Sir Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall on December 17, 1778.
Davy was the son of a Cornish woodcarver, a middle class family, and became a self taught chemist and well known inventor. At the age of six Davy went to grammar school in Penzance. In 1793, Davy left grammar school to attend Truro Grammar School and finish his education under the Rev Dr.
Cardew. Davy was well educated, but he was also naturally smart and curious, which would come to life in his writings. Davy had many works of fiction and poetry, which he had big plans for, but a year after the death of Davy’s father in 1795, Davy was apprenticed to John Bingham Borlase, a surgeon and apothecary from Penzance. Under the instruction of Dr. Borlase, Davy hoped to explore a career in medicine. Instead in Dr Bingham’s dispensary, Davy made the choice to become a chemist. Some of Davy’s early experiments were held in his guardian’s house.
Friendly and outgoing Davy befriended Davies Giddy/Gilbert, a engineer and author. Giddy began to respect and admire Davy from conversations the two shared. Impressed by Davy’s enthusiasm and interests, Giddy invited Davy to his house and granted him the use of his library. Giddy introduced Davy to Dr. Edwards, a lecturer of chemistry at the school St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Edwards gave Davy access to a chemistry laboratory which was well equipped for the time.
Davy was able to form his own thoughts on topics such as heat, light and electricity. He also tested the chemical and physical beliefs of A.-L. Lavoisier, a scientist who helped create the metric system as well as one of the first lists of elements.
Davy later became became good friends with the father and son duo, James and Gregory Watt. Together they tested nitrous oxide, also known as laughing gas. Davy prepared the nitrous oxide while James Watt made a portable gas chamber. The chamber was used by Davy to conduct his experiments where he inhaled the nitrous oxide, “in order to test a claim that it was the ‘principle of contagion,’ that is, cause disease.”(Encyclopedia Britannica) Davy once combined nitrous oxide with wine as a cure for a hangover. Some of Davy’s experiments with gases went on to make him become very familiar in the world of chemistry. Some of Davy’s experiments included the study of nitrogen and ammonia, testing the makeup of of the oxides and acids.
Another time he convinced colleagues to inhale nitrous oxide and to report its effects on them for his studies. While testing a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide, Davy almost lost his life by inhaling the fumes. In 1800, Davy published all of his early findings in Researches, Chemical and Philosophical. This helped him make even more of a name for himself, which led to him being asked to lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London.In 1802 Davy had created the most powerful electrical battery in the world, with that Davy created the first electric light with a wired filament. It was not bright nor durable enough to be used but still showed Davy’s intelligence. After acquiring this knowledge of how to make a working electrical light, Davy later on made the first “carbon arc lamp”.
The “carbon arc lamp” was the first electrical light widely used. There are not exact dates of the spread and beginning of the “carbon arc lamp” but the spread was although the mid 1800-1900. The “carbon arc lamp” came with many advantages such as: This lamp gave off a magnificent amount of light, which enabled it to light a large area’s of space. This lamp also became a cheaper choice of lighting, these lamps were beginning to be used as street lights over the old oil or gas lamps. But with all advantages come some disadvantages, such as the rods in these lamps had to constantly be changed because these rods were not very durable. Because of this a full time job of changing out these rods was made so these lights could continue to shine. But some fire hazards were made from the spread lamp into theaters and houses, these lamps gave of extensive amounts of heat causing fires to occur; Causing buildings to be burned down and people to get injured.Today the carbon arc lamp is basically obsolete.
It has been replaced by the xenon arc lamp. The xenon arc lamp produces a high intensity white light and is used in most things where the carbon arc lamp was used, such as movie projectors and searclights.With his lectures sparking the interest of the socialites, he helped establish the reputation of science and of the Royal Institution. In 1802 he became a professor of Chemistry with his duties including a study of tanning. His published account of his findings is used as a tanner’s guide. In 1803 he was inducted as a fellow into the Royal Society and an honorary member of the Dublin Society. Here he lectured to the board of agriculture which eventually led to Elements of Agricultural Chemistry in 1813. In 1805 Davy was the recipient of the Copley award.
He received this award for his his research on chemical reactions to produce energy, voltaic cell and mineral analysis, which is hair testing to test levels of various minerals. In 1807 he awarded the Napoleon Prize from the Institute of France for his lectures on the interactions of electric currents with chemical compounds. Davy’s fame and familiarity came from his helping hand in the discoveries of many elements. Davy’s early studies found that electricity production in simple electrolytic cells was a direct result of chemical action. He believed that the best want to break down all substances to their elements, was to be done by the interaction of electric currents with chemical compounds.
He was able to isolate sodium and potassium in 1807 and in 1808 was able to isolate the alkaline-earth metals from their compounds. By heating borax with potassium he discovered boron and also through other experiments discovered hydrogen telluride and hydrogen phosphide. He shared his views that all acids contained oxygen, which went along with Lavoisier’s theory, but all experiments to reveal oxygen in chlorine did not work. Still lecturing on agricultural chemistry in 1810 and 1811 in Dublin, Davy received an honorary degree of LL.
D (Honorary Doctor of Laws) from Trinity college. With large amounts of working in the laboratory, it led to the romantic friendship of Davy and Anna Beddoes. The two had started to write poems to exchange with each other and Anna became Davy’s guide on walks to see sights of the local area.
She was a wealthy widow and was well known in literary circle in England. He published Elements of Chemical Philosophy in 1811, which he put most of his works. Although the there were no followups to this particular publication, it was said by Swedish chemist JJ Berzelius that if Davy would have completed the series it would have “advanced the science of chemistry a full century.”During his European tour from 1813-1815, Davy was granted permission by Napoleon to travel through France and Italy where he met with well known scientist and was presented to the empress Marie Louise. During his travels he had a small portable laboratory where he discovered iodine which he found to be very similar to the makeup of chlorine. He was also able to prove that diamond was a form of carbon. When his tour was over he began to conduct studies on work conditions and explosions for the Society for Preventing Accidents in Coal Mines.
This led to the invention of the Davy Lamp which made a big strike the coal industry. The Davy Lamp was successful, make mining an easier job and safer task, but encasing the flame of the oil lamp with a wire gauze. The wire gauze allowed for oxygen to still reach the flame so that it could burn, but the heat was able to dissipate before reaching the air where explosive gases lingered. The gauze did cause for the light to be less bright, but it made for a much safer workplace. Davy received the Rumford medals from the Royal Society for the invention of his Davy Lamp and other research done on flames. He was made a baronet in 1818 and in 1820 the president of the Royal Society. He held the position of the president until 1827 until his failing health required that he retire.
He wrote a book on fishing which had engravings of his drawings included. In 1829, Davy finally settled in Rome. He suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed.
He spent his final months writing Consolations in Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher. These writings consisted of Davy’s beliefs about extraterrestrial life and visions based on dreams. He believed that souls migrate from world to world as they acquire knowledge. His beliefs were similar to Emanuel Swedenborg and they impressed Camille Flammarion.
The series of dialogues were published after he passed away on May 28, 1929, while Flammarion had them translated to french so that they could be published in France.