Faraday and the Elephant

If you’ve ever been south of the river in London you’ll probably have seen the Faraday Memorial, even if you didn’t realise it. The Memorial is the big steel cube in the middle of what used to be a traffic roundabout at Elephant and Castle. The area around it is now more pedestrian-friendly. It looks like this.

Faraday memorial

There’s an explanation on a sign beside it. I’ve seen people reading the sign, unlike the days when traffic stopped anyone getting near. Michael Faraday, scientist and inventor, was a local boy. He came from a poor family and didn’t have access to much education, but took it on himself to go to Humphry Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution. Faraday had been apprenticed to a bookbinder, so he carefully wrote out his notes from the lectures, bound them beautifully and presented them to Davy. That’s how he got his first break. The sign has a very brief summary of Faraday’s life and career, and a little about the memorial and its architect. The memorial is also, appropriately, an electricity substation for the Northern and Bakerloo lines.

Faraday sign at Elephant

If you want to get much better insight into Faraday’s work, I recommend the Faraday Museum in the basement of the Royal Institution. It is small and a little dingy but Faraday’s laboratory has been preserved and recreated, and there are a lot of extraordinary exhibits. Possibly my favourite ever museum curator’s blurb reads “After discovering electro-magnetic induction, Faraday took a holiday in Hastings.” [Pause badly needed there, if only for comic timing.] It continues: “He then returned to his laboratory and created another world-changing invention: the first electric generator.”  It makes me feel I should try a holiday in Hastings this summer.

Here’s a faF5ce you might well recognise, although not at this scale. The museum has a blown-up image of a £20 banknote across an entire wall. The note also featured a drawing of the famous institution lectures.


You can see one of the earliest ever electric batteries in the museum, given to Faraday by its inventor Alexander Volta in 1814. There is also equipment made by Faraday himself, as he had to make most of his kit from scratch. Insulation didn’t yet exist so in order to make a coil, he and his assistants had to wrap string round wire. It could take a week to make an electric coil like this very early one.


Faraday’s glassmaking experiments, working close-up to the furnace without adequate protection, probably caused some of his health problems. He was trying to make very specialist vessels like the glass ‘egg’ he wanted to use to create vacuums he would then fill with different gases. His experiments in passing an electric current through a variety of gases and metals led to the discovery of spectroscopy, which in turn is the basis of a lot of astrophysics as well as earthly physics. Faraday didn’t only invent electrodes. He also came up with the word. We owe him for some of our language as well as for his discoveries and inventions, and for being a public educator.

There is another, much tinier Faraday museum in London at Trinity Buoy Wharf. I’ll go there one day. In my next post I will also explain what I was really doing at the Royal Institution. Meanwhile, here’s a less interesting but maybe better known public artwork from Elephant and Castle although to be fair, it does feature another London elephant.

Elephant Elephant



Faraday and the Elephant

The London elephants

This post is by request as I’ve been told the blog needs more about elephants. There has been terrible news for the last fortnight so I’m happy to turn to a topic that at least one reader might actually enjoy. London is one of the blog themes, so these aren’t just any elephants. They’re London elephants.

Mercifully there aren’t any live elephants in London now as far as I know since the zoo shipped theirs out to Whipsnade years ago. But if you look, there are plenty of others. First up, naturally, the ones that come with castles. Elephant and Castle is where the bad dentist who was eventually struck off had a practice, resulting in the confusing news headline ‘Elephant dentist struck off‘ and later on, this far less confusing blog name. The name goes back to at least the 15th century and a sign with the elephant image, the badge of the Cutlers’ company (in a reference to ivory).  The Cutlers’ website shows plenty of elephant imagery including on their coat of arms. They still have a guildhall in the City.


Next week I’m going to see the National Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night. A line in the play shows that Shakespeare knew the area. Antonio tells Sebastian, who needs a place to stay,  ‘In the south suburbs, at the Elephant [probably meaning a tavern], is best to lodge.’ The area hasn’t had that kind of reputation lately but there’s a huge regeneration programme underway that includes a new green space, Elephant Park. I don’t expect there will be elephants. The local arts festival is called Elefest, but again no elephants.

Elephants with castles on their backs also show up on the walls of the Indian High Commission  (India House, Aldwych), but here you can clearly see that the castle is actually a howdah.


There are some beautiful centuries-old Indian elephant chess pieces in the Victoria and Albert museum. These would most likely have been the equivalent of bishops rather than rooks, and show war elephants, since chess was a battle game. Here’s one (V&A image used with permission).

Victoria_and_AlbertMuseum chess piece

The ivory is too old to be illegal but still, better to look at some painted elephants instead from a wall near me (21st century Rajasthan). It looks like they’re on a tiger hunt.


Back at India House, there are stone elephant’s head statues flanking the entrance. These are not great to look at, but better than the elephants on the façade of Africa House on Kingsway, a 1920s building with a hideous portrayal of ivory hunters. I’m not showing that. Here’s an India House elephant’s head, in profile.


Until recently I worked in Hawley Crescent, at the Open University’s London centre. The Elephant’s Head pub is on one corner of the road. At the other end is Elephant House, a listed building, once the bottling plant for Camden Brewery. The brewery used to make Elephant beer and the building has elephant imagery in stone.

Back in 2010 a herd of 260 small elephants appeared around London as part of an art project raising funds for small elephant conservation. Here are a few along the Thames.

Thames elephants

Also in south London, we’ve had the Dali space elephant and a giant elephant sculpture in Waterloo station. A short way along the riverbank from the spot above you get to Gabriel’s Wharf and Ganesha, which can sell you an ugly macrame elephant’s head for no good reason, but has a pretty pink shopfront.


Now we’re on the way back to the Elephant, as everyone local calls it, where there used to be a notorious gang known as the Elephant boys. Muriel Spark wrote about them in a short vicious novel, The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960).  News stories now are more likely to be about the regeneration controversies as the vast 1970s-built Heygate Estate has been demolished and replaced by fancier high rise apartments, and eventually by Elephant Park.

If you want more London elephants, there are other sites here and here.  [Postscript: Thanks to Alasdair for reminding me about the London elephant parade.]


The London elephants