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Faraday's travels in Europe 1813-1815

An online exhibition looking at the life and work of Michael Faraday with particular emphasis on his work as a lecturer, his travels in Europe, his correspondence with artists and his interest in photography.

Alessandro Volta, head and shoulders portrait, engraved by Ambroise Tardieu from a painting by Noccolo Bettoni

From October 1813 to April 1815 Faraday travelled in Europe as Sir Humphry Davy's assistant. Although France and Britain were at war, Napoleon gave Davy and his party a permit to travel throughout France to meet scientists and conduct scientific investigations. They met several savants, including Ampère, Volta and the de La Rives. Faraday remained friends with Ampère and with Gaspard and Auguste de La Rive for the rest of their lives, while the Voltaic pile given to him by Volta still exists in the Royal Institution today.

 

Andre Marie Ampere from an engraved portrait

While in Paris Davy discovered iodine. In Italy he experimented with the Duke of Tuscany's great lens 'a noble instrument' to analyse diamond and experiment with iodine. From Naples they visited Vesuvius twice and Davy analysed Roman pigments, including a recently excavated pot of blue colour given to him by the Queen of Naples

Faraday kept a journal of his travels "to recall to my mind at some future time the things I see now and the most effectual to do that will be I conceive to write down be they good or bad or however imperfect my present impressions". He wrote long letters to his family and friends, including his close friend Benjamin Abbott.

Until October 1813, Faraday had never been more than three miles from London. When they reached Devon he commented: "Reached Plymouth this afternoon. I was more taken by the scenery today than by anything else I have ever seen". The mountainous nature of the country continually put forward new forms and objects and the landscape changed before the eye more rapidly than the organ could observe it."

Page from Faraday's journal about his trip to Italy and a drawing of a waterspout

Once on the continent, Faraday was a keen observer of all aspects of life abroad. In Italy he wrote to Benjamin Abbott: "At Lucca we found the whole population without the gates waiting for the English. The town was decorated in the most brilliant manner by colours drapery & embroidery flying from every window & in the evening general illuminations took place done as expressions of their joy at the deliverance from the French government & the English were hailed every where as their saviours".

Davy cut short their tour in 1815, possibly because of an outbreak of plague in Malta or because of the uncertain political situation after Napoleon's escape from Elba. They arrived back in England on 23 April.

 Above, Faraday's drawing of a waterspout near Sestri Levante on the Italian coast  below Genoa, from his European journal. (Ref. SCMSS 2/1/2).

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