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The curious legacy of Sir Humphry Davy

25th August 2011 - Jonathan Ruppin


Sir Humphry Davy, mentor of Michael Faraday, is memorable for odder reasons than his invention of the miner's safety lamp and the discovery of six elements.

 

Humphry DavyThree scientists have been deemed important enough to appear on British banknotes: Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Michael Faraday. The contributions of each to the advancement of human knowledge are hugely significant, but the last name on the list would probably not be there if it weren't for another figure whose star has waned considerably since, Sir Humphry Davy (right).

Faraday had begun a correspondence with Davy after attending his hugely popular lectures at the Royal Institution and the Royal Society and was eventually appointed his assistant, accompanying him on a two-year trip around Europe's centres of scientific learning. Faraday's later discoveries in the field of electromagnetism were to be the basis for the creation of technology powered by electricity, but much of what he achieved had some basis in what he had learned from his mentor.

Davy is perhaps best remembered for the Davy lamp, which provided a reliable and safe source of light for miners, for whom naked flames constantly risked igniting pockets of methane. But his record as a chemist, or 'natural philosopher' as the terminology of the time had it, is far more wide-ranging. Most notably, he is credited with the discovery of six chemical elements - sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, barium and boron - decades before Dmitri Mendeleev brought order to the study of chemistry by devising the periodic table.

When I found out a few years ago that I'm descended from Davy, on my mother's side, my first thought was to pick up a biography. I thought I might find some clues as to where the aptitude for science went astray between Davy's time and my generation.

The Age of WonderThis plan met an immediate problem: there is no biography of Davy in print. Shortly after discovering this, I happened to encounter the foremost biographer of the Romantic era, Richard Holmes, who mentioned that he was writing a book on scientists of the time and that he intended to devote part of the book to Davy. The book was eventually published in 2008 as The Age of Wonder: it does indeed make generous mention of Davy and was, deservedly, to win the Royal Society Prize for Science Books, but, at the time, it hadn't been written.

But it turned out that someone had written a biography of Davy, albeit it long out of print, and I eventually managed to track down a copy of The Mercurial Chemist, published by Methuen in 1963. Its author was a Cornishwoman, Anne Treneer, whose only other published books seem to be a collection of poetry and several volumes of autobiography.

Aside from an slightly antiquated style, it's a first-rate read, offering great insight into Davy's diverse interests and charismatic disposition. I had been aware that Davy, like many educated men of his time, dabbled in literature, but I had assumed this to be little more than a youthful diversion.

But he was to strike up friendships with William Godwin, Robert Southey and, most fruitfully, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Southey and Coleridge dreamed of creating a 'pantisocracy', their name for a utopian commune without leaders, although they were unable to agree a location: Southey preferred Wales, but Coleridge had in mind the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. In January 1800, Coleridge wrote to Davy saying, "If the public good did not iron and adamant you to England and Bristol, what a little colony might we not make. [James Webbe] Tobin, I am sure, would go, and Wordsworth, and I, and Southey."

In later life, with his health in decline, Davy withdrew from public life and devoted much of his time to writing. Consolations In Travel brought together his thoughts on science, philosophy and the future of the world he was about to depart and, published posthumously by John Murray, was to prove hugely popular.

Edmund Clerihew BentleyDavy's other link to literature is not quite so auspicious. The humorist Edmund Clerihew Bentley (right), who lived around a century after Davy, was the originator of a whimsical four-line form of poetry: the 'clerihew' gently satirises famous figures by placing them in incongruous or absurd situations. And Cherihew's very first composition was this:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

But ignominious immortalisation in verse is not Davy's most dubious legacy. His public lectures on natural philosophy, at the Royal Institution on Albemarle Street, were incredibly popular; he even became something of a sex symbol, with at least half of his audience made up of women. Such was the size of the crowds who flocked to see him demonstrate the principles of galvanism or the properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) that the road outside became completely blocked by the carriages. The solution to this early traffic jam was the introduction of the first one-way street in Britain.

So while Davy is best remembered for the lives he saved with his lamp or the advances he brought about in our understanding of chemistry and electromagnetism, I take a perverse pleasure in being the descendant of a man who had a vital role in the areas of our history that encompass feeble poetry and traffic-calming measures. Would that I should leave such a legacy to be uncovered by a descendant of mine two centuries hence.

 

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