand, Faraday is one of the best-known scientific names of all time. His achievements, both theoretical and practical, were immense: the discovery of electromagnetic rotation induction, of benzene and butylene; the invention of the electric motor, of stainless steel. He was a great populariser whose Christmas lectures for children continue today. Einstein was said to have a portrait of Faraday on his wall.

On the other hand, however, not only was Faraday's life sentimentalised after his death, but a perception arose that Faraday was a kind of idiot savant; he has been portrayed as a gifted experimenter who, largely by happenstance, arrived at his eminent position. Some of this came from his non-mathematical approach, taking a more pictorial, seemingly unanalytical approach. Presumably his humble origins also informed this blend of snobbery and sentiment.

He retained the simple, unshowy faith of Sandemanianism, the small Protestant sect that he belonged to since birth. This faith, with its emphasis on humility and piety, led him to generally avoid social engagements and honorifics. Perhaps it has also led to some of the downgrading of his achievement.

Hamilton is rightly sceptical of a tendency among Faraday's early biographers to stress the exemplary, "perfect" qualities of the life. Cosmo Monkhouse's 1898 poem "On a Portrait of Faraday" captures something of the hagiographic excess of this approach:

Was ever man so simple and so sage,

So crowned and yet so careless of a prize!

Great Faraday, who made the world so wise,

And loved the labour better than the wage.

Historians and biographers must treat such mythologising with suspicion. No public figure can possibly escape controversy and even some obloquy, and for all his piety Faraday had disputes with the Sandemanian church and was excluded from it on one occasion. Nevertheless, the exemplary qualities of lives such as Faraday's should not be forgotten. Overreaction to the more embarrassing customs of Victoriana leads to a cruel and no less false cynicism.

For there is something humbling and inspiring in considering Faraday's life. "Work. Finish. Publish" was his advice to the young William Crookes, and in its blend of simplicity and shrewdness (for what better advice could one give a young scientist) this dictum sums up the man. Starting from an apparent reverse two hundred years ago, out of a background of humility and piety, of industrious self-improvement and of making the most of any opportunity, began a career that took him to the summit of world science.

Seamus Sweeney is a medical graduate and freelance writer. He is a
contributor to the forthcoming Meet the Philosophers of Ancient Greece (Ashgate, 2005).


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