The importance of Faraday's discoveries to the development of technology cannot be overstated, especially in electrical engineering both in terms of power and communication. From the late nineteenth century to the present day, Faraday's work has always been acknowledged as crucial to the evolution of the modern world. His contributions have been frequently and variously celebrated during that time.
The 1930s saw the height of Faraday's fame. The Royal Institution and the Institution of Electrical Engineers together with the Royal Society, the British Association and the Federal Council for Chemistry decided to organise a massive programme of festivities for September 1931 to mark the centenary of Faraday's discovery of electro-magnetic induction.
The programme included an Exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall which cost the Institution of Electrical Engineers £10,000. Opened by Jan Smuts (1870-1950), the centrepiece was a statue Faraday surrounded by his apparatus and modern devices stemming from his discoveries.
A plaque dedicated to Faraday was placed on the floor of Westminster Abbey, a government dinner was held at the Dorchester and public buildings were floodlit throughout the country. Lord Bessborough (1880-1956, Governor General of Canada) unveiled over the telephone from Ottawa a plaque to Faraday in the then-new Battersea Power Station.
Most significant of Faraday's place in the national pantheon, a celebratory concert at the Queen's Hall conducted by Henry Wood (1869-1944) was broadcast on the radio. Before the concert, a series of speeches was delivered starting with one by the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937). He was speaking at a time of national crisis: the day after Britain had come off the gold standard. He spoke in praise of Faraday and how his work underpinned modern technology, including broadcasting. This theme was echoed by the other speakers, including Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937) who suggested that, in a sense, wireless dated from Faraday's discovery of induction.
Of course, the Institution of Electrical Engineers didn't support all of this out of straight-forward gratitude to Faraday or interest in the history of science and technology. The project was driven by the need for the electrical industry to turn electricity into a saleable commodity. By placing its origins in pure science, the industry was able to give itself a highly respectable pedigree and associate itself with the idea of modernity.
The celebrations also meshed with other scientific community agendas, such as a desire to stress the value of 'pure' research in developing new technologies a line of argument developed nicely by Faraday's successor at the Royal Institution in the inter-war years, William Henry Bragg (1862-1942).
One consequence of the 1931 celebrations was that a large number of short, uncritical biographies of Faraday were published. These portrayed his rise from a poor background by his own efforts to become one of the most famous scientists of all time.
It would appear that a chemistry undergraduate at the University of Oxford in the 1940s, Margaret Roberts, took this image so much to heart that when she was Prime Minister (Margaret Thatcher, later Baroness Thatcher), she announced that Faraday was her hero. In doing this, she created the context (and possibly actively intervened to do so) in which Faraday came to the fore as a national icon in recent times. This was reinforced in 1991 with large scale celebrations that marked the bicentenary of his birth, the most notable event of which was the replacement of Shakespeare with Faraday on the £20 note.
Another consequence of the 1931 celebrations was that Bragg ensured that Faraday's magnetic laboratory, which had survived in the basement of the Royal Institution, was reconstructed precisely as found when that part of the building had to be rebuilt in the mid 1930s. In the post 1945 period, this laboratory became the first museum in the Royal Institution. It was greatly expanded in the early 1970s.
Currently, once again, his laboratory is undergoing reinterpretation but when it reopens in spring 2008, it will continue to serve as a reminder that much of the modern world stemmed from the scientific research undertaken in that space by Michael Faraday.