Sir Humphrey Davy
Sir Humphrey Davy
(17th December, 1778 – 29th May, 1829)
WHERE the length of the memoir necessarily bears a small proportion to the quantity of matter which
presses on the biographer's attention, two courses lie open to his choice ; either to select a few remarkable
passages in his subject's life for full discussion, or to give a general and popular sketch of his personal
history. The latter plan seems here the more advisable. To many readers a minute analysis of Davy's physical
researches would be unintelligible, without full explanations of the very instruments and objects with, and upon
which, he worked. We shall therefore make it our chief object to trace his private history, interspersing notices
of his labours and discoveries, but leaving to publications of expressly scientific character the task of doing
justice to bis scientific fame. Both departments have been fully treated in the life published by Dr. Paris.
Humphry Davy was born near Penzance in Cornwall, December 17, 1778, of a family in independent,
though humble circumstances, which for a century and a half had possessed and resided upon a small estate situated
in Mount's Bay. Though no prodigy of precocious intellect, his childhood gave reasonable promise of future talent;
and especially manifested the dawning of a vivid imagination, united with a strong turn for experiments in natural
One of his favourite amusements was to exhibit to his playfellows the operation of melting in a
candle scraps of tin ; or to make and explode detonating balls. Another was the inventing and repeating to them
fairy tales and romances. At times, however, he would exercise his eloquence upon graver subjects ; and, when no
better could be obtained, the future lecturer is said to have found a staid, if not attentive, audience in a circle
At an early age he was placed at school at Penzance, where, in the usual acceptation of the words,
he profited little : his own opinion, however, was different. " I consider it' fortunate," he wrote to a member of
his family, “ that I was left much to myself as a child, and put upon no particular plan of study, and that I
enjoyed much idleness at Mr. Coryton's school. I perhaps owe to these circumstances the little talents that I have,
and their peculiar application: what I am, I have made myself. I say this without vanity, and in pure simplicity of
heart." He was soon removed to the school at Truro, where he remained two years, undistinguished except by a love
of poetry, which manifested itself in composition at an early age. This, indeed, continued to be a favourite
amusement, until, in mature life, he became absorbed in scientific pursuits :and it has been said upon high
authority, that if Davy had not been the first chemist, he would have been the first poet of his age. This opinion
must look for support, not to his metrical productions, which in truth nowise justify it, but to the vivid
imagination and high powers of eloquence, which, in the vigour and freshness of youth, delighted the fashionable,
as much as his discoveries amazed the scientific world.
In 1794 his father died, and his mother in consequence removed from Varfell, the patrimonial
estate, to Penzance, where Davy was apprenticed to Mr. Borlase, a surgeon in that town. For the medical part of his
new. profession he showed distaste ; but his attention was at once turned to the study of chemistry, which he
pursued thenceforward with undeviating zeal. Akin to this pursuit, and fostered by the natural features of his
native; county, was his early taste for geology. "How often," said Davy to his friend and biographer on being shown
a drawing of Botallack mine,-"how often when a boy have I wandered about these rocks in search of new minerals, and
when fatigued, sat down upon the turf, and exercised my fancy in anticipations of scientific renown.".
The notoriety which, in a small town, he readily acquired as the boy who was so fond of chemical
experiments," introduced him to a valuable friend, Mr. Davies Gilbert, in early life his patron, in Mature age his
successor in the chair of the Royal Society. By him the young man was introduced to Dr. Beddoes, who was at that
time seeking an assistant in conducting the Pneumatic Institution, then newly established at Bristol, for the
purpose of investigating the properties of aeriform fluids, and the possibility of using them as medical agents. It
was not intended that, in forming this engagement, Davy should give up the line of life marked out for him; on the
contrary, his abode at Bristol was considered part of his professional education. But his genius led him another
way; and this plucky engagement opened a career of usefulness and fame, which under other circumstances might have
been long delayed.
The arrangement was concluded upon liberal terms, and in October, 1798, before he was twenty years
old, he left his home in high spirits to enter upon independent life. It is to his honour, that as soon as a
competent, though temporary provision was thus secured, he resigned, in favour of his mother' and sisters, all his
claims upon the paternal estate.
Medical and Physical Knowledge
Soon after removing to Bristol, he published, in a work entitled Contributions to Medical and
Physical Knowledge,' edited by Dr. Beddow, some essays on heat, light, and respiration. Of these it will be
sufficient to say, that with much promise of future excellence, they show a most unbridled imagination, and contain
many speculations so unfounded and absurd, that in after-life he bitterly regretted their publication.
Inhaling Dangerous Gases
During engagement, his zeal and intrepidity were signally displayed in attempts to breathe
different gases, supposed, or known; to be highly destructive to life, with a view to ascertain the nature of their
effects. Two of these experiments, the inhaling of nitrous gas and carburetted hydrogen are remarkable, because in
each he narrowly escaped death. But his attention was especially turned to the gas called nitrous oxide, which,
upon respiration, appeared to transport the breather into a new and highly pleasurable state of feeling, to rouse
the imagination, and give new vigour to the most sublime emotions of the soul. The effects produced, exaggerated by
the enthusiasm of the patients, were in fact closely analogous to intoxication; and many persons still remember the
curiosity and amusement, excited by the freaks of poets and grave philosophers, while under the operation of this
Researches Chemical and Philosophical
In 1800 he published 'Researches Chemical and Philosophical', respecting Nitrous Oxide and its
Respiration.' The novelty of the results announced, combined with the ability shown in their investigation, and the
youth of the author, produced a great sensation in philosophical circles; and through the celebrity thus acquired,
and the favourable opinion of him formed upon personal acquaintance by several eminent philosophers of the day; he
was offered by the conductors of the Royal Institution, the office of Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry, with the
understanding that ere long he should be made sole Professor. This negotiation took place in the spring of 1801,
and on May 31,1802, he was raised to the higher appointment.
Winning Over a Tough Crowd
To Davy, the quitting Bristol for London was the epoch of a transformation—an elevation- from the
chrysalis to the butterfly state. In youth his person,- voice, and addresss were alike uncouth ; and at first sight
they produced so unfavourable an impression upon Count Rumford, that he expressed much regret at having sanctioned
so unpromising an engagement. The veteran philosopher soon found reason to change his opinion.
Davy's first course of lectures, which was not delivered till the spring of 1802,: excited a
sensation unequalled before or since. Not only the philosophical but the literary and fashionable world crowded to
hear him; and his vivid imagination, fired by enthusiastic love for the science which he professed, gave, to one of
the most abstruse of studies, a charm confessed by persons the least likely to feel its influence. The strongest
possible testimony to his richness of illustration is supplied by Mr. Coleridge : " I go," he said, "to Davy's
lectures to increase my stock of metaphors." Had this been all, the young prodigy would soon have ceased to dazzle
; but his fame was maintained and increased by the success which waited on his undertakings ; and, in a word, Davy
became the lion of the day. The effect of this sudden change was by no means good.
Sought and caressed by the highest circles of the metropolis, he endeavoured to assume the
deportment of a man of fashion; but the strange dress sat awkwardly, and ill replaced a natural candour and warmth
of feeling, which had singularly won upon the acquaintance of his early life. It is but justice, however, to add
that his regard for his family and early friends was not cooled by this alteration in his society and
Experiments With Electricty
Our limits are too narrow to admit even a sketch of the various trains of original investigation
pursued by Davy, during his connection with the Institution. Of these, the most important is that series of
electrical inquiries pursued from 1800 to 1806, the results of which were developed in his celebrated first
Bakerian Lecture, delivered in the autumn of the latter year, before the Royal Society, which received from the
French Institute the prize of 3000 francs, established by the First Consul, for the best experiment in electricity
or galvanism, In it he investigated the nature of electric action, and disclosed a new class of phenomena
illustrative of the power of the Voltaic battery in decomposing bodies ; which, in the following year, led to the
most striking of his discoveries, the resolution of the fixed alkalies, potash and soda, into metallic bases. This
discovery took place in October, 1807, and was published in his second Bakerian Lecture, delivered in the following
November. The novelty and brilliancy of the view thus opened, raised public curiosity to the highest pitch : the
laboratory of the Institution was crowded with visitors, and the high excitement thus produced, acting upon a frame
exhausted by fatigue, produced a violent fever, in which for many days, he lay between life and death. Not until
the following March was he able to resume his duties as a lecturer.
During the next four years he was chiefly employed in endeavouring to decompose other bodies, in
prosecuting his inquiries into the nature of the alkalies and in obtaining similar metallic bases from the earths,
in which he partially succeeded. The resolution of nitrogen was attempted without success. In tracing the nature of
muriatic and oxymuriatie acid, he was more fortunate ; and proved the latter to be an undecompounded substance, in
direct opposition to his own opinion, recorded at an earlier period. This discovery is the more honourable, for
nothing. renders the admission of truth so difficult, as having ad, vocated error.
On the 8th April, 1812, he received the honour of knighthood from the Prince Regent, in testimony
of his scientific merits. This was the more welcome, because he was on the eve of exchanging a life of professional
labour for one, not of idleness, for he pursued his course of discovery with unabated zeal, but of affluence and
On the 11th of the same month, he married Mrs. Apreece, a lady possessed of ample fortune ;
previous to which he delivered his farewell lecture to the Royal Institution. At the same time he appears to have
resigned the office of Secretary to the Royal Society, to which he had been appointed in 1807. Two months
afterwards he published Elements of Chemical Philosophy,' which he dedicated to Lady Davy, " as a pledge that he
should continue to pursue science with unabated ardour,"
Trip to France
In March, 1813, appeared the Elements of Agricultural Chemistry,' containing the substance of a
course of lectures delivered for ten successive seasons before the Board of Agriculture. That part of the Continent
which was under French influence, being strictly closed against the English at this time, it is much to the credit
of Napoleon, that he immediately assented to a wish expressed by Davy, and seconded by the Imperial Institute, that
he might be allowed to visit the extinct volcanoes in Auvergne, and thence proceed to make observations on Vesuvius
while in a state of action.
He reached Paris, Oct. 27th, 1813. The French philosophers received him with enthusiasm : it is to
be regretted that at the time of his departure their feelings were much less cordial. There was a coldness, and
pride, or what seemed pride, in his manner, which disgusted a body of men too justly sensible of their own merit to
brook slights ; especially when, in spite of national jealousy, they had done most cordial and unhesitating justice
to the transcendent achievements of the British philosopher. Nor was this the only ground for dissatisfaction.
Iodine had been recently discovered in Paris, but its nature was still unknown. Davy obtained a portion, and
proceeded to experiment upon it. This was thought by many an unfair interference with the fame and rights of the
original investigators. Davy himself felt that some explanation at least was due, in a paper which he transmitted
to the Royal Society ; and as the passage in question contained what, though perhaps not meant to be such, might
easily be construed into an insinuation, that but for him, the results communicated in that paper might not have
been obtained, it was not likely to conciliate. There is probably much truth in the excuse offered by his
biographer, for the superciliousness charged against him upon this, and other occasions, that it was merely the
cloak of a perpetual and painful timidity.
It is remarkable that, with a highly poetical temperament, he seems to have been senseless to the
beauties of art. The wonders of the Louvre extracted no sign of pleasure : he paced the rooms with hurried steps,
in apathy, roused only by the sight of an Antinous sculptured in alabaster, Gracious Heaven !" he then exclaimed,
"what a beautiful stalactite."
From Paris, Dec. 29th, he proceeded without visiting Auvergne, to Montpellier, Genoa, Florence,
Rome, and Naples, which he reached May 8th, 1814. At various places he prosecuted his researches upon iodine ; and
at Florence, he availed himself of the great burning lens to experiment upon the combustion of the diamond, and
other forms of carbon. At Naples and Rome he instituted a minute and laborious inquiry into the colours used in
painting by the ancients ; the results of which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions for 1815.
The autumn of 1815 is rendered memorable by the discovery of the safety-lamp, one of the most
beneficial applications of science to economical purposes yet made, by which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives
have been preserved.
Davy was led to the consideration of this subject by an application from Dr. Gray, now Bishop of
Bristol, the Chairman of a Society established in 1813, at Bishop-Wearmouth, to consider and promote -the means of
preventing accidents by fire in coal-pits.
Being then in Scotland, he visited the mines on his return southward, and was supplied with
specimens of fire-damp, which, on reaching London, he proceeded to examine. He soon discovered that the carburetted
hydrogen gas, called fire-damp by the miners, would not explode when mixed with less than six, or more than
fourteen times its volume of air ; and further, that the explosive mixture could not be fired in tubes of small
diameters and proportionate lengths. Gradually diminishing their dimensions, he arrived at the conclusion that a
tissue of wire, in which the meshes do not exceed a certain small diameter, which may be considered as the ultimate
limit of a series of such tubes, is impervious to the inflamed air; and that a lamp covered with such tissue, may
be used with perfect safety even in an explosive mixture, which takes fire, and burns within the cage, securely cut
off from the power of doing harm. Thus when the atmosphere is so impure that the flame of the lamp itself cannot be
maintained, the Davy still supplies light to the miner, and turns his worst enemy into an obedient servant.
This invention, the certain source of large profit, he presented with characteristic liberality to
the public. The words are preserved, in which when pressed to secure to himself the benefit of it by as patent, he
declined to do so, in conformity with the high-minded resolution which he formed upon acquirng independent wealth,
of never making his scientific eminence subservient to rain :—" I have enough for all my views and purposes, more
wealth might be troublesome, and distract my attention from those pursuits in which I delight. More wealth could
not increase my fame or happiness. It might undoubtedly enable me to put four horses to my carriage, but what would
it avail me to have it said, that Sir Humphry drives his carriage and four ?" He who used wealth and distinction to
such good purpose, may be forgiven the weakness if he estimated them at too high a value.
The coal-owners of the north presented to him a service of plate, in testimony of their gratitude.
He underwent, however, considerable vexation from claims to priority of invention, set up by some persons connected
with the collieries, whose attention had been turned with very imperfect success to the same end. The controversy
has long been settled in his favour, by the decision of the most eminent names in British science, and the general
voice of the owners of the Newcastle coal-field : and while the pits are worked, the name of Davy, given by the
colliers to the safety-lamp, cannot be forgotten.
Herculaneum in Naples
In 1618 he again visited Naples, with a view of applying the resources of chemistry to facilitate
the unrolling of the papyri found in Herculaneum. These, it is well known, are generally in a state resembling
charcoal, often cemented into a solid mass, and the texture so entirely destroyed, that it is hardly possible to
separate the layers. Examination of some specimens transmitted to England satisfied him that they had not been
subjected to heat, and, that instead of being a true, charcoal, they were analogous to peat or to the lignite
called Bovey coal. He concluded, therefore, that the rolls were cemented into one mass by a substance produced, by
fermentation in their vegetable substance, and hoped to be able so far to destroy this, as to facilitate the
detaching one layer from another, without obliterating the writing.
With this view he submitted fragments to the operation of chlorine and, iodine, with such fair hope
of success, that he was encouraged to proceed to Naples; the. Government furnishing him with every recommendation,
and defraying the expenses of such assistants as he thought it necessary to take out. His success, however, fell
short of his hopes; and partly from disappointment, partly from a belief that unfair obstacles were thrown in his
way by interested persons, he abandoned the undertaking at the end of two months, having partially unrolled
twenty-three MSS. and examined about one hundred and twenty, which offered no prospect of success. His visit to
Naples led, however, to one conclusion of interest to geologists, that the strata which cover Herculaneum are not
lava, but a tufa consolidated by moisture, and resembling that at Pompeii except in its hardness.
Baronet and President of the Royal Society
In October, 1818, Sir Humphry Davy was created a baronet, as a reward for his scientific services.
Soon after his return to England in 1820, died Sir Joseph Banks, the venerable president of the Royal Society. Davy
succeeded to the chair, which he retained till forced to quit it by ill health, zealous in fulfilling its duties,
without relaxing in his private labours. It would have been better had he not obtained this honour.
His scientific pride disgusted some ; his aristocratic airs, unpardonable in one so humbly born,
excited the ridicule of others. Much of this weakness may be traced to the pernicious effects of early flattery.
Had he been content with chemical fame, he would have spared some mortifications and heart-burnings both to himself
and others. His demeanour changed, immediately after the delivery of his first lecture. On the following day he
dined with his early friend and patron, Sir Henry Englefield, who, speaking of his behaviour on that day after
eighteen years had elapsed, said, " It was the last effort of expiring nature." Such frailties, though just grounds
of censure and regret to his contemporaries, will be lost in the splendour of his discoveries. Yet is the
observation of them not useless as a warning to others : for the higher the station, the more closely will the
actions of him who fills it be scrutinised, especially if his elevation be the work of his own hands.
Copper Sheathing Fail
In 1823 he undertook, in consequence of an application from Government to the Royal Society, an
inquiry into the possibility of preventing the rapid decay of the copper sheathing of ships. His former Voltaic
discoveries at once explained the cause and suggested a remedy.
When two metals in contact with each other are exposed to moisture, the more oxidable rapidly
decays, while on the less oxidable no effect is produced. Thus a very small piece of iron or zinc was found
effectually to stop the solution of a very large surface of copper. Several ships were accordingly fitted with
protectors, as they were called, which succeeded perfectly in preserving the copper ; but their use was found to be
attended by an evil greater than that which they remedied. The ships' bottoms grew foul with unexampled rapidity ;
and the protectors were finally abandoned by the Admiralty in 1828.
This failure was a source of much ill-natured remark to the many whom Davy had offended, or who
were jealous of his reputation, and of deep mortification to himself. Indeed he displayed an impatience of censure
and irritability of temper, far from dignified : the spoilt child of fortune, he could not bear the feeling of
defeat, still less the triumph of his enemies. This weakness may perhaps be partly ascribed to declining health,
which must always more or less over-cloud the mind, especially of one whose amusements as well as his employments
were of an active and stirring kind.
To the sports of fly-fishing and shooting he was devotedly attached; and jealous, even to a
ludicrous degree, of his reputation and success, which is said not always to have been so great as he would
willingly have had it believed. But his failing health gradually curtailed his enjoyment of these pleasures, and
towards the end of 1825, the indisposition which his friends had long seen stealing on him reached its crisis in
the form of an apoplectic attack. All immediate cause of alarm was soon removed; but the traces of his illness
remained in a slight degree of paralysis, which impaired, though without materially affecting, his muscular powers.
By the advice of his physicians he hastened abroad, and passed the rest of the winter, and the spring, at Ravenna.
In the summer he visited the Tyrol and Illyria, and finding his health still precarious, resigned the chair of the
In the autumn he returned to England, having gained little strength. The early winter he spent in
Somer. setshire, at the house of an old and valued friend, too weak for severe mental exertion, or to pursue
successfully his favourite sports. Yet the ruling passion was still shewn in the amusement of his sick hours, which
were chiefly devoted to the preparation of Salmonia.' Of the merits of this book as a manual for the fly-fisher, we
presume not to speak. To the general reader it may be safely recommended, as containing many eloquent and poetical
passages, with much amusing information respecting the varieties and habits of the trout and salmon species, and of
the insect tribes on which they feed.
In the spring of 1828, Davy once more sought the Continent in search of health. His steps were
turned to that favourite district, of which he speaks as the "most glorious country in Europe, Illyria and Styria
;" where he solaced the weary hours of sickness, by such field-sports as his failing health enabled him to pursue,
in the revision of an improved edition of Salmonia,' and in the composition of the: Last. Days of a Philosopher.'
Of this he says, in a letter dated Rome, February 6, 1829, " I write and philosophize a good deal, and have nearly
finished a work with a higher aim than Salmonia.' It contains the essence of my philosophical opinions, and some of
my poetical reveries." Under this sanction, the reader will peruse with pleasure the sketch contained in the third
dialogue of a geological history of the earth, and the other questions of natural philosophy which are discussed. A
large portion of the work is occupied by metaphysical and religious disquisitions.
As a moral philosopher, his opinions do not seem entitled to peculiar weight. Of his visionary
excursion to the limits of the solar system, it is not fair to speak but as the play of an exuberant imagination,
mastering the sober faculties of the mind.The work contains many passages, reflective and descriptive, of unusual
beauty; and is a remarkable production to have been composed under the wasting influence of that disease, which, of
all others, usually exerts the most benumbing influence.
The winter of 1828-9, he spent at Rome ; with returning spring, he expressed a wish to visit
Geneva, but his hours were numbered. He reached that city on May 28, unusually cheerful; dined heartily on fish,
and desired to be daily supplied with every variety which the lake afforded : a trifling circumstance, yet
interesting from its connection with his love of sport. In the course of the night he was seized with a fresh
attack, and expired early in the morning without a struggle. His remains were honoured by the magistrates with a
public funeral, and repose in the cemetery of Plain Palais. He died without issue, and the baronetcy is in