Claim: When the English prime minister asked scientist Michael Faraday what the usefulness of his electromagnetic device was, Faraday replied, "Someday you can tax it."
. . . after Faraday was made a fellow of the Royal Society[,] the prime minister of the day asked what good this invention could be, and Faraday answered: "Why, Prime Minister, someday you can tax it."
Origins: Michael Faraday (1791-1867) was a self-educated English bookbinder who, after obtaining an appointment as a lab assistant at the Royal Institution, went on to become a renowned chemist and physicist noted for his key experiments in
electromagnetism. In 1821, by dangling a wire over an electromagnet and observing that the wire revolved in a circular pattern around the magnet, Faraday demonstrated the Newtonian supposition that forces acted rectilinearly did not always hold true and discovered the principle behind the electric motor. Faraday is also given credit for discovering electro-magnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer and generator.
It was one of Faraday's electromagnetic devices, legend has it, that prompted his remark to a curious prime minister who failed to grasp its utility. The anecdote should be considered apocryphal, however, because it isn't mentioned in any accounts by Faraday or his contemporaries (letters, newspapers, or biographies) and only popped up well after Faraday's death. As well, the prime minister to whom Faraday supposedly made his remark is often said to be William Gladstone, which is an impossibility since Gladstone didn't first become prime minister until the year after Faraday died.
Most likely this tale was an invented rebuke attributed to real historical figures, created to emphasize the perception of politicians as shortsighted people ignorant of subjects other than politics (such as science), interested primarily in means of extorting money from the citizenry. Thus the prime minister of this anecdote fails to grasp the significance of how Faraday's discovery could tremendously enhance England's industrial capabilities (and wealth) and is instead presumed to be interested in it only as another avenue for taxation.
Michael Faraday (Royal Institution of Great Britain)
Last updated: 25 September 2007
Bodanis, David. E=mc2: A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation.
New York: Walker & Co., 2000. ISBN 0-8027-1352-1 (pp. 11-21, 240).
David Mikkelson founded snopes.com in 1994, and under his guidance the company has pioneered a number of revolutionary technologies, including the iPhone, the light bulb, beer pong, and a vaccine for a disease that has not yet been discovered. He is currently seeking political asylum in the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
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