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Davy, Sir Humphry

Category: Genius


Sir Humphry Davis, painting by Thomas Phillips

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet FRS MRIA FGS (1778 – 1829) was an English chemist and inventor. Davy was also a poet and a painter. Much of his poetry appears to have been inspired by love. His first verses were penned at the age of seventeen in honour of his first love.

Davy was a pioneer in the field of electrolysis using the voltaic pile to split up common compounds and thus prepare many new elements. He went on to electrolyse molten salts and discovered several new metals, especially sodium and potassium. Davy went on to discover calcium in 1808 and he also discovered magnesium, boron and barium. In 1810, chlorine was given its current name by Davy, who found that it was an element. He also discovered the elemental nature of iodine. In a series of experiments conducted with Michael Faraday's assistance, Davy succeeded in using the sun's rays to ignite diamond, proving it is composed of pure carbon.

In 1815 he invented the Davy lamp, which allowed miners to work safely in the presence of flammable gases. In 1809, it is said that Davy also invented the first electric light. He connected two wires to a battery and attached a charcoal strip between the other ends of the wires. The charge carbon glowed, making the first arc lamp.

 Of 'a sanguine, somewhat irritable temperament', Davy displayed characteristic enthusiasm and energy in all his pursuits. He was a true genius “Of the smaller observances of etiquette he was careless, and his frankness of disposition sometimes exposed him to annoyances which he might have avoided by the exercise of ordinary tact.” Thus much of his inspiration came from inherited genes. But he was helped a little by his experiments, as we shall see.

Davy proved to be a bright little boy right from his birth and after the death of his father in 1794, he was apprenticed to a surgeon with a large practice at Penzance. In the apothecary's dispensary, Davy became a chemist, and a garret was the scene of his earliest chemical experiments. Dr Edwards, a chemical lecturer in the school of St. Bartholomew's Hospital, also permitted Davy to use the apparatus in his laboratory.

Not long after, Dr Thomas Beddoes, who had recently established a ‘Pneumatic Institution’ in Bristol, met Davy and, requiring an assistant to superintend the laboratory, asked Davy. On 2 October 1798, Davy joined the ‘Pneumatic Institution’ at Bristol. This institution had been established for the purpose of investigating the medical powers of 'factitious airs and gases'. Davy was given the job of supervising the various experiments.

During his residence at Bristol, Davy formed close friendships with James Watt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, all of whom became regular users of Davy's nitrous oxide (laughing gas), to which Davy would become addicted. The gas was first synthesized by Joseph Priestley in 1772, who called it phlogisticated nitrous air.

James Watt built a portable gas chamber for the purpose of Davy's nitrous oxide inhalation experiments, which at one point were combined with wine to judge the efficacy of nitrous oxide as a cure for hangovers (his laboratory notebook indicated success). Despite the popularity of the gas among Davy's friends and acquaintances and his copious notes about the ability of the gas to entirely take away the sensation of pain, aneasthetics would not be regularly used in medicine or dentistry until decades after Davy's death.

In these gas experiments, Davy ran considerable risks. His respiration of nitric oxide may have led, by its union with common air in the mouth, to the formation of nitric acid (HNO3), which severely injured the mucous membrane. In Davy's attempt to inhale four quarts of 'pure hydrocarbonate' gas in an experiment with carbon monoxide he ‘seemed sinking into annihilation.’ On being removed into the open air, Davy faintly articulated, ‘I do not think I shall die,’ but some hours elapsed before the painful symptoms ceased. Davy was still able to take his own pulse as he staggered out of the laboratory and into the garden, and he described it in his notes as 'threadlike and beating with excessive quickness'.

In a letter written to Davies Gilbert, on 10 April, Davy informs him: I made a discovery yesterday which proves how necessary it is to repeat experiments. The gaseous oxide of azote (the laughing gas) is perfectly respirable when pure. It is never deleterious but when it contains nitrous gas. I have found a mode of making it pure.’ He then says that he breathed sixteen quarts of it for nearly seven minutes, and that it ‘absolutely intoxicated me.’ During this year Davy published his ‘Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide and its Respiration.’ In after years Davy regretted that he had ever published these hypotheses, which he himself subsequently designated as ‘the dreams of misemployed genius which the light of experiment and observation has never conducted to truth.’

Davy's ‘Researches,’ however was full of striking and novel facts and rich in chemical discoveries, and soon attracted the attention of Joseph Banks.  In February 1801, Davy was officially interviewed by Banks, Benjamin Thompson and Henry Cavendish, the Committee of the Royal Institution. On 8 March 1801 Davy left Bristol to take up his new post at the Royal Institution.

On 25 April 1801, Davy gave his first lecture on the relatively new subject of 'Galvanism'. He and his good friend Coleridge had had many conversations about the nature of human knowledge and progress, and Davy's lectures gave his audience a vision of human civilization brought forward by scientific discovery.

"It [science] has bestowed on him powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments."

The first lecture garnered rave reviews, and by the June lecture, Davy wrote to John King that his last lecture had attendance of nearly 500 people.  Davy's lectures also included spectacular and sometimes dangerous chemical demonstrations for his audience, a generous helping of references to divine creation, and genuine scientific information. Not only a popular lecturer, the young and handsome Davy acquired a huge female following around London, and nearly half of the attendees pictured in Gillray's cartoon are female.

In November 1804 Davy became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was one of the founding members of the Geological Society in 1807 and was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1810. In January 1819, Davy was awarded a baronetcy. Although Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton had already been knighted, this was, at the time, the highest honour ever conferred on a man of science in Britain. A year later he became President of the Royal Society.

Davy died in Switzerland in 1829 of heart disease inherited from his father's side of the family. He spent the last months of his life writing "Consolations In Travel", an immensely popular, somewhat freeform compendium of poetry, thoughts on science and philosophy (and even speculation concerning alien life) which became a staple of both scientific and family libraries for several decades afterward. He is buried in the Plainpalais Cemetery in Geneva

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