Biography of Humphry Davy, Prominent English Chemist

Humphry Davy

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Sir Humphry Davy (December 17, 1778–May 29, 1829) was a British chemist and inventor who was best known for his contributions to the discoveries of chlorine, iodine, and many other chemical substances. He also invented the Davy lamp, a lighting device that greatly improved safety for coal miners, and the carbon arc, an early version of the electric light.

Fast Facts: Sir Humphry Davy

  • Known For: Scientific discoveries and inventions
  • Born: December 17, 1778 in Penzance, Cornwall, England
  • Parents: Robert Davy, Grace Millet Davy
  • Died: May 29, 1829 in Geneva, Switzerland
  • Published Works: Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Elements of Chemical Philosophy
  • Awards and Honors: Knight and baronet
  • Spouse: Jane Apreece
  • Notable Quote: "Nothing is so dangerous to the progress of the human mind than to assume that our views of science are ultimate, that there are no mysteries in nature, that our triumphs are complete and that there are no new worlds to conquer."

Early Life

Humphry Davy was born on December 17, 1778, in Penzance, Cornwall, England. He was the eldest of five children of parents who owned a small, less-than-prosperous farm. His father Robert Davy was also a woodcarver. Young Davy was educated locally and was described as an exuberant, affectionate, popular boy, intelligent and having a lively imagination.

He was fond of writing poems, sketching, making fireworks, fishing, shooting, and collecting minerals; he was said to wander with one of his pockets filled with fishing tackle and the other overflowing with mineral specimens.

His father died in 1794, leaving his wife, Grace Millet Davy, and the rest of the family heavily in debt because of his failed mining investments. The death of his father changed Davy’s life, making him determined to help his mother by quickly making something of himself. Davy was apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary a year later, and he hoped eventually to qualify for a medical career, but he also educated himself in other subjects, including theology, philosophy, languages, and the sciences, including chemistry.

About this time he also met Gregory Watt, son of the famous Scottish inventor James Watt, and Davies Gilbert, who allowed Davy to use a library and chemical laboratory. Davy began his own experiments, mainly with gases.

Early Career

Davy began preparing (and inhaling) nitrous oxide, known as laughing gas, and carried out a series of experiments that almost killed him and may have damaged his long-term health. He recommended that the gas be used as anesthesia for surgical procedures, though it was half a century later before nitrous oxide would be used to save lives.

An article Davy wrote on heat and light impressed Dr. Thomas Beddoes, an eminent English physician and scientific writer who had founded the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, where he experimented with the use of gases in medical treatment. Davy joined Beddoes' institution in 1798, and at age 19 he became its chemical superintendent.

While there he explored oxides, nitrogen, and ammonia. He published his findings in the 1800 book "Researches, Chemical and Philosophical," which attracted recognition in the field. In 1801, Davy was appointed to the Royal Institution in London, first as a lecturer and then as a professor of chemistry. His lectures became so popular that admirers would line up for blocks to attend them. He had earned a professorship five years after reading his first chemistry book.

Later Career

Davy’s attention turned to electrochemistry, which became possible in 1800 with Alessandro Volta's invention of the voltaic pile, the first electric battery. He concluded that the production of electricity in simple electrolytic cells resulted from chemical action between substances of opposite charges. He reasoned that electrolysis, or the interaction of electric currents with chemical compounds, offered a way to decompose substances to their elements for further study.

In addition to using electrical power to conduct experiments and isolate elements, Davy invented the carbon arc, an early version of the electric light that produced light in the arc between two carbon rods. It didn't become economically practical until the cost of producing the power supply became reasonable years later.

His work led to discoveries regarding sodium and potassium and the discovery of boron. He also figured out why chlorine serves as a bleaching agent. Davy did research for the Society for Preventing Accidents in Coal Mines, leading to his 1815 invention of a lamp that was safe to use in mines. Named the Davy lamp in his honor, it consisted of a wick lamp whose flame was enclosed by a mesh screen. The screen allowed for the mining of deep coal seams despite the presence of methane and other flammable gases by dissipating the flame's heat and inhibiting ignition of the gases.

Later Life and Death

Davy was knighted in 1812 and was made a baronet in 1818 for contributions to his country and to mankind; especially the Davy lamp. In between, he married rich widow and socialite Jane Apreece. He became president of the Royal Society of London in 1820 and was a founding Fellow of the Zoological Society of London in 1826.

Beginning in 1827, his health began to decline. Davy died at Geneva, Switzerland, on May 29, 1829, at age 50.

Legacy

In Davy's honor, the Royal Society has awarded the Davy Medal annually since 1877 “for an outstandingly important recent discovery in any branch of chemistry.” Davy's work served as a guide and inspiration encouraging many to study chemistry, physics and other fields of science, including Michael Faraday, his lab assistant. Faraday became famous in his own right for his contributions to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. It has been said that Faraday was Davy's greatest discovery.

He also was known as one of the greatest exponents of the scientific method, a mathematical and experimental technique employed in the sciences, specifically in the construction and testing of a scientific hypothesis.

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