xxxxxThe English chemist Humphry Davy is remembered today for his safety or “Davy” lamp, invented in 1815 to ensure the safety of miners when working in the presence of methane, an explosive gas. Earlier, however, he discovered nitrous oxide (known as “laughing gas”) and, by extensive use of a process called electrolysis, he isolated a number of metallic elements, including sodium, potassium and calcium. He applied his knowledge to the work place in the metal, alkali and tanning industries, and his Elements of Agricultural Chemistry, published in 1813, proved of long-
HUMPHRY DAVY 1778 -
Wedgwood: date and artist unknown, from a drawing belonging to Miss Wedgwood of Leith Hill Place, Dorking, Surrey; Lawrence: Portrait of Davy (detail) – Royal Institution, London; Self-
xxxxxToday, the distinguished English chemist Humphry Davy is remembered above all for his invention of the safety or “Davy” lamp. This enabled miners to work safely underground even in the presence of methane, an explosive gas they called “fire-
xxxxxIn addition to his famous safety lamp, however, Davy made important contributions to the advance of chemistry. He was born near Penzance, Cornwall, and attended the grammar school there. An intelligent, inquisitive student, after he left school he was apprenticed to a surgeon to begin medical training, but in 1799 his keen interest in chemistry earned him a place at the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol, then researching into ways of using gases for medical purposes. It was here that, trying out various gases upon himself, he discovered the strange effects of nitrous oxide -
xxxxxOn the strength of this research, in 1801 he gained a place on the staff of the newly founded Royal Institution in London. He was appointed professor of chemistry the following year, and quickly gained a reputation for the quality of his public lectures and demonstrations. In 1806 he began a series of experiments using the method of electrolysis for the first time. Having constructed a battery containing over 250 cells (the largest ever built), he passed an electric current through various liquid compounds and discovered six previously unknown metallic elements -
xxxxxDavy was one of the first scientists to put his knowledge to the service of industry. In agriculture, for example, he favoured the use of artificial fertilisers, and suggested the introduction of sulphate of potash, phosphate of lime and salts of magnesium. He delivered a series of lectures to the board of agriculture on such matters, and these were published under the title Elements of Agricultural Chemistry in 1813. And his process of electrolysis was put to good use in mineralogy and the alkali and tanning industries. Among his other inventions was the arc lamp, constructed in the early 1800s, an electrolytic process for the desalination of sea water, and the means of preventing the corrosion of copper-
xxxxxHis contribution in the field of chemistry, achieved by an outstanding talent for experimental inquiry, did not go unrewarded. In 1807, for example, he received the Napoleon Prize from the Institute of France for his pioneer work in the process of electrolysis -
xxxxxIn the 1820s Davy worked alongside Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (of Singapore fame) in the founding of the Zoological Society, and the planning of the zoological gardens in Regent’s Park, London, but his health began to fail at this time, and he went to live in Italy in 1827. He died in Geneva two years later. No finer tribute was paid to him than that written in 1824 when the people of Penzance held a public dinner in the Union Hotel, Chapel Street, to honour their worthy citizen. The local newspaper reported that he had made the town of Penzance “as famous and imperishable as science itself” and that he was “one of the happy few who can claim to be permanent benefactors to the human race”.
xxxxxIncidentally, when Davy was experimenting with nitrous oxide in 1799, he persuaded a number of his friends, including the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, to sample this “laughing gas” and give their verdict. Not such a laughing matter, however, was another experiment Davy carried out at this time. He inhaled a lethal mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide and very nearly lost his life! ……
xxxxx…… Inx1802 Davy published an account -
xxxxxAnother scientist at this time who deserves mention is the French chemist Pierre-
and Thomas Lawrence
xxxxxThe English artist Thomas Lawrence (1769-
xxxxxAs noted above, the portrait of Davy was by the English artist Thomas Lawrence (1769-
xxxxxHe was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1791, and the following year became painter to George III. His largest and most prestigious assignment came after the Napoleonic Wars in 1818, when he was commissioned by the Prince Regent to paint 24 full-
xxxxxDetails are shown here of (left to right): Pope Pius VII, “Pinkie”, The Countess of Blessington, and Master Lambton.
xxxxxIncidentally, it is said that some of his works earned him over 1,000 guineas. Many of his portraits are at Windsor Castle.