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Sir Humphry Davy 1778 - 1829

Humphey Davy was born in Penzance on 17th December 1778, the son of a woodcarver. His early life was spent enjoying the local countryside, collecting minerals and fishing, but he also liked to compose verses and sketch. He never lost his love of nature and the landscape, and was particularly happy in mountainous regions or by the sea. He was educated at Penzance Grammar School and later in Truro. His father died in 1794 and shortly afterwards he was apprenticed to J. Bingham Borlase, a surgeon and apothecary with a view to eventually gaining a qualification in medicine.

Although his early academic inclinations tended towards the arts, he became increasingly fascinated by science and in particular the study of chemistry. He was befriended by Davies Giddy (later Gilbert) who later became President of The Royal Society 1827 - 1830 and who encouraged him in the pursuit of knowledge, by providing him with laboratory facilities. He was strong minded and formed independent views about the nature of heat, light and electricity.

In 1798, at the age of 19 he went to Bristol to study chemistry and was taken on by Thomas Beddoes at his Medical Pneumatic Institution. The Institution was founded at Clifton to enquire into the therapeutic properties of gases. He was an enthusiastic researcher, investigating the composition of numerous gases including oxides and acids of nitrogen and ammonia. He encouraged his scientific and literary friends to report on the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide, otherwise known as laughing gas, however it would be a further forty-five years before it was used as an anaesthetic by dentists. In 1799 he published the details of his research in his book 'Researches, Chemical and Philosophical' which led to him being appointed a lecturer at the Royal Institution.

His researches centred on voltaic cells, an early form of battery. His lectures at the Institution were carefully prepared and rehearsed and became important social events, which added greatly to the prestige of the institution. In 1802 he became Professor of Chemistry at the age of 23.

Out of his studies he found the compound catechu, a tropical plant extract, which was used in the tanning industry and was cheaper and easier to produce than the usual oak extracts. The resulting published work was used extensively in the leather tanning industry as a tanner's guide.

He was appointed a Fellow of the Royal Institution in 1803 and for his researches on voltaic cells, tanning and mineral analysis he was awarded the Copley Medal in 1805. In 1807 he was elected secretary of the Royal Society.

The major thrust of Davy's work at this time was the investigation of the properties of electricity. Davy concluded that the production of electricity in simple electrolytic cells was the result of a chemical reaction, and that because of this reaction it offered the best means of decomposing all substances to their elements. This he explained in his lecture of 1806 entitled 'Chemical Agencies of Electricity' for which he received the Napoleonic Prize from the Institute de France, despite the fact that Britain and France were at war. This work led to his discovery of boron and sodium amongst other compounds and he also explained the bleaching action of chlorine.

In 1812 he was knighted by the Prince Regent for his work in chemistry and was later made a Baronet in 1818. He also married in this year to Jane Apreece, a wealthy widow and socialite. He also published the first part of his 'Elements of Chemical Philosophy'. However he was overextended and was unable to complete his great work.

He interviewed the young Michael Faraday, who he took on as a laboratory assistant and who was ultimately to become one of England's greatest scientists. He also undertook at this time a grand tour of Europe, taking with him the young Faraday, lecturing as he went through France and Italy.

It is probably true that Sir Humphry Davy will be best remembered for inventing the miner's safety lamp; previously miners used candles to light their way. However because of the ever present threat of methane gas and the possibility of an explosion this was a very dangerous method. In 1816 Davy presented to the Royal Society an invention for a safety lamp. The idea was to have the flame covered by wire gauze of precise measurements. It was fitted with a cover of wire mesh containing 625 apertures to the square inch with the wire being 1/70 inch thick. Davy did not patent his invention, he wrote that " sole object was to serve the cause of humanity and if I have succeeded I am rewarded in the gratifying of having done so". Because methane gas is more prevalent in coal mines, it was mainly used in the Midlands and the North rather than the Cornish mines.

In 1820 he became President of the Royal Society, a position he held until 1827. He founded the Athenaeum Club in London with John Wilson Crocker and with the colonial governor Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles founded the Zoological Society with the aim of building zoological gardens in Regent's Park, today's London Zoo, which opened in 1828.

His last years were spent investigating ways of preventing saltwater corrosion on the copper bottoms of ships. Although he was able to outline the principles needed to prevent corrosion he was unable to find a reliable system of protection.

In 1827 Davy became seriously ill, attributed to his inhalation of many gases over the years. He resigned the Presidency of The Royal Society and was succeeded by Davies Gilbert. He embarked on a European tour, and as he was unable to pursue his career wrote a book on Fly Fishing called Salmonia, in the same vein as the book by Izaak Walton. While he was in Rome he suffered a heart attack and later died in Geneva, Switzerland on May 29th 1829

Sir Humphry Davy's contribution to science is incalculable. He discovered many principles of chemistry which still hold true today. If you are in Penzance look out for his statue which is situated outside the Market House in Market Jew Street.


The Royal Society

The Royal Institution of Great Britain