Michael Faraday Memorial, London

Michael Faraday Memorial, Elephant and Castle, London

The sixties were about to swing as 1961 saw the first appearance of the Beatles at Liverpool’s Cavern club. Above the earth Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space, whilst back on terra firma the cold war heated up when the first blocks of the Berlin wall were cemented into place. In South East Asia, 18,000 US ‘advisors’ arrived in Vietnam.

Closer to home the residents of the Elephant and Castle in South London no doubt marvelled, ignored and tut-tut-ted at these developments in equal measure. After the severe bomb damage of WWII their little corner of the world was slowly being reshaped by planners and architects full of exciting new ideas. The future would be a better, sleeker, more exciting place to live, although the dislocation between these ideas of modernity and the ordinary people were already apparent. For one thing locals were pondering the appearance of a huge shiny futuristic metal box in the centre of a roundabout in the middle of the Elephant. Back in 1961 nobody really knew what it was. Thirty years later the same was still true when, in June 1995, the Evening Standard ran a story with a picture of the box headlined ‘But what on earth is it?’

One often repeated urban myth can be discounted immediately, as the steel cube is most definitely not a subterranean home for dance music pioneer Richard D. James (aka the Aphex Twin). Admittedly it would be a great rock ‘n’ roll story if an artist who credits synaesthesia as an inspiration for creating ground-breaking ambient, acid and techno music should chose to burrow a home under one of South London’s busiest roundabouts. Sadly he lives in a converted bank just round the corner.

In truth it’s easy to sweep the mystery away. Just use one of the pedestrian crossings that link the urban mainland to the traffic island and take a look at the stone inscription on the north side of the box. This tells you that the stainless steel structure is a memorial to local boy done good Michael Faraday, who, although not the most famous south Londoner, was one of the most amazing individuals the capital has ever produced. Born into poverty in 1791, Faraday received only basic schooling but in his teens a fascination with science led him down the road of self improvement. By his early twenties he secured a post as a chemical assistant at the Royal Institution. Over the following years Faraday worked extensively on the principles of electricity, discovering in 1831 electromagnetic induction, the principle behind the electric transformer. This pioneering research laid the basis for the commercial exploitation of electricity. So the next time you switch on your kettle give a little salute to Michael Faraday.

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