John Steele Gordon shares with Barron’s readers a profile of Michael Faraday.

[I]f he had little formal education, he was a voracious autodidact. Apprenticed to a bookbinder at age 14, he spent his teenage years binding books by day and reading them by night, especially those on chemistry and physics.

His break came in 1812, when a customer at the bookbindery gave him tickets to the popular lectures given by Humphry Davy, then Britain’s leading chemist, at the Royal Institution. Faraday was transfixed by the lectures on “The Mysterious Force of Electric Fluid” and made copious notes. Hoping to ingratiate himself with Davy, Faraday bound his notes into a book, which he presented to Davy as a gift. Not long afterwards, Davy hired Faraday as a secretary, after injuring himself in an experiment gone awry.

Faraday soon made himself indispensable to Davy and became his lab assistant. But Davy continued to treat Faraday as a servant, not an equal, because of his working-class origins. While Davy and his wife traveled in Europe, Faraday had to serve as Davy’s valet as well as his assistant.

In 1819, a Danish scientist, Hans Christian Ørsted, discovered that an electric current running through a wire induces a magnetic field around the wire. This was the first indication that electricity and magnetism, long thought to be completely different forces, must have a connection. Davy, among others, investigated the phenomenon, hoping to produce something practical, but failed. Then Faraday tried his hand at it. He hung a copper wire, able to rotate freely, from a metal support. The wire reached into a vessel below containing a magnet in a pool of mercury. When he attached a battery to the support, the copper wire began to rotate around the magnet, following the lines of the magnetic field (a term Faraday coined) in the mercury.

Faraday had converted electrical energy into mechanical, work-doing energy. In other words, he had invented an electric motor. The discovery made him famous, which did not please Davy, especially after people started saying that Davy’s greatest discovery was Michael Faraday. In 1824, Faraday was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, the pinnacle of the British scientific establishment.

Despite his sudden eminence, Faraday, deeply religious, remained a very modest man. He twice declined to become president of the Royal Society, refused a knighthood, and would not allow himself to be buried in Westminster Abbey (although there is a memorial plaque to him there, near the tombs of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin).