There is not much room to build a box the size of a garage in the Royal Institution’s lecture theatre. Tiered seating surrounds the large central table and leaves little room for much else. It was the same in January 1836, but Michael Faraday had no choice. He left his cramped lab in the basement of the building in London’s Mayfair and set to work. He put a wooden frame, 12ft square, on four glass supports and added paper walls and wire mesh. He then stepped inside and electrified it.
Faraday all but lived in the box for two full days. In that time, with electrometers, candles, and a large brass ball on a white silk thread, he explored the nature of charge. What he discovered transformed how scientists viewed electricity. But the cage itself was simply a means to an end, a way to insulate experiments from the outside world. It hardly screamed applications. Standing on the spot where the box was built, Frank James, the RI’s historian, gives the simple reason: “What was there to protect against electrical charge in 1836?”
Things have, as you would hope in nearly two centuries, changed. Today more than half a million sites found by Google refer to Faraday cages. They keep microwaves in microwave ovens and interfering radio waves out of hospital MRI rooms. Survivalists, with their knack for being distracted by peripheral threats, share tips on enclosures to block electromagnetic pulses that follow nuclear explosions. Companies offer Faraday bags, Faraday curtains and Faraday wallpaper that claim to stop mobile phone and wifi radiation, and shield devices from electronic snooping. In France, entrepreneurs are peddling radio wave-proof underpants. From the Netherlands comes a Faraday container that holds multiple smartphones. The aim is to break our gadget addiction and bring back good old face-to-face communication.
It is fair to say that not every product Faraday inspired lives up to its manufacturer’s claims. Metal mesh hats, scarves, shirts, socks, ponchos, hoodies, gloves, capes and leggings are all sold as shields for electromagnetic waves. As happens with clothing items, they have holes for arms, legs, heads and bodies, where waves can stream in. “It’s not a new thing, but more and more stuff is being developed. My personal opinion is that it doesn’t do a lot,” says Frank de Vocht, a senior lecturer in epidemiology and public health research at Bristol University. “There will be a lot of leakage because it’s not a Faraday cage.”
The market for the clothing has grown with recognition of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, or to unroll its official name, idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields (IEI-EMF). Those affected believe that ubiquitous electromagnetic (EM) waves are to blame for what can be genuinely awful symptoms. But studies point to another cause: placebo’s evil twin, nocebo. Just as positive expectations can turn a sugar pill into a painkiller, so negative ones can provoke real ailments. Metal mesh clothing is not the antidote. It reinforces the belief that electromagnetic waves cause illness and can make matters worse.
In the Netflix show Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill’s brother, Chuck, suffers from electromagnetic hypersensitivity, and turns his home into an improvised Faraday cage, using tinfoil and space blankets. An earlier TV reference came in the long-running drama Lost, which featured a time-travelling physicist called Daniel Faraday and inspired fan theories that the crashed airplane and parts of the island had acted as Faraday cages.
In the post-Snowden era, surveillance fears, or perhaps paranoia, has boosted another market for Faraday-inspired products. Metal-lined pouches for smartphones are sold alongside cases for laptops that block in and outgoing signals. Some might even work, though plenty fail to block the full range of phone signals, Bluetooth, GPS and wifi. They are not much help when you actually need to use the device. Once out in the open and powered up, there are endless ways to hack electronic gadgets.
Rop Gonggrijp, a Dutch computer expert, showed what sorts of secrets can leak from computers on the radio signals that emanate from active components. He measured electromagnetic waves given off by circuits inside voting machines and found he could tell from 25 metres away when someone had voted. Worse, or perhaps better if you have a criminal mind, he could sometimes distinguish votes for different candidates, because the refresh rate of the machine’s touchscreen dropped when it had to display accented and other modified letters. When Gonggrijp sent the waves he picked up to a speaker, he heard a clear shift in tone when a vote was cast for the major Dutch party, Christen Democratisch Appèl. The Netherlands dumped the machines.
As with clothes that claim to block radio signals, there is plenty of overclaiming around anti-snooping shields for computers and everyday gadgets. Ross Anderson, professor of computer security at Cambridge University, has been in the game for decades. “It’s almost all bullshit,” he says. “It’s one reason you might put your laptop with all its top secret stuff in a Scif [Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility], rather than let the minister sit with it on a train.” A whole building can be turned into a Scif, which is a souped-up Faraday cage with extra protection to stop secrets leaking down phone cables, power supplies and the like. Or for the more cash-strapped, Scifs can be bought as kits and set up inside embassies’ rooms. Ideally, you soundproof the Scif and play loud rock music outside to overwhelm any audio bugs outside.
Down in the basement of the Royal Institution, Faraday’s old lab is now part of a museum. On the dark wooden tables and shelves sit generators and sundry gems, from the man’s travelling microscope and a bottle of Thames water (it was so polluted, an appalled Faraday wrote to the Times to warn the public), to what was once the most powerful magnet in Britain, created by looping wire around a link from a ship’s anchor chain.
Faraday’s work on electricity paved the way for electric motors, transformers and dynamos, which are still with us in anything that’s electrical. But his true legacy is more impressive still. There can’t be many chemists who became successful while harbouring a deep dislike of such notions as atoms and matter, but in searching for alternatives, Faraday made some seminal breakthroughs. When he stepped out of his electrified cage in 1836, Faraday had shown that electricity was a force, not some imponderable fluid as many claimed. By the time he had shown that magnets could affect light and non-metallic materials such as glass, he was ready to introduce the use of the word “fields” for the first time, now a cornerstone concept in modern physics.
To Faraday, science was a way to explore the wonders of God’s work. But his membership of a small Christian sect called the Sandemanians, set up in opposition to the state church, kept him at a distance from the establishment. He turned down a knighthood, and the presidency of the Royal Society twice, perhaps in line with being humble before God. But off the back of his wildly popular public lectures – it was the onset of his 1836 season of talks that forced him to dismantle his first cage after a mere two days – he still became a celebrity. He was one of the most photographed, painted and sculpted figures of the time, and when he died in 1867, a whopping tombstone marked his spot in Highgate cemetery.
Margaret Thatcher once called Faraday her hero and his story must have sat neatly with her politics. Born to a poor family, he apprenticed as a bookbinder, taught himself science and rose to international greatness. In a speech to the Royal Society, Thatcher declared: “The value of his work must be higher than the capitalisation of all the shares on the Stock Exchange!” She borrowed his bust from the RI and anyone visiting 10 Downing Street from 1982 to 1996 would have passed Faraday in the hall.
She wasn’t the only one to gush. Faraday’s story was hopelessly romanticised. One author wrote that a beneficent fairy stole into his parent’s home in Newington Butts, south London, bent over his bed, and conferred genius on the sleeping infant. In an early bromance, John Tyndall, who performed pioneering work on the greenhouse effect, talked of Faraday’s “divine power” and how his “flashes of wondrous insight and utterances ... seem less the product of reasoning than revelation”.
“In terms of scientific research, he outstrips all the popular scientists we’ve got around the place at the moment,” says James, who admits that his enthusiasm for the man so pervaded his home life that his children thought Faraday was the last day of the working week. “To be blunt,” he adds, “Brian Cox hasn’t made the sorts of discoveries Faraday made.”
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