This simple-looking and basic device, built by Michael Faraday in 1831, revolutionised almost every aspect of the lives of people all over the world. It is the first ever generator of electricity.

By the 1800s, the industrial revolution was gathering pace, with exciting new machines driven by steam. But steam power had its limits and was by no means accessible to everyone. In the 1820s, Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867), a scientist working at the Royal Society in London, realised a more useful form of power was needed. He began conducting experiments building on the work of Alesandro Volta and Hans Christian Oersted and their work with early batteries, magnetism and motion.

In 1831, Faraday made a ground-breaking discovery. He wrapped a tube in copper wire and insulated it with cloth. Next he hooked the copper wire up to a galvonometer – which could measure electric current. When he passed a magnet backwards and forwards through the middle of the tube, the needle on the galvonometer moved. He had created the first ever generator of electricity.

A generator essentially converts motive power (mechanical energy) – in this case, the motion of the magnet moving backwards and forwards – and converts it into electricity. Whether the energy source is water, steam, wind, oil, coal, or a nuclear reaction, almost all electrical power today is produced by generators (or turbines) using Faraday’s principles.


Did you know..?

Michael Faraday also ‘invented’ the ‘Christmas Lectures’, talks designed specifically for young people to help them understand scientific principles and discoveries. Exciting, interactive talks and shows for young people are still delivered every year as ‘Christmas Lectures’ by the Royal Institution and by Universities and organisations around the country.


More information on this object from The Royal Institution:

Faraday’s generating coil. This was made by Michael Faraday in 1831, and consists of a coil of copper wire wound around a hollow core. Moving a magnetised iron rod through the coil induces a current in the coil. Faraday showed that the magnet had to be in motion to induce a current, an early demonstration of converting a mechanical energy into electrical energy. This was the foundation of modern dynamos. This item is now on display at the Royal Institution, London.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above. 

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This object is in the collection of The Royal Institution