By David E P Dennis

It took the Briton Francis Crick and American James Watson 880 words to define DNA for their joint Nobel prize and yet, in just 80 words, the genius scientist Michael Faraday ‘invented’ the entire world electricity industry, after walking on Hastings sea front.

Faraday was born in 1791 in Southwark, then part of Surrey. He was poorly educated and had to read books by candlelight or oil lamps since there was no gas or electric lighting. Faraday was a religious man – a strong Christian Sandemanian who believed that God had created the world, yet Man needed a full understanding of this glorious creation. He began to study science and at 20 he attended a lecture by famous scientist Sir Humphry Davy. 

Michael Faraday

Irascible Humphry Davy, already famous for his isolation of many chemical elements, took Faraday on as his apprentice – at first in a kindly but patronising way, but later treated him as a servant during their Grand Tour of Europe, refusing to let him travel in the same carriage as Davy and his wife. Despite these hard times and insults, Faraday kept learning and thinking about the relationship between magnetism and electricity – how were they connected and what could they be used for?

While more and more people were noticing the work of Faraday, many people were also taking notice of Hastings. The Earl of Chichester, Lord Pelham, funded the construction of Pelham Crescent and St Mary in the Castle. These were designed in Regency style by Joseph Kay in 1824-28, after masons cut away the crumbling castle cliff. 

Hastings’ lamplighters laboriously filled streetlamps with oil until 31st December 1830, when Hastings was finally lit up by 82 gas lamps after they built a gasworks near Queens Road. The existing cut-through from Stonefield Road called ‘Gasworks Steps’ is a reminder. On the seafront, the colliers began to land their coal for the gasworks, on the beach opposite Priors Cottages, which stood at the opposite end of Pelham Street to the Pelham Hotel (now the Carlisle rockers’ pub).

Location of the former cottage where Faraday stayed
PICTURE: David Dennis

Faraday’s Blue Plaque

Gas-lit Hastings had now become an intellectually attractive place to visit. In the summer of 1831, despite the dangers of revolt by Sussex farmers in the continuing Captain Swing Riots, Charles Darwin’s niece was staying in Hastings and so was Michael Faraday. He had come for a holiday at 3, Priors Cottages, Pelham Street. The Hastings Literary and Scientific Institution formed in 1831, and Faraday almost certainly would have known of this, or even encouraged it. 

Another genius and MP for Sussex, so-called Mad Jack Fuller, sponsored Faraday and later invested the massive sum of £100,000 to underpin the long-term existence of the Royal Institution. Faraday became its first Professor of Chemistry.

Faraday had always been interested in the early Greek scientist Thales of Miletus (623-545 BCE), who had experimented with rubbing amber to make static electricity and exploring the cause of shocks from electric eels. He  conducted his own experiments at the Royal Institution, where a gigantic magnet had been manufactured to help understand how magnetism was related to electricity The great mathematical scientist, James Clarke Maxwell, was eventually to form his remarkable set of electromagnetic equations based on Faraday’s discoveries.

St Mary’s and Pelham Crescent

Faraday kept a Laboratory Notebook which he called his ‘Diary’. He notes that on 29th August 1831 he discovered electromagnetic induction, which became Faraday’s law of induction and enabled subsequent physicists to develop variable current power devices –leading to lighting, computers and television, through the use of turbine generation of electrical power.

Before Faraday came to Hastings, all lighting was candle, oil or gas. It is vital to the world we know now, that during his holiday in Hastings, Faraday realised for the first time ever that a variable current in one circuit could induce a current in a second and isolated circuit. 

Later, Sir William Bragg of the Royal Institution published Faraday’s Diary to show the public how a succinct 80 words could lead to a worldwide revolution still going on today – and it is all down to a few days in Hastings watching the gas lamps flicker and colliers unloading, and thinking – what can replace this? 

Yet Man needed a full understanding of this glorious creation

These are the simple but dramatic words Faraday wrote in his Diary as the electric age was born: 

“Have had an iron ring made (soft iron), iron round and 7/8 inches thick and ring 6 inches in external diameter. Wound many coils of copper wire around one half, the coils being separated by twine and calico …, will call this side of ring A. On the other side but separated by an interval was wound wire in two pieces together amounting to about 60 feet in length, the direction being as in former coils; this side call B.”

Pelham Beach
PICTURE: David Dennis

The rest is history! 

Michael Faraday was interested in currents of electrons. In the past we have had an Art and Literary Festival called Coastal Currents to celebrate the sea – but there is little awareness or celebration in the town of the variable currents of Michael Faraday. Yes – a token Blue Plaque erected by the Institute of Physics has Hastings Borough Council’s name upon it, but do the people of Hastings realise that the town has a monumental history which reaches way beyond 1066? More recent events here have burgeoned into worldwide impacts on the lives of everyone.


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