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Davy, Humphry


(b. Penzance, Cornwall, England, 17 December 1778;

d. Geneva, Switzerland, 29 May 1829), chemistry. For the original article on Davy see DSB, vol. 3.

Since David Knight’s entry on Davy was published, Knight’s biography has appeared, as has the first part of the long-awaited biography by the late June Fullmer, while Sophie Forgan has edited a collection of essays on him. Considerable work has been undertaken on Davy’s connection with English Romanticism and his presidency of the Royal Society, but comparatively little has been written on his chemical researches. However, due to the discovery of previously unknown archives, Davy has proved an invaluable site for endeavoring to understand the complexities of applying science for practical purposes during a period of rapid industrialization. An underlying theme of all these studies has been to provide a unity to Davy’s life and career that might, at first glance, appear disjointed. Davy’s character has emerged as much less attractive than the romantic image of him once suggested, but this is in line with recent studies of other Romantic figures depicting them to be rather self-obsessed.

English Romanticism . As is well-known, Davy met Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey while was working on gases at Thomas Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution in Bristol in the late 1790s. Through these friendships, Davy came to edit and see through the press that seminal text of English Romanticism, the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), by William Wordsworth. Knight has long emphasized the importance of Davy’s relationship with the Romantics, both for them and for him, though Fullmer played down its significance. Scholars of English literature have, likewise, dealt variously with this aspect of Davy’s life. In particular, Richard Holmes has emphasized the importance of Davy’s friendship with Coleridge who, after all, attended Davy’s chemistry lectures at the Royal Institution “to increase my stock of metaphors.” Holmes also drew attention to the importance of Davy’s role in arranging for Coleridge to lecture at the Royal Institution. Hitherto usually depicted as failures, Holmes argued that his talks initiated Coleridge’s career as a lecturer, which helped support him financially.

The other aspect of Davy’s Romanticism that has been studied is the way in which Mary Shelley used him as the model for the character and views of Professor Waldman in her novel, Frankenstein; or, the New Prometheus(1818). In the story, Victor Frankenstein studies with Waldman at the University of Ingolstadt and his lecture, which so inspired Frankenstein to search for the secret of life, follows closely in its rhetoric Davy’s “Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry” of 1802. As Davy’s career developed, his visible interest in and connections with the Romantic movement became more attenuated, but as Knight pointed out in his original entry, these early themes reemerged in Davy’s last writings. As a postscript to Davy’s involvement with the Romantics, it should be noted that Wordsworth borrowed Davy’s sword from his brother (and neighbor in Amble-side), John Davy, when Wordsworth was installed as poet laureate in 1845.

The Safety Lamp . Davy’s invention of a form of the miners’ safety lamp is perhaps the most widely known thing about him. This is partially because the lamp worked, saved lives, and increased production in the very practical world of coal mining. But public knowledge of the lamp has also been due to the way in which Davy was able to establish the claim that it was the successful application of science that allowed him to invent the lamp. Recent study of Davy’s work on the lamp, however, has raised serious questions about how much science was needed for the invention of the lamp. The only piece of scientific knowledge involved was that an explosion would not pass through narrow tubes, and this was discovered independently by Davy, the mining engineer George Stephenson in Killingworth Colliery near Newcastle, and by Smithson Tennant at Cambridge University. Davy and Stephenson developed miners’ lamps at precisely the same time, in the closing months of 1815. There were some design differences between them. Davy ultimately used wire gauze to enclose the flame, while Stephenson’s lamp retained holes punched in tin sheets. Nevertheless, both designs worked, and a bitter priority dispute arose. Davy was able to win it by linking the lamp to the agenda of the president of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks, who sought to promote the practical value of science in England for industry, for war, and for the exploitation of the empire. Davy had little difficulty in enlisting the support of the metropolitan elite of science and, by aligning himself with their Baconian ideology, neither of which Stephenson was in a position to do. Therefore, he was able to defeat Stephenson’s claims.

Davy’s victory allowed him to use the lamp an example of the value of science in practical matters. Because of the importance, until the 1980s, of coal mining to Britain, the lamp came to enjoy an iconic status as the premier example of the supposed dependence of technology on science. Indeed, an image of the lamp was used at the symbol of the 20th International Congress of the History of Science held in Liège, Belgium, in 1997. But Davy also reaped immediate rewards for his success. He was created a baronet in 1818, and the following year France’s Académie des Sciences elected him one of its eight foreign associates. (He had received only one vote when nominated after his visit to Paris in 1814.) The greatest prize was that by becoming so closely associated with the Banksian agenda, Davy had put himself in a position to succeed Banks as president of the Royal Society.

Royal Society President . It is hard to tell who would have been a suitable successor to Banks after his forty-two-year reign as a fairly autocratic president; it would have been a difficult task for even the most skilled of administrators, which Davy certainly was not. With his self-confidence generated by the Romanic conception of the individual’s self-assertion, Davy was perhaps the only person who felt

himself capable of succeeding Banks. When Banks died on 19 June 1820 Davy was in Italy, and his friend William Hyde Wollaston was elected president. Davy rushed back to London and Wollaston, realizing the magnitude of the task he faced, stood aside for Davy to be elected at the end of November.

As David Miller has shown, Davy inherited a faction-ridden society that had a significant contingent of nonscientific members who had been friends of Banks. Besides being seen as someone who would continue the Banksian program, Davy was supported by the scientific faction, which believed that Davy would seek to make the society more scientific. This was almost certainly Davy’s intention, but various actions—such as being perceived as cutting the number of fellows elected annually—brought him into conflict with other factions and ultimately with those many fellows connected with the Admiralty. Davy’s major initiative to resolve this problem was his founding, with the secretary of the Admiralty, John Wilson Croker, the Athenaeum Club in 1824. In doing this Davy hoped to establish an institution equally prestigious to the Royal Society that those nonscientific men who had previously aspired to fellowship in the society would be happy to join. While the Athenaeum was (and remains) a success, its founding did not reduce Davy’s problems in running the Royal Society.

Davy’s political problems in the Royal Society are illustrated in their most acute form by his attitude toward the election of Michael Faraday as a fellow. Faraday had joined the Royal Institution as laboratory assistant in 1813; had accompanied Davy on his continental tour from 1813 to 1815; and had assisted him with some of his researches, including work on the lamp. In 1821, when Faraday was superintendent of the Royal Institution, he made his first major discovery of electromagnetic rotations. This caused some problems between him and Davy, because the latter did not think that Faraday had properly acknowledged Wollaston’s role in the discovery. Worse was to follow in 1823 when, following an experiment suggested by Davy, Faraday unexpectedly liquefied chlorine, the first time that a gas had been liquefied. Davy sought to take some of the credit for this, but Faraday refused to oblige. When Faraday was nominated in the spring of 1823 by his friend Richard Phillips to be a fellow of the Royal Society, Davy opposed his election. There were good political reasons for Davy to oppose Faraday’s election, but they may well have been given an edge by personal considerations. As Davy was trying to bring an end to Banksian nepotism, he needed to be seen publicly to oppose Faraday’s election, because otherwise it would be assumed that Davy was using his power to elect his protégé. To prevent this perception Davy took the quite extraordinary step of having a public row with Faraday in the courtyard of Somerset House, the home of the Royal Society, telling Faraday to take his nomination certificate down. Faraday once again stood up to Davy’s bullying and pointed out that because he had not put it up he could not take it down. Faraday was elected in early 1824 and admitted by Davy. There is a narrow line between patronage and exploitation and, following this row, Davy crossed that line by using, as discussed below, Faraday’s undoubted ability without considering his best interests. It is little wonder, then, that Faraday later commented that afterward he was “by no means in the same relation as to scientific communication with Sir Humphry Davy” (Jones, 1870, vol. 1, p. 353).

Practical Failures . The major failure of the Royal Society during Davy’s presidency was its inability to provide effective scientific advice to the government. In the case of the protection of the copper sheeting of Royal Navy vessels and in the project to improve optical glass, Davy and the Royal Society failed to provide the Admiralty with appropriate advice and in the former case managed to disable the fleet, while the latter failure led to the abolition of the Board of Longitude.

In early 1823 the navy asked the Royal Society for advice about how to prevent the corrosion of the copper bottoms of its ships. With postwar retrenchment this had become a major issue for the navy, because if it could extend the time between replacements of the copper, considerable savings would be made. Although a Royal Society committee was formed, Davy bypassed it entirely and found, in his last piece of scientific research, that if zinc or cast iron were attached to the copper, its electrochemical polarity would be reversed and thus could not be corroded by seawater. Davy instructed Faraday to do the follow-up work. The “protectors,” as they were called, were tested, under Faraday’s supervision, on three ships in Portsmouth dockyard. The results appeared so satisfactory that the Admiralty issued the order that all ships should be equipped with protectors. Unfortunately, what no one had noticed was that because the poisonous salts from the copper were no longer entering the water, there was nothing to kill the barnacles and the like in the vicinity of a ship. This meant that barnacles could now attach themselves to the bottom of a vessel, thus impeding severely its steerage, much to the anger of the captains who wrote to the Admiralty to complain about Davy’s protectors. Davy, following the success of the miners’ lamp and of his rhetorical strategy to secure priority in its invention, became a victim of his own rhetoric about the value of science for practical purposes. Assuming that something that worked in the controlled conditions of the laboratory would work in practice, as had happened with the lamp, Davy believed that electrochemical protection would also work in the uncontrolled outside environment; hence, neither Davy nor the Admiralty saw the need for serious testing, and so the perfunctory nature of the testing led to the subsequent disaster.

Between the time of the apparent success of electrochemical protection and its practical failure, Davy, as chairman of the Board of Longitude, established a joint committee between the board and the Royal Society to find a means of replicating Joseph von Fraunhofer’s process of producing high-quality optical glass. Faraday, again at Davy’s behest, spent the latter part of the 1820s trying to make glass with little success. Once again Davy’s name became associated with failure in the eyes of the Admiralty, and in 1828 Parliament abolished the Board of Longitude, which since its founding in 1714 had been the sole conduit in England for the state’s support of science.

The pressure on Davy was immense, and in 1826 he began suffering from a serious illness that led him, on 6 November 1827, to resign the presidency. Faraday, who had been an uncomfortably close witness to Davy’s failures in the 1820s, learned from his experiences. Whenever he provided scientific advice to the state and its agencies, it was always in the most cautious manner, contrasting sharply with Davy’s style. When offered the presidency of the Royal Society in 1858, he had no hesitation in immediately declining, adding that if he accepted he “would not answer for the integrity of my intellect for a single year” (Tyndall, 1868, p. 267). That he had his firsthand knowledge of Davy’s experiences in mind cannot be doubted.


Significant deposits of previously unknown papers relating to Davy’s work have been found in the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) in Kew, Surrey; the Northumberland Record Office in Newcastle upon Tyne; the Tyne and Wear Archive Service in Newcastle upon Tyne; and the County Durham Lambton Estate Office.

Field, J. V., and Frank A. J. L. James. “Frankenstein and the Spark of Being.” History Today (September 1994): 47–53.

Forgan, Sophie, ed. Science and the Sons of Genius: Studies on Humphry Davy. London: Science Reviews, 1980.

Fullmer, June Z. Young Humphry Davy: The Making of an Experimental Chemist. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2000.

Holmes, Richard. “The Coleridge Experiment.” Proceedings of the Royal Institution 69 (1997): 307–323.

James, Frank A. J. L. “Davy in the Dockyard: Humphry Davy, the Royal Society, and the Electro-chemical Protection of the Copper Sheeting of His Majesty’s Ships in the Mid 1820s.” Physis 29 (1992): 205–225.

———. “How Big Is a Hole?: The Problems of the Practical Application of Science in the Invention of the Miners’ Safety Lamp by Humphry Davy and George Stephenson in Late Regency England.” Transactions of the Newcomen Society 75 (2005): 175–227.

Jones, Henry Bence. The Life and Letters of Faraday. 1st ed. 2 vols. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1870.

Knight, David. Humphry Davy: Science and Power. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Miller, David Philip. “Between Hostile Camps: Sir Humphry Davy’s Presidency of the Royal Society of London, 1820–1827.” British Journal for the History of Science 16 (1983): 1–47.

Tyndall, John. “On Faraday as a Discoverer.” Proceedings of the Royal Institution 5 (1868): 199–272.

Frank A. J. L. James

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Davy, Humphry

Davy, Humphry


Sir Humphry Davy, the son of woodcarver, was born on December 17, 1778, in Penzance, Cornwall, then a highly industrialized area in the far west of England. In 1798 he moved to Bristol to work at the Pneumatic Institution under Thomas Beddoes, a physician who used gases for medicinal purposes. There he discovered the physiological properties of nitrous oxide (laughing) gas, which established his reputation as a chemist. In Bristol he became friends with the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey. No mean poet himself, Davy, at the suggestion of his friends, saw the second edition of William Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads that seminal text of English Romanticismthrough to publication.

In 1801, at the age of twenty-two, Davy was appointed assistant professor and director of the laboratory at the newly founded Royal Institution (1799), and the following year he became professor of chemistry. In the eleven years that he was there, Davy firmly established the Royal Institution's reputation for excellent lectures on science and other areas of culture (he even influenced Coleridge to lecture there). In addition, he was a strong supporter of the utilitarian function of the Royal Institution, particularly in its application of chemical knowledge to the improvement of agriculture and industrial processes, in both of which Davy played a major role. But Davy also transformed the Royal Institution into a setting where in-depth scientific research would be carried out, something that its founders had not planned. But because of its commitment to providing spectacular lectures, the Royal Institution quickly came to have one of the best equipped laboratories in Europe, where research could be conducted.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Davy undertook fundamental work on electrochemistry following Alessandro Volta's invention of the electric battery at the end of the eighteenth century. Davy developed the first coherent theory of electrochemical action, whereby he argued that electrochemical decomposition took place at the metal poles through which electricity passed into a compound. Indeed, Davy posited that electrical force was the basis of all chemistry. During the course of his work, he discovered sodium and potassium, and later magnesium, calcium, strontium, and barium. Using the same electrochemical techniques, Davy eventually showed that chlorine and iodine were chemical elements rather than compounds, contrary to what French chemists had believed.

In 1812 he was knighted by the prince regent for his contributions to electrochemistry, married a wealthy widow Jane Apreece, and was thus able to retire from the Royal Institution at the age of thirty-four, although he remained the director of its laboratory. It was in this capacity that he appointed Michael Faraday as an assistant in the laboratory early in 1813. Later that year with his wife, her maid, and Faraday as an assistant, amanuensis (scribe), and reluctant valet, Davy embarked on an eighteen-month tour of the European continent, visiting many laboratories and sites of natural and cultural interest. On their return, Davy invented, with Faraday's assistance, the miners' safety lamp, which reinforced his reputation in applied science. With a confidence that was shared by all romantics of the time, Davy believed that nothing was beyond his reach, and in 1820 he was elected president of the Royal Society . This was a position he was ill-equipped to undertake after the forty-two-year presidency of Joseph Banks. Banks had been an autocratic president, and Davy had neither the ability to continue to lead in that mode, nor the power to take the society in a different direction. Davy sought to keep the peace between various factions within the society, but without success. His hostile attitude toward Faraday at this time was largely governed by the politics of the Royal Society. Davy's frustrations were compounded in the mid-1820s when his attempts to develop an electrochemical method for protecting the copper sheeting of the Royal Navy's ships failed. This resulted in strained relations between the government and the Royal Society, which culminated in the government abolishing the Board of Longitude, the only body then channeling state money into science. Davy suffered a stroke and resigned the presidency in 1827; he subsequently traveled abroad, where he died in Geneva, Switzerland, on May 29, 1829. Despite the ups and down of his career, during the nineteenth century Davy came to be regarded as a towering figure and a comparison with him was an enormous compliment.

see also Barium; Calcium; Faraday, Michael; Magnesium; Potassium; Sodium; Strontium; Volta, Alessandro.

Frank A. J. L. James


Davy, John, ed. (18391840). The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy. 9 vols. London: Smith, Elder and Co. (Reprinted with an introduction by David Knight, 2001, Bristol: Thoemmes Press.)

Fullmer, June Z. (2000). Young Humphry Davy: The Making of an Experimental Chemist. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society.

Golinski, Jan (1992). Science as Public Culture: Chemistry and Enlightenment in Britain 17601820. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

James, Frank A. J. L. (1992). "Davy in the Dockyard: Humphry Davy, the Royal Society and the Electro-chemical Protection of the Copper Sheeting of His Majesty's Ships in the Mid-1820s." Physis 29:205225.

Knight, David (1998). Humphry Davy: Science and Power. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Miller, D. P. (1983). "Between Hostile Camps: Sir Humphry Davy's Presidency of the Royal Society of London 18201827." British Journal for the History of Science 16:147.

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Davy, Humphry

Davy, Humphry

Humphry Davy (1778-1829) grew up poor, helping his mother pay off debts left by his father, a woodcarver who had lost his earnings in speculative investments. Davy's education was not outstanding, since he could not afford to go to very good schools. Still, Davy managed to absorb lots of classic literature and science. In later life, he said he was happy he did not have to study too hard in school so that he had more time to think on his own.

Without money for further education, seventeen-year-old Davy began to serve as an apprentice to a pharmacist/surgeon. During this time, Davy took it upon himself to learn more about whatever interested him, including geography, languages, philosophy, and science. When he was nineteen years old, Davy read a book on chemistry by famous French chemist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) that convinced him to concentrate on that subject. For the rest of his life, Davy's career was marked by brilliant, if sometimes hasty, scientific explorations in chemistry and electro-chemistry.

Conducts Research on Himself

One of Davy's scientific trademarks was his willingness, even eagerness, to use himself as a guinea pig. In the process of conducting experiments on the therapeutic (healing) properties of various gases, he breathed four quarts of pure hydrogen and nearly suffocated. In one instance, Davy's fondness for risk paid off. While studying nitrous oxide gas, he discovered that it made him feel dizzy and euphoric (happy and silly). When he encouraged his friends to inhale the gas with him, he found that their inhibitions were lowered and their feelings of happiness or sadness intensified. Davy's poet friend Robert Southey (1774-1843) referred to his experience as being "turned on," and nitrous oxide became known as laughing gas. Beyond Davy's circle, nitrous oxide parties became a fad among wealthy people.

Davy recognized, however, that the gas could also be used to dull physical pain during minor surgery. Although the medical profession ignored this discovery for nearly 50 years, nitrous oxide eventually became the first chemical anesthetic. In an 1844 experiment, a dentist had one of his teeth extracted successfully while under the influence of nitrous oxide, having first taken the precaution of writing his will). Some dentists still use the gas today for nervous patients, especially children.

Other Accomplishments

Davy's research credits beyond nitrous oxide are many. His style in the laboratory was to work quickly and intensely, pursuing one new idea after another. He aimed at originality and creativity, rather than tediously repeating tests and confirming results. Some of his later discoveries include several chemical elements, arc lighting, and the invention of a safer miner's lamp.

Davy was known for his charm and good looks, as well. While in his early thirties, after being knighted in 1812, Davy married a wealthy Scottish widow and began to travel extensively and enjoy his fame. In addition to his knighthood, Davy was made a baronet (a British hereditary title of honor) in 1818 for his service to the mining industry and was elected president of the prestigious Royal Society in 1820. In his conflicts with other scientists, however, Davy made some enemies who thought he was arrogant.

Ill health began to plague Davy while he was still in his thirties. The same curiosity that drove him to discover and invent with such success had also taken its toll on his body. By sniffing and tasting unknown chemicals, he had poisoned his system; his eyes had also been damaged in a laboratory explosion. Although Davy continued to pursue scientific interests, he suffered a stroke at age forty-nine and died just two years later.

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Davy, Sir Humphry

Davy, Sir Humphry (1778–1829). Cornish chemist and applied scientist. Davy's apprenticeship to an apothecary was interrupted through his meeting with James Watt's son Gregory, and he was invited to Bristol to a clinic where oxygen and other gases were given to those with tuberculosis. He met S. T. Coleridge, and with him discovered the properties of laughing gas. In 1801 he was appointed to the Royal Institution in London, where his eloquence made his lectures fashionable, and where in 1806–7 he proved that chemical affinity is electrical, winning a prize from Napoleon's Institut. After marrying a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece, in 1813, he set out for France to collect it, accompanied by his new assistant, Michael Faraday. On his return in 1815, his help was sought in controlling mine explosions; beginning with laboratory investigation, he came up with the lamp that bears his name. This was a new route to technological innovation. His lamp made him the obvious candidate to succeed Sir Joseph Banks as president of the Royal Society in 1820; but his reign was unhappy in a decade of tension between tradition and reform.

David Knight

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