Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet was a Cornish chemist and inventor.He is best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth metals, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. Berzelius called Davy's 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity "one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry."He was a 1st Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS).
Education, Apprentice and poetry
Humphry Davy was born at Penzance in Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, on 17 December 1778. The family moved to Varfell, near Ludgvan, when he was 9, and in term-time Davy boarded with John Tonkin, his mother's godfather.From the Penzance school Davy went in 1793 to Truro Grammar School, finishing his education there under the Rev. Dr. Cardew, who, in a later letter to Davies Gilbert, said dryly: "I could not discern the faculties by which he was afterwards so much distinguished." Davy said himself: "I consider it fortunate I was left much to myself as a child, and put upon no particular plan of study... What I am I made myself."
After the death of Davy's father in 1794, Tonkin apprenticed the boy to John Bingham Borlase, a surgeon with a large practice at Penzance. Davy's indenture is dated 10 February 1795. In the apothecary's dispensary, Davy became a chemist, and a garret in Tonkin's house was the scene of his earliest chemical operations. Davy's friends would often say: "This boy Humphry is incorrigible. He will blow us all." His eldest sister complained of the ravages made on her dresses by corrosive substances.
Much has been said of Davy as a poet, and John Ayrton Paris somewhat hastily says that his verses "bear the stamp of lofty genius". Davy's first production preserved bears the date of 1795. It is entitled The Sons of Genius, and is marked by the usual immaturity of youth. Other poems produced in the following years, especially On the Mount's Bay and St Michael's Mount, are pleasingly descriptive verses, showing sensibility but no true poetic imagination. Davy was also a painter and three of his paintings dating from circa 1796 have been donated to the Penlee House museum at Penzance. One of these is of the view from above Gulval showing the church, Mount's Bay and the Mount, while the other two depict Loch Lomond in Scotland.
Davy soon abandoned poetry for science. While writing verses at the age of seventeen in honour of his first love, he was eagerly discussing with his Quaker friend and mentor Robert Dunkin the question of the materiality of heat. Dunkin once remarked: ‘I tell thee what, Humphry, thou art the most quibbling hand at a dispute I ever met with in my life.’ One winter day he took Dunkin to Larigan river,to show him that rubbing two plates of ice together developed sufficient energy by motion, to melt them, and that after the motion was suspended, the pieces were united by regelation. This was a crude form of an analogous experiment later exhibited by Davy, in the lecture-room of the Royal Institution, which elicited considerable attention.As professor at the Royal Institution, Davy would later repeat many of the ingenious experiments which he learned from his friend and mentor, Robert Dunkin.
Early scientific interests
Davies Giddy, afterwards Davies Gilbert, accidentally saw Davy in Penzance, carelessly swinging on the half-gate of Dr Borlase's house. Gilbert was interested by the lad's talk, offered him the use of his library, and invited him to his house at Tredrea. This led to an introduction to Dr Edwards, who then resided at Hayle Copper House, and was also chemical lecturer in the school of St. Bartholomew's Hospital. Dr Edwards permitted Davy to use the apparatus in his laboratory, and appears to have directed his attention to the floodgates of the port of Hayle, which were rapidly decaying from the contact of copper and iron under the influence of seawater. Galvanic corrosion was not then understood, but the phenomenon prepared the mind of Davy for his experiments on the copper sheathing of ships in later days. Gregory Watt, the son of James Watt, visited Penzance for his health's sake, and lodging at Mrs Davy's house became a friend of her son and gave him instructions in chemistry. Davy also formed a useful acquaintance with the Wedgwood family, who spent a winter at Penzance.
Dr Thomas Beddoes and Professor Hailstone were engaged in a geological controversy upon the rival merits of the Plutonian and the Neptunist hypotheses. They travelled together to examine the Cornish coast accompanied by Davies Gilbert, and thus made Davy's acquaintance. Beddoes, who had recently established at Bristol a 'Pneumatic Institution,' required an assistant to superintend the laboratory. Gilbert recommended Davy for the post, and Gregory Watt, in 1798, showed Beddoes the Young man's Researches on Heat and Light, which were subsequently published by him in the first volume of West-Country Contributions. Prolonged negotiations were carried on, mainly by Gilbert. Mrs Davy and Borlase consented to Davy's departure, but Tonkin desired to fix him in his native town as a surgeon, and actually altered his will when he found that Davy insisted on going to Dr Beddoes.
In 1809, it is said that Davy actually invented the first electric light. He connected two wires to a battery and attached a charcoal strip between the other ends of the wires. The charged carbon glowed, making the first arc lamp.
In January 1819, Davy was awarded a baronetcy. Although Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Isaac Newton had already been knighted, this was, at the time, the first such honour ever conferred on a man of science in Britain. A year later he became President of the Royal Society.
Davy's laboratory assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to enhance Davy's work and would become the more famous and influential scientist. Davy is supposed to have even claimed Faraday as his greatest discovery. Davy later accused Faraday of plagiarism, however, causing Faraday (the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry) to cease all research in electromagnetism until his mentor's death.
Of a sanguine, somewhat irritable temperament, Davy displayed characteristic enthusiasm and energy in all his pursuits. As is shown by his verses and sometimes by his prose, his mind was highly imaginative; the poet Coleridge declared that if he "had not been the first chemist, he would have been the first poet of his age", and Southey said that "he had all the elements of a poet; he only wanted the art." In spite of his ungainly exterior and peculiar manner, his happy gifts of exposition and illustration won him extraordinary popularity as a lecturer, his experiments were ingenious and rapidly performed, and Coleridge went to hear him "to increase his stock of metaphors." The dominating ambition of his life was to achieve fame, but though that sometimes betrayed him into petty jealousy, it did not leave him insensible to the claims on his knowledge of the "cause of humanity", to use a phrase often employed by him in connection with his invention of the miners' lamp. Of the smaller observances of etiquette he was careless, and his frankness of disposition sometimes exposed him to annoyances which he might have avoided by the exercise of ordinary tact.
According to one of Davy's biographers, June Z. Fullmer, he was a deist.
He spent the last months of his life writing Consolations in Travel, an immensely popular, somewhat freeform compendium of poetry, thoughts on science and philosophy. Published posthumously, the work became a staple of both scientific and family libraries for several decades afterward. Davy spent the winter in Rome, hunting in the Campagna on his fiftieth birthday. But on 20 February 1829 he had another stroke. After spending many months attempting to recuperate, Davy died in a hotel room in Geneva, Switzerland, on 29 May 1829.
He had wished to be buried where he died, but had also wanted the burial delayed in case he was only comatose. He refused to allow a post-mortem for similar reasons. But the laws of Geneva did not allow any delay and he was given a public funeral on the following Monday, in the Plainpalais Cemetery, outside the city walls. Jane organised a memorial tablet for him, in Westminster Abbey shortly afterwards, at a cost of £142.
Copley Medal , Royal Medal , Rumford Medal