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Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

Humphry Davy Goes to London

The first impression that Humphry Davy made on his arrival at the Royal Institution was not favourable. The chief promoter, Count Rumford, was so disappointed with the ungainly appearance and peculiar manner of Davy that he feared to let the young man deliver a lecture. However, no sooner had the young Chemist begun his lectures than he became exceedingly popular. He could explain things in a way that his audience understood. His lecture-room became "crowded with men of first rank and talent, blue-stockings, and women of fashion, the old and the young, all crowded eagerly into the lecture-room." Sometimes his audience would number one thousand, and very soon young Davy became "the lion of Society."

Without going into any detail of Davy's work, we may note one outstanding line of research. The elements Potassium and Sodium had existed only in the form of compounds. Humphry Davy discovered a means of extracting the metals Potassium and Sodium from their compounds, by a process in which the large electric battery of the Institution played an important part. This was in the year 1807, not many years after Volta's discovery of the electric current and his invention of the electric battery.

We are told by the assistant of Davy, that when the great Chemist saw the minute globules of Potassium burst through the crust of potash, he could not contain his joy, and actually bounded about the laboratory in ecstatic delight. It was a great discovery; no man had ever seen the metal Potassium before.

About this time Davy contracted a severe fever, which he believed to be typhus fever. He thought that he had become infected on a visit to Newgate Prison, where he had been asked to make investigations regarding a suitable disinfectant for this dread disease, which was very prevalent in the prison at that time. Davy was distressed in case he should die before he had an opportunity of publishing the results of his experiments. During his two months' illness there were so many anxious inquiries that a daily bulletin was issued by the doctors.

On his recovery he received a great welcome by the scientific world, and before he was thirty-two years of age he held first rank among Chemists. That Davy had a good deal of common sense is evident from many of the jottings in his notebook, one of which reads: "A man should be proud of honours, but not vain of them."

Davy's pioneer experimenting was not without considerable risk to himself. On one occasion an explosion of the chemicals with which he was working nearly cost him his eyesight. Writing to inform his brother of the accident, he said:

"My sight, I am informed, will not be injured. It is very weak. I cannot see to say more than that I am,

"Yours very affectionately,


Humphry Davy had not been long at the Royal Institution before he was elected Professor of Chemistry. During part of the time he occupied this Chair he had Michael Faraday as his chief assistant. The way in which Faraday was first introduced to Davy is of interest, and will be dealt with in the succeeding chapter on Michael Faraday.

When Davy made his famous experiments in separating the elements Potassium and Sodium from the compounds in which they had been so securely locked, he used a large battery of six hundred cells. Later he had an immense battery of two thousand cells. Of course, such large batteries have become unnecessary since the invention of the dynamo. But it was with this huge battery that Davy discovered what he called the electric arch, and what we now call the electric arc. Davy found that the battery current passing between two charcoal points produced an intensely bright source of light. As he held the carbons in a horizontal position, the heated air in rising caused the flame of light to curve or arch upwards. And although there is no arching between the vertical carbons in a modern electric lamp, we still describe it as an arc lamp to distinguish it from the incandescent glow lamp.

It is interesting to learn that two of our preceding heroes, the eccentric Cavendish, and the Astronomer, William Herschel, were present when Davy performed some of his experiments in private.

When Davy was thirty-four years of age he married the widow of a wealthy London merchant, just as Herschel had done. In a letter to his brother announcing his engagement Davy wrote: "Mrs. Appreece has consented to marry me; and when the event takes place I shall not envy Kings, Princes, or Potentates."

I find the following announcement of the marriage in the Gentleman's Magazine  of April, 1812:

"Sir Humphry Davy to Mrs. Appreece. The ceremony was performed at her mother's house in Portland Place, by the Lord Bishop of Carlisle."

The bride was not only a woman of considerable fortune, she must have been very accomplished, for it was said of her that she had learned everything, and had been everywhere. Two of the most interesting letters written by Sir Walter Scott were addressed to this lady, who became Lady Davy upon her second marriage, her husband having been knighted two days before their wedding. Humphry Davy's knighthood was conferred by the Prince Regent, who afterwards became George IV.

Some time later we find Sir Humphry and Lady Davy setting out for a trip on the Continent. Our hero took Michael Faraday with him to act as secretary, and Lady Davy had one of her maids with her. But when the party were landed from their sailing boat on the French coast, they were all arrested, France being in a state of war. It took a week for information to come from Paris granting the illustrious chemist and his party a safe journey, which had been guaranteed to them before they set out for France.

Among the French scientists to welcome Sir Humphry Davy was Professor Ampere, whose name we honour by using it to denote one of the units of electrical measurement; we speak of a current of so many " amperes."

During this same trip, when Davy reached Italy, he met the discoverer of the electric current, Professor Volta, whose name we have embodied in the unit of electric pressure; we describe a current as being of so many "volts" pressure. We are told that Professor Volta waited in full dress to receive Sir Humphry Davy, and that the French scientist was greatly taken aback at the carelessness of Davy's dress; a dress of which an English artisan would be ashamed.

During his stay in Paris Davy was conducted over the great Louvre, but the famous pictures did not excite his wonder. He hurried through the galleries, merely remarking to his guide on the extremely good collection of fine frames.

Remembering Davy's indifference to Music, and now this indifference to Art, one might be tempted to think that the great philosopher was devoid of all sentiment; but, far from it, he was himself a poet. One contemporary, who was well able to judge, said that if Davy had not become the first chemist of his time, he would have become a great poet. There is quite a collection of his poems given in his Memoirs; here are a few lines of one which was composed by Davy when he was a lad of seventeen:

"The Sons of Genius"

After some verses descriptive of Genius, Davy proceeds:

"Inspired by her, the sons of genius rise

Above all earthly thoughts, all vulgar care;

Wealth, power, and grandeur, they alike despise,

Enraptured by the good, the great, the fair.

"A thousand varying joys to them belong,

The charms of Nature and her changeful scenes;

Theirs is the music of the vernal song,

And theirs the colours of the vernal plains."

Further on in the same poem, referring to "the Sons of Nature," Davy says:

"When the red lightnings through the ether fly,

And the white-foaming billows lash the shores;

When to the rattling thunders of the sky

The angry demon of the waters roar;

"And when, untouch'd by Nature's living fires,

No native rapture fills the drowsy soul;

Then former ages, with their tuneful lyres,

Can bid the fury of the passions fall.

"Like the tumultuous billows of the sea

Succeed the generations of mankind;

Some in oblivious silence pass away,

And leave no vestige of their lives behind.

"Others, like those proud waves which beat the shore,

A loud and momentary murmur raise;

But soon their transient glories are no more,

No future ages echo with their praise.

"Like yon proud rock, amidst the sea of time,

Superior, scorning all the billows' rage,

The living sons of genius stand sublime,

The immortal children of another age."

On Davy's return to this country he was asked to try and discover some means of preventing explosions of fire-damp in coal-mines. During his absence there had been a very serious colliery disaster due to fire-damp having become ignited by the miners' naked lights, and these explosions had become so common that the miner's occupation was a most dangerous one.

First of all Davy succeeded in making a lamp which was perfectly safe, but which, unfortunately, would not keep alight when fire-damp was present, so that the miner would be left in the dark, and might find it impossible to get out of some of the burrowings which constitute a coal-mine. But Davy did not rest content; he continued to think and experiment till he had invented a lamp which was absolutely safe and would continue to burn with safety in the presence of fire-damp, and enable the men to see their way out of the mine.

Sir Humphry Davy went down into the most fiery mines with his lamp, to show his entire confidence in its safety. The coal-owners invited Sir Humphry to a dinner, at which they made him a present of very valuable plate, as a token of gratitude for this humane invention. It is to Davy's credit that he refused to listen to his friends' requests that hg would take out a patent for the invention; he preferred to make it a present to his fellow-men, and we benefit from it to this day. It is almost inconceivable that some explosions in our own time have been traced to miners being so absolutely selfish as to have false keys made to enable them to open their safety lamps and light their pipes. Of course, we see some miners with naked lights on their caps, but these men are working in mines that are quite free from fire-damp.

When one friend of Sir Humphry Davy urged him to protect his invention by a patent, and secure a fortune thereby, the reply was: "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?"

Not only in our own country, but on the Continent also, was Sir Humphry Davy honoured because of this great invention: it showed to the world the practical value of Science.

On the death of Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, Sir Humphry Davy, although only forty-two years of age, was elected to that post, which is the highest honour that can be given to an English scientist. The traditions of this chair, which Sir Isaac Newton had occupied so long, were upheld ably by Sir Humphry Davy for seven years. Failing health forced him to resign, and to seek recovery abroad.

The nature of Davy's illness was a paralytic stroke, which occurred while he was out shooting over a peer's estate. His mind was in no way affected, and it was believed that a trip on the Continent might restore his health, he being still a few years short of fifty.

Sir Humphry set off with his brother, who has left us a descriptive account of their journey in these pre-railway days. When they landed on the French coast they bought a post-chaise, in which they drove across the Continent, in journeys of about forty miles per day; less than we can now cover in one hour. The carriage wheels sometimes stuck fast in the bad roads, and on occasions their coachman would prefer to drive them across ploughed fields. The thermometer inside the carriage stood below freezing-point, and some leeches, carried in the carriage pocket, were frozen during the whole journey.

Sir Humphry recovered so far that his brother was able to leave, but the letters which the great chemist wrote home are rather pathetic: "It suits me better to wile away my days in this solitary state of existence, in the contemplation of Nature, than to attempt to enter into London Society, where recollections call up the idea of what I was, and the want of bodily power teaches me what a shadow I am." But we must not picture Davy as being a helpless invalid, for in a letter to his brother, in which he expresses the desire that his brother might visit him, he says: "I would then show you my kind little nurse, to whom I owe most of the little happiness I have enjoyed since my illness. I shoot here a little, mount my ponies, and employ myself a good deal in literary pursuits." Nor must we picture Davy as an old man; he was only fifty years of age.

I remember when I came across the letter, from which the preceding extract is taken, I wondered at Lady Davy not taking the place of "the kind little nurse," but from another part of the biography I think it is apparent that the "little nurse " was the son of an old friend. Here is the passage to which I refer: "Sir Humphry Davy, during the latter days of his life, was cheered by the society and affectionate attentions of his godson, the son of his old friend Mr. James Tobin. He had been the companion of his travels, and he was the solace of his declining hours." Of course, travelling in wintertime was a very different thing in those days from anything we have experienced, but so soon as Lady Davy received word, some time later, that her husband had been taken seriously ill at Rome, she left England at once and hastened to his side.

The second paralytic stroke came about in a very simple way. Sir Humphry was sitting, after breakfast, dictating an addition to one of his books, when upon attempting to rise, he was alarmed to find that he had lost the power of his limbs, although there was no pain or loss of intellect. Medical assistance was called in immediately, and the usual application of leeches was tried. In a letter dictated to his brother he says: "I am dying from a severe attack of palsy, which has seized the whole body, with the exception of the intellectual organ. I am under the usual severe discipline of bleeding and blistering; but the weakness increases, and a few hours or days will finish my mortal existence. I shall leave my bones in the Eternal City."

Immediately upon receipt of this letter his brother, who was acting as physician to the Forces in Malta, set out for Rome. He had some little difficulty in finding Sir Humphry, as the only address he had was Rome. Their meeting was very touching; the invalid believed he had only a few hours to live, and he desired to take full advantage of such precious time. He welcomed his brother with a smile, and, in a most cheerful voice, told him to take the event as a philosopher. Sir Humphry proceeded to explain some experiments in which he had been engaged, with the object of discovering the electric power of the torpedo fish, and he desired his brother to follow up the subject.

Sir Humphry sent his brother to the market-place to buy a torpedo fish so that he might explain the matter to him more easily. Contrary to expectations, the invalid lived throughout the night, and writing several days later, his brother says: "He considered this the exact and appropriate time for his death. The following morning when I went to him and drew back his curtains, he expressed great astonishment that he was alive. He said that he had gone through the whole process of dying, and that when he awoke he had difficulty in convincing himself that he was in his earthly existence, and that he was under the necessity of making certain experiments to satisfy his mind that he was still in the body."

After this Sir Humphry accepted his brother as his physician, and they both gained new hope. The invalid spent quiet days, having such books as The Arabian Nights  read to him, and after the arrival of Lady Davy he was able to go out each day in their carriage. He expressed a desire to leave Rome, and Lady Davy preceded them each day from place to place in order to make suitable arrangements for the arrival of her invalid husband, but only a small part of the day was taken up with travelling, as the day's journey seldom exceeded five miles.

At Geneva, Sir Humphry was grieved to learn of the death of his old friend Dr. Thomas Young, a fellow-professor in the Royal Institution. Sir Humphry dined at the table that evening, but went off to bed about 9 p.m. His great life ebbed out that night. His body was buried at Geneva, for he had expressed the desire that it should be buried wherever he died. There was a public funeral, at which there were many English friends. The professors and the students of the University of Geneva were present. The students had expressed a desire to carry the body to the grave, but the authorities did not see their way to grant this unusual request. And so, at the comparatively early age of fifty-one years, this Hero of Science passed from the world's stage in the year 1829.