“It’s all ready Sir Humphry.”
He felt tired, he sat down and took a deep breath, his lungs hurt. He knew why, he had been down into the cellars of the institution. The air there was full of acid fumes, the batteries were hissing and spluttering, Michael had said there was more electric power there than anywhere else on earth, apart from in a thunderstorm.
Electricity, that was the new force, he was only beginning to understand it, and he knew he never would. Michael, he might, no – he would, he was brilliant, and was already making discoveries. He had made the electrodes that lay on the table, soon he would be building wonderful things, he would master electricity. But for now he was just the assistant.
Sir Humphry looked around the room, the banked seats were filling up, the lectures at the Royal Institution were always popular, the men and women gathering there were a mixture of the greatest minds in the world, and the most fashionable people of London. They were expecting wonders, the rumours of the giant batteries they had been building had excited the popular imagination, though no one knew exactly what they were planning.
He looked down at the electrodes on the table, innocent things but he knew what power would soon be running through them, lethal power, if it went wrong then the audience would have something truly dreadful to watch. He was calm, if it went wrong it didn’t matter, Faraday would continue, and anyway he knew he was dying. His lungs had been destroyed with all the experiments on gasses he had made. But he had found out so much, and created so much. His doctor had asked if he felt it had been worth it, the destruction of his lungs, his imminent early death. He had simply replied, “Yes”.
He had meant it too, he had written his name in the annals of science, and used his knowledge for the benefit of all. The lamp he had created, how many hundreds of lives had it saved? How many thousands would it save in the future? His lamp, yes, light. He rose and addressed the audience.
“Light, for thousands of years men have lit the world using flames, from the simple rushlight.” He bent and lit the little rush in its primitive holder. “To candles,” he lit a candlestick. “And lamps.” Here he indicated the modern Argand lamp and his own Miner’s Lamp.
“Even the gas that is now lighting our streets is but another way of fuelling the flame. But is there another way? We have all seen the lightning bolt, from the battery we can make a tiny spark, but we cannot control it, cannot keep it burning, cannot create a light from electricity.”
He looked at the men by the gas lamps, they turned the flames down, he snuffed out the candles, turned down the lamps. The only light was the small lamp by his assistant. There were surprised gasps from the audience. He pulled on the thick leather gauntlets, then turned to his assistant.
“Faraday, Now.” He ordered.
He turned back to the audience.
“I said we couldn’t control the electric spark, or create light from electricity. Well we couldn’t – UNTIL NOW!”
He brought the electrodes together, the arc formed,
AND THERE WAS LIGHT
Sir Humphry Davy lecturing in the Royal Institution
The chronology is wrong, but the story is real. Early in the nineteenth century Sir Humphry Davy invented the Arc lamp, the first practical electric light. He performed the experiment described, to the shock and amazement of all those in the Royal Institution lecture theatre. He had also seriously injured his lungs in experiments on gasses, which later led to the discovery of anaesthesia.
His assistant, Michael Faraday, who took over his role at the Royal Institution was an even greater scientist. He discovered the link between electricity and magnetism, invented the electric generator, electric motor and so much more.
I was inspired to write this story by a prompt, ‘What good is power?’ from Charli Mills, via my brother. I am afraid I have broken the length rule, but I have never been good at keeping things short.
I hope you enjoy this digression on power and light.