Sir Humphrey Davy

Sir Humphrey Davy, Gallery of Portraits

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.

Early Life

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 philosophy.

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 of chairs.

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.".

Pneumatic Institution

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 novel stimulus.

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 prospects.

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 independence.


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.

Declining Health

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 Royal Society.

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.

Davy's Passing

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 consequence extinct.