Michael Faraday and the waterspouts (1814)

This week, one of the most fascinating/frightening videos to be posted online was of a waterspout that ran aground on a Brazilian beach, hurling debris and terrifying vacationers.  Weaker than the similar-looking tornadoes that appear over land, most waterspouts have speeds no greater than 50 miles per hour, though that is certainly fast enough to hurl debris and cause damage, injury, and possibly death.

Waterspouts on the beach of Kijkduin near The Hague, the Netherlands on 2006 August 27.  Photo by Skatebiker, released into public domain & available on Wikipedia.

Waterspouts on the beach of Kijkduin near The Hague, the Netherlands on 2006 August 27. Photo by Skatebiker, released into public domain & available on Wikipedia.

The video reminded me again of an event from the life of Michael Faraday, one of the most important researchers in the history of physics.  Faraday would make a number of fundamental contributions to science, including the discovery of electromagnetic induction as well as the link between magnetism and light.  Long before his fame, however, he wrote about waterspouts that he observed while traveling in Italy. I thought I would share his remarks, providing a little context as to his circumstances at the time.

The British Michael Faraday (1791-1867) is a wonderful example of how, sometimes, a person of great intellect can overcome all the social barriers set before them.  In the 1800s, science was considered a profession of the upper class, and out of reach of someone like Faraday, the son of a blacksmith.  While an apprentice bookbinder, however, he read science books extensively, performed his own amateur experiments, got permission to attend some popular lectures, and kept a detailed journal of his work.

An image of Faraday in his thirties, via Wikipedia.

An image of Faraday in his thirties, via Wikipedia.

Near the end of his apprenticeship, he sent his journals to the famous chemist Humphry Davy, and Davy was sufficiently impressed to encourage Faraday in his work.  Not long after, in 1813, Davy’s eyesight was damaged in a chemical explosion*, and he took on Faraday as an assistant.  Soon after, Davy prepared to take a multi-year tour of the European continent and, when his valet refused to go due to dangerous political tensions between France and Britain, Faraday was employed in his stead.

It was a perfect opportunity for Faraday to gain scientific experience, contacts, and a degree of worldliness — he had never before strayed far from London.  Moreover, Davy treated Faraday as assistant more than valet; unfortunately Davy’s wife was not so kind, and regularly treated the young man rudely and dismissively.  Nevertheless, it would turn out to be the chance of a lifetime.

Faraday kept a journal and wrote regular letters home to his family and to his longtime friend Abbott, detailing matters both scientific and cultural, and often with a bit of wit.  On first arriving in Paris, for instance, Faraday wrote:

I am here in the most unlucky and irritating circumstances possible. Set down in the heart of Paris-that spot so desiringly looked after, so vainly too, from a distance by numbers of my countrymen. I know nothing of the language or of a single being here; added to which the people are enemies, and they are vain. My only mode will be to stalk about the town, looking and looked at like a man in the monkish catacombs. My mummies move, however, and they see with their eyes.I must exert myself to attain their language so as to join in their world.

He was quite conflicted about the exorbitant art in Paris, brought in by Napoleon:

I saw the Galerie Napoleon to-day, but I scarcely know what to say of it. It is both the glory and the disgrace of France. As being itself, and as containing specimens of those things which proclaim the power of man, and which point out the high degree of refinement to which he has risen, it is unsurpassed, unequalled, and must call forth the highest and most unqualified admiration; but when memory brings to mind the manner in which the works came here, and views them only as the gains of violence and rapine, she blushes for the people that even now glory in an act that made them a nation of thieves.

(Faraday was a very moral fellow, which is one of the reasons I love him.)

But let’s get to the waterspouts!  After an extended stay in Paris, Davy and Faraday traveled south through France and eventually crossed the Alps into Italy.  By January 26 of 1814, they were in Genoa, a Northern Italian city on the Mediterranean.

Genoa, circa 1810, as painted by Ambroise Louis Garneray, via Wikipedia.

Genoa, circa 1810, as painted by Ambroise Louis Garneray, via Wikipedia.

They were not planning to stay long, but the weather kept them in place.  We’ll let Faraday take it from here:

Saturday, [February] 5th.-The weather as yet against our voyage, and in the afternoon a storm of thunder and lightning, and rain with water-spouts. A flash of lightning illuminated the room in which I was reading, and I then went out on the terrace to observe the weather. Looking towards the sea, I saw three water-spouts, all depending from the same stratum of clouds. I ran to the sea-shore on the outside of the harbour, hoping they would approach nearer, but that did not happen. A large and heavy stratum of dark clouds was advancing apparently across the field of view, in a westerly direction: from this stratum hung three water-spouts — one considerably to the west of me, another nearly before me, and the third eastward; they were apparently at nearly equal distances from each other. The one to the west was rapidly dissolving, and in the same direction a very heavy shower of rain was falling, but whether in the same place, or nearer or more distant, I could not tell. Rain fell violently all the time at Genoa.  The one before me was more perfect and distinct in its appearance. It consisted of an extended portion of cloud, very long and narrow, which projected, from the mass above, downward, in a slightly curved direction, towards the sea. This part of the cloud was well defined, having sharp edges, and at the lower part tapering to a point. It varied its direction considerably during the time that I observed it sometimes becoming more inclined to the horizon, and sometimes less; sometimes more curved, and at other times more direct. Beneath the projecting cloud, and in a direction opposite to the point, the sea appeared violently agitated.  At the distance it was from me I could merely perceive a vast body of vapour rising in clouds from the water, and ascending to some height, but disappearing, as steam would do, long before it reached the point of the cloud. The elongated part apparently extended from the stratum about 2/5ths or 1/4th of the distance between it and the water ; but no distinct and visible connection, except in effect, could be perceived between the vapour of the sea and the extended cloud. Appearances were exactly the same with the third water-spout. The first disappeared very quickly; the second continued, after I saw it, about ten or twelve minutes, and the third fifteen or twenty minutes. They continued their progressive motion with the cloud during the whole time; and the third, before it disappeared, had advanced considerably — should think two or three miles. The destruction and dissolution of the waterspout seemed to proceed very rapidly when it had once commenced, and three or four minutes after the apparent commencement of decay it had entirely disappeared — the vapour, the sea, and the cloud diminishing in nearly equal proportions. They were situated much further out at sea than I at first supposed — I should think five or six miles; and, of course, what I have here noted is merely a relation of the thing as it appeared to me, and is possibly very different from the real truth. During the time I remained on the port or quay observing the water-spouts, a strong flash of lightning and a heavy peal of thunder proceeded from the same stratum of clouds.

There are two aspects of this passage that I love! The first aspect is the extraordinary amount of detail he puts into his recorded observations of the phenomenon; this foreshadows his future as one of the most brilliant experimental physicists of all time.  The second aspect is his enthusiasm for the observations: being out in a thunderstorm, near the water, with waterspouts forming, is not a particularly safe situation, but Faraday had no problem with it.  He was even “hoping they would approach nearer!”

Faraday’s letters are truly wonderful to read, filled with scientific insight and pointed cultural observations.  I can recommend looking up both volumes of “The Life and Letters of Faraday,” which are freely available to read on Google books.


* Chemistry was very explode-y in those days.  Faraday himself eventually had several near misses.

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