Michael Faraday, the guy famous for the Faraday cage, didn’t just spend his life tinkering with electricity. He was also an insurance investigator who, just occasionally, set stuff on fire in the courtroom if a jury didn’t believe him.

Even geniuses need to pay the rent, so though Michael Faraday is best known for uncovering the secrets of electromagnetism, he spent his day-to-day life as a gunslingerscientist for hire. One of his most famous employers was Imperial Insurance Company. They were being sued by a sugar processing plant. As we’ve seen before on io9, flour and sugar processing plants occasionally explode. All those tiny little particles form a kind of flammable cloud which can first burst into flames and carry those flames through an entire building in an instant.

The sugar factory, Severn and King, had suffered an explosion in 1819, and claimed that they were owed quite a bit of money from Imperial. Imperial claimed that Severn and King had quietly, without notifying them, updated their factory with a new sugar-heating system that heated up whale oil. That system, the insurance company claimed, is what probably started the explosion, and that system was why they weren’t obligated to pay.

Faraday was hired to show that the heating system was unsafe, and he did a good job. While he proved that the hot whale oil itself wasn’t a problem, the fumes that emanated from it were more flammable than the oil. In court, one of the jurors didn’t believe him, and was foolish enough to say so out loud. Faraday calmly took out a jar full of hot whale oil product and a lighter. Boom.

Despite this (or possibly because of it) Imperial Insurance lost its case. Severn and King collected its money. The research did cause Faraday to start experimenting with the fumes that could be collected from heated oil. He compressed the fumes from whale or fish oil, and created benzene. And the next time he took a case revolving around an explosion in the workplace—in that case a coal mine—he advocated for more ventilation, not less insurance pay-outs.


Top Image: Andrés Nieto Porras