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Davy, Sir Humphry

especially lamp electrochemistry safety

(1778–1829) British chemist: discoverer of sodium and potassium, exploiter of electrochemistry and propagandist for science.

Son of a Cornish woodcarver and small farmer, Davy became an apprentice pharmacist. However, in 1798 he was employed by to work in his Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol with the task of developing the medical uses of some newly discovered gases. Davy made N2O (‘nitrous oxide’ or ‘laughing gas’) in quantity, studied it fully and, through this work and some useful friendships, was appointed as chemist by in the new Royal Institution in London, in 1801. He quickly became famous as a lecturer. His ideas on the uses of science appealed to the serious-minded, and demonstrations (especially of the inhibition-releasing effects of N2O) attracted others. Davy made the Royal Institution a social and financial success and thereby acquired the equipment (especially a large voltaic cell) to develop his interest in electrochemistry. In 1807 he made the reactive metals potassium and sodium by electrolysis; and soon he secured other new and reactive metals. These exciting discoveries were followed by experiments that showed that chlorine was probably an element (and not a compound); and further work related it to iodine, newly found by B Courtois (1777–1838), and to fluorine.

In 1812 he was knighted, and 3 days later married Jane Apreece, a wealthy Scottish widow. He was now established as Britain’s leading scientist and he embarked on the first of many European tours. In 1813 he hired as an assistant (and also tried to use him as a valet on his travels). In 1815 he was asked to devise a safe lamp for use in gassy coalmines. This was the sort of problem that showed his talent well. In 6 months he had made the first thorough study of flame combustion and devised his safety lamp, which made mining of deep coal seams possible even where firedamp (CH4 ) was present. The engineer George Stephenson (1781–1848) invented a similar safety lamp at about the same time, and both later claimed priority.

Davy’s reputation outstrips his chemical achievements, substantial though they were. He had great energy and talent, especially in attacking limited but important chemical problems. He was also snobbish, excitable and ungenerous to other scientists, unskilled in quantitative work and uneven in his knowledge or interest in theories (he doubted new atomic theory). His early death left ‘brilliant fragments’ , much interest in electrochemistry and perhaps his finest ‘discovery’, Faraday. An important achievement was that he had sold science to the industrialists, especially through his success with the miner’s safety lamp. His suggestion in 1800 that, as inhaling nitrous oxide ‘appears capable of destroying physical pain’, it could be useful as an anaesthetic in surgery was not taken up for another half-century. It is still much used for this.

He had an intense interest in angling; his younger brother John (also a chemist) says he was ‘a little mad about it’. He was an enthusiastic poet and had friends with real literary talent, including Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, who thought better of his poetry than do modern critics.

Dawidowicz, Lucy (1915–1990) - Jewish History [next] [back] Davisson, Clinton Joseph

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