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Lunch Hour Lecture: The state, science and Humphry Davy

By Thomas Hughes, on 4 February 2016

“Science, gentlemen, is of infinitely more importance to a state than may at first sight appear possible”. While few scientists would disagree with this today, it was the 19th-century chemist Humphry Davy who made the observation. In a recent Lunch Hour Lecture Professor Frank James (UCL Science & Technology Studies) took us on a whistle stop tour of Davy’s colourful life, his science and his relationship with the state. Humphry Davy. From: Sarah K. Bolton: Famous Men of Science. (New York, 1889)

A poet of Penzance

Born in Penzance on December 17, 1778, Davy initially showed a passion for poetry. This was largely descriptive poetry, such as this extract about St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall: “Beat by the storms of ages, stands unmov’d, Amidst the wreck of things—the change of time.”

However after his schooling, his godfather apprenticed him to a surgeon and it was in the apothecary there where he discovered what would become a life-long interest in chemistry.

While living in Penzance he met distinguished natural philosophers including the engineer Davies Giddy who encouraged Davy and offered him the use of his library.

Professional and personal highs

Giddy also recommended Davy to a Dr Beddoes who was setting up a ‘Pneumatic Institute’ in Bristol to test gases in the treatment of tuberculosis. Davy joined the institute and began various experiments with gases. As Professor James said, “no small animal was safe from Davy’s experiments”.

He also worked with nitrous oxide or laughing gas, to which he subsequently became addicted. He inhaled enormous amounts of the gas, and during one of his highs wrote a note comparing himself as a scientist to Isaac Newton.

In 1801 he was appointed an Assistant Lecturer on Chemistry at the Royal Institute in London. His lectures on Galvanism (electricity produced by chemical actions) were hugely popular as he was a charismatic speaker and his fame rocketed. He subsequently began a series of talks on agricultural chemistry, which – while popular – were probably not of much use to the agricultural community as they tended to focus on being entertaining rather than offering solutions.

He married a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece, and they toured Europe together along with Davy’s assistant and stand-in valet Michael Faraday. Faraday was treated poorly by Mrs Davy and considered a servant, but he was essential help in a number of Davy’s experiments.

Faraday went on to become a hugely influential scientist and Davy is supposed to have claimed Faraday as his greatest discovery.

Shining a light on coal mine explosions

After returning to England, Davy was asked by a bishop to help find a solution to the problem of firedamp (flammable gas) explosions in coal mines. The state was beginning to turn to science for solutions.

Davy went to a coal mine and took a number of samples of the firedamp gas before returning to London to conduct experiments with Faraday. He worked fast, aware that others were working on the same problem. After only a few months he came up with a gauze safety lamp that would stop the flame moving outside the lamp.

You can see more about how this worked in this video from the Royal Institute (where Davy used to work):

Independently, the soon to be famous engineer George Stephenson, had also produced a safety lamp. Davy refused to accept that it had been produced independently and insisted that Stephenson must have copied him. He asked his friends at the Royal Institute to assert that Davy’s was the original. This dispute raged on throughout the 19th century unresolved, and both lamps were used.

The lamps were a success and Davy considered it one of his greatest achievements; most of his statues and portraits contain the lamp. Davy’s growing fame meant that more people brought problems to him in the hope of solutions.

The state turns to chemistry

Statue of Sir Humphry Davy Market Jew Street, Penzance, Cornwall, United Kingdom June 2006 Author Chris Angove

Statue in Penzance, Cornwall
holding the Davy Lamp

In Herculaneum, near Naples, a number of manuscripts had been found. At the time, the method of opening them involved a machine that very slowly unrolled them, but this caused huge damage. Davy was tasked by the British Government with finding a chemistry-based solution.

His solution, while more effective than the mechanical one, still caused significant damage to the manuscripts. Nonetheless he went to Naples to demonstrate it to the Italians, but it was a mixed success and he soon returned.

He was next tasked with finding a solution to the expensive necessity of repairing the corrosion on Royal Navy vessels. He correctly diagnosed the problem and the solution. However his implementation led to other problems for the Royal Navy, and this on top of the huge costs involved meant it was another mixed success.

While Davy’s work with the state on scientific problems was not always a complete success, it paved the way for proving his argument that “Science, gentlemen, is of infinitely more importance to a state than may at first sight appear possible”.

While some of his missteps set back state funding in science, it created a precedent for future scientists such as Davy’s protégé Faraday to work supported by state funding, and had a significant impact on how science is funded up to the modern era.

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