Humphry Davy

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The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply, — there are always new worlds to conquer.

Sir Humphry Davy (17 December, 177829 May, 1829), often incorrectly spelled Humphrey, was a Cornish chemist who discovered several chemical elements and studied the human body's response to electricity. He is generally credited with inventing the Miners' Safety Lamp, although George Stephenson also claimed the invention.

See also:
Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry
Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher (Thorpe)


The greater the circle of light, the greater the boundary of darkness by which it is surrounded.
  • The moment after, I began to respire 20 quarts of unmingled nitrous oxide. A thrilling, extending from the chest to the extremities, was almost immediately produced. I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling, and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room and was perfectly aware of my situation. By degrees, as the pleasurable sensations increased, I last all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised — I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the sight of the persons about me. My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked round the room, perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr Kinglake, "Nothing exists but thoughts!—the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!"
    • Researches, Chemical and Philosophical: Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, Or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration (1800) pp. 487-489, Also see The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1839) edited by John Davy, London: Smith, Elder and Co. Cornhill. Volume III, pp. 289-90.
  • A small piece of pure potash... was placed upon an insulated disk of platina, connected with the negative side of the battery... and a platina wire communicating with the positive side, was brought into contact with the... surface of the alkali. ...The potash began to fuse at both its points of electrization. There was a violent effervescence at the upper surface; at the lower, or negative, surface, there was no liberation of elastic fluid; but small globules, having a high metallic lustre, and being precisely similar in visible characters to quicksilver, appeared, some of which burnt with explosion and bright flame, as soon as they were formed, and others remained, and were merely tarnished, and finally covered with a white film which formed on their surfaces.
    • (1808) The Bakerian Lecture, on some new Phenomena of chemical Changes produced by Electricity, particularly the Decomposition of the fixed Alkalis, and on the Exhibition of the new substances which constitute their bases; and on the general Nature of alkaline Bodies (Read Nov 9, 1807) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London pp. 4-5.
  • You write with great eloquence and truth on the effects of mountain scenery on the mind. Whatever exalts the imagination purifies the affections; but even our noblest and best thoughts have their archetypes in sensation. The eye is the most perfect of all the senses, and the one that most feeds the intellect. When surrounded by the grand forms of nature, we give to earth something of the indefinite character of heaven. Great objects excite great thoughts; the standard of our being rises; all our low and grovelling associations disappear; and our sympathies are more strongly awakened with regard to the moral, sublime, the excellent, the decorous, and the great in philosophy. We are more fitted to enjoy the blaze of light of Milton, to pass into the proteus-forms of humanity with Shakespeare, and to move through the heavens with Newton. ...I am leading a truly philosophical life of activity, and the constant pursuit of an object, the elements of such a life. Such moments as I am now passing in the crowded city, prove to me how fitted our being is for independent and solitary thoughts; how much its strength depends upon its own efforts, and how little it owes to general society.
    Pray do not forget me, and believe me to be, very truly and affectionately, yours...
    • Letter to Mrs. Apreece [future Mrs. Davy] (Aug 26, 1811) in Sir Humphry Davy, ‎Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart., Late President of the Royal Society, Etc. With a Sketch of His Life and Selections from His Correspondence. (1858) ed., John Davy, pp. 145-146.
  • Every new discovery may be considered as a new species of manufacture, awakening moral industry and sagacity, and employing, as it were, new capital of mind.
    • Edinburgh Review, or Critical Journal: For June... October (1827) as quoted by Lee Johnson, Joseph Meany Graphene (2018)
  • Fortunately science, like that nature to which it belongs, is neither limited by time nor by space. It belongs to the world, and is of no country and of no age. The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply, — there are always new worlds to conquer.
    • Discourse Delivered at the Royal Society (30 November 1825), published in Six Discourses delivered before the Royal Society, at their Anniversary Meetings, on the Award of the Royal and Copley Medals, preceded by an Address to the Society on the Progress and Prospects of Science (1827); also in The Edinburgh Review Or Critical Journal (October 1827)
  • That the forms of natural bodies may depend upon different arrangements of the same particles of matter has been a favourite hypothesis advanced in the earliest era of physical research, and often supported by the reasonings of the ablest philosophers. This sublime chemical speculation sanctioned by the authority of Hooke, Newton, and Boscovich, must not be confounded with the ideas advanced by the alchemists concerning the convertibility of the elements into each other. The possible transmutation of metals has generally been reasoned upon not as a philosophical research, but as an empirical process. Those who have asserted the actual production of the precious metals from other elements, or their decomposition, or who have defended the chimera of the philosopher's stone, have been either impostors, or men deluded by impostors. In this age of rational inquiry it will be useless to decry the practices of the adepts, or to caution the public against confounding the hypothetical views respecting the elements founded upon distinct analogies, with the dreams of alchemical visionaries, most of whom, as an author of the last century justly observed, professed an art without principles, the beginning of which was deceit, the progress delusion, and the end poverty.
  • It is surely a pure delight to know, how and by what processes this earth is clothed with verdure and life, how the clouds, mists and rain are formed, what causes all the changes of this terrestrial system of things, and by what divine laws order is preserved amidst apparent confusion. It is a sublime occupation to investigate the cause of the tempest and the volcano, and to point out their use in the economy of things, — to bring the lightning from the clouds and make it subservient to our experiments, — to produce as it were a microcosm in the laboratory of art, and to measure and weigh those invisible atoms, which, by their motions and changes according to laws impressed upon them by the Divine Intelligence, constitute the universe of things. The true chemical philosopher sees good in all the diversified forms of the external world. Whilst he investigates the operations of infinite power guided by infinite wisdom, all low prejudices, all mean superstitions disappear from his mind. He sees man an atom amidst atoms fixed upon a point in space; and yet modifying the laws that are around him by understanding them; and gaining, as it were, a kind of dominion over time, and an empire in material space, and exerting on a scale infinitely small a power seeming a sort of shadow or reflection of a creative energy, and which entitles him to the distinction of being made in the image of God and animated by a spark of the divine mind. Whilst chemical pursuits exalt the understanding, they do not depress the imagination or weaken genuine feelings; whilst they give the mind habits of accuracy, by obliging it to attend to facts, they likewise extend its analogies; and, though conversant with the minute forms of things, they have for their ultimate end the great and magnificent objects of nature. They regard the formation of a crystal, the structure of a pebble, the nature of a clay or earth; and they apply to the causes of the diversity of our mountain chains, the appearances of the winds, thunder-storms, meteors, the earthquake, the volcano, and all those phenomena which offer the most striking images to the poet and the painter. They keep alive that inextinguishable thirst after knowledge, which is one of the greatest charactics of our nature; — for every discovery opens a new field for investigation of facts, shows us the imperfection of our theories. It has justly been said, that the greater the circle of light, the greater the boundary of darkness by which it is surrounded.
    • The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1840) Volume IX. Salmonia and Consolation in Travel, Consolation in Travel section, Dialogue the Fifth. The Chemical Philosopher. pp. 361-362, ed., John Davy, London: Smith, Elder and Co. Cornhill.
  • I envy no quality of the mind or intellect in others; not genius, power, wit, nor fancy; but, if I could choose what would be most delightful, and, I believe, most useful to me, I should prefer a firm religious belief to every other blessing.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 241
  • Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose 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.
    • As quoted in Humphry Davy : Science & Power (1998) by David Knight, p. 87

Quotes about Davy[edit]

  • Davy held that if the battery is strong enough any compound may be decomposed, and that chemical affinity is merely a form of electric attraction. He vigorously put his theory into practice...
  • Berthollet's conclusion that chlorine is oxymuriatic acid was universally accepted until Gay-Lussac and Thénard in 1809 endeavoured to decompose the gas and failed. They concluded that it contained water because it yielded water when passed over litharge. Their researches read to the Institute in 1809 led Davy to investigate muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid) gas, which in 1808 he had shown to be decomposed by potassium, with evolution of hydrogen. In 1810 he proved that chlorine is an element, and that muriatic acid gas is a compound of chlorine and hydrogen. He thus overturned the oxygen-acid theory, and demonstrated that muriates are compounds of metals with chlorine. He pointed to the fact that some acids, such as sulphuretted hydrogen, contain no oxygen, and argued that muriatic acid gas was one of these, chlorine in it taking the place of oxygen. ...The conclusions of Davy were at first doubted, but when iodine and bromine were also discovered, Gay-Lussac and his followers adopted Davy's views. The latter worked out fluorine, and proved that hydrofluoric acid (HF) contains no oxygen. Berzelius also opposed Davy until the discovery of iodine, but embraced the latter's opinion in 1820.
    • James Campbell Brown, A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times (1920) pp. 340-341.
  • I need only remind you of Davy's great researches: nitrous oxide; electric conduction and decomposition—resulting, on the one hand, in the separation of potassium and sodium, the decomposition of the earths following as a necessary consequence, and on the other in the electro-chemical theory; iodine and chlorine—resulting in the extension and confirmation of the word element, the discovery of the so-called hydrogen acids, and the important modification of the French theory of the constitution of acids; the investigation of gaseous explosion and of flame, and the invention of the safety lamp. These are the contributions to science which stand out more prominently in connection with Davy. But over and above all this is the peculiar manner of his discoveries. He was no patient plodder. He did not elaborate his work in minute detail. He dashed it off in broad masses; but just on that account there has never been anyone to follow up his investigations. Davy's mantle fell on no one, not even on Faraday.

Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (1836)[edit]

, L.L.D., F.R.S., Foreign Associate of the Institute of France. By his Brother, John Davy, M.D., F.R.S., 2 vol. 8vo. London: 1836, The Edinburgh Review Or Critical Journal Vol. 128, pp. 115-116.
  • In September, 1807, our illustrious chemist applied his great principle to the analyses of potash, the vegetable alkali. Some had supposed it to consist of lime and hydrogen; others conjectured that it might contain nitrogen; and Mr Davy himself conceived that it might consist of phosphorus, or sulphur united to nitrogen. After failing with strong aqueous solutions, and also with dry potash, from its being a non-conductor, he employed fused potash, and in this case inflammable matter was separated by the voltaic influence. He then tried 'a piece of potash moistened, and in this instance inflammable matter was developed.' On the 6th of October he found that the 'matter instantly burned when it touched water, and swam on its surface, reproducing potash.' In dry oxygen gas likewise it burnt into 'perfectly dry potash.' In like manner, Mr Davy succeeded in decomposing soda; and when he had thus proved that the two fixed alkalis were metallic oxides, he immediately supposed that the earths, which were so much more like to metallic oxides than the fixed alkalis, would be easily decomposed.
  • The delight which Mr Davy experienced when he first saw the minute globules of potassium (the new metal) burst through the crust of potash, and take fire as they entered the atmosphere, was witnessed by his relative and assistant Mr Edmund Davy. 'He could not contain his joy—he actually danced about the room in ecstatic delight, and some little time was required for him to compose himself sufficiently to continue the experiment.'
  • These grand discoveries, which some ascribed to the 'enormous batteries which were placed in his hands,' were the result of his intellectual powers, not of fortuitous circumstances. His voltaic battery was within the reach of many of the chemists of Europe; and consisted, in fact, of three different batteries united, one of 24 plates of copper and zinc, 12 inches square, another of 100 plates of 6 inches, and another of 150 plates of 4 inches.
  • While he was recording these splendid discoveries in his second Bakerian lecture, Mr Davy was thrown into a state of fever, and laboured under the deepest apprehension that he would die before he had finished his paper. This state of his mind was the prelude to a severe and long-protracted disease, which his friend and physician Dr Babington considered as the result of over-fatigue and excitement from his experimental labours and discoveries. During five weeks 'he struggled between life and death,' and it was not till the end of nine weeks that his convalescence commenced. The anxious enquiries of all ranks exhibited the personal regard which he commanded, and the public importance which was attached to his recovery.
  • It was fortunate for science that Mr Davy survived this severe malady without any injury to his constitution, or any diminution of his mental powers. He resumed his enquiries with his wonted ardour, and by the liberality of the managers and principal members of the Royal Institution, he was furnished with the means of pursuing them with success. During his convalescence, a voltaic battery of 600 double plates, each four inches square, was constructed and placed at his disposal; and not long afterwards, when a more powerful apparatus was thought desirable, the munificence of a few individuals supplied him with another battery of no less than 2000 plates.
    This powerful artillery was now directed against the earths; but the task of these analyses was more difficult than he expected.

Life, Letters and Journals of George Ticknor (1876)[edit]

Vol. 1, Journal (June 13, 1815)
  • I breakfasted this morning with Sir Humphry Davy, of whom we have heard so much in America. He is now about thirty—three, but with all the freshness and bloom of five-and-twenty, and one of the handsomest men I have seen in England. He has a great deal of vivacity,—talks rapidly, though with great precision, and is so much interested in conversation, that his excitement amounts to nervous impatience, and keeps him in constant motion.
  • He has just returned from Italy, and delights to talk of it,—thinks it, next to England, the finest country in the world, and the society of Rome surpassed only by that of London, and says he should not die contented without going there again.
  • It seemed singular that his taste in this should be so acute, when his professional eminence is in a province so different and remote; but I was much more surprised when I found that the first chemist of his time was a professed angler; and that he thinks, if he were obliged to renounce fishing or philosophy, that he should find the struggle of his choice pretty severe.
  • After breakfast Sir Humphry took me to the Royal Institution, where he used to lecture before he married a woman of fortune and fashion, and where he still goes every day to perform chemical experiments for purposes of research. He showed me the library and model-room, his own laboratory and famous galvanic troughs, and at two o'clock took me to a lecture there, by Sir James Smith, on botany,—very good and very dull.
    • Define: Galvanic trough, Friedrich Accum, An Explanatory Dictionary of the Apparatus and Instruments Employed in the Various Operations of Philosophical and Experimental Chemistry (1824)

The Centenary of Davy's Discovery of the Metals of the Alkalis (1908)[edit]

by Thomas Edward Thorpe. A Discourse delivered before the Royal Institution, January 17, 1908. The Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science Vol. 97, No. 2527, pp. 210-211. (May 1, 1908)
  • The publication of Davy's discovery created an extrordinary sensation throughout the civilised world, a sensation not less profound, and certainly more general from its very nature, than that which attended his lecture of the previous year. But at the very moment of his triumph, it seemed that the noise of the universal acclaim with which it was received was not to reach him.
    • Ref: Humphry Davy, The Bakerian Lecture, on some new Phenomena of chemical Changes produced by Electricity, particularly the Decomposition of the fixed Alkalis, and on the Exhibition of the new substances which constitute their bases; and on the general Nature of alkaline Bodies (Read Nov 9, 1807) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1808) Part. I, pp. 1-44.
  • Almost immediately after the delivery of his lecture he collapsed, struck down by an illness which nearly proved fatal, and for weeks his life hung on a thread. He had been in a low feverish condition for some time previously, and a great dread had fallen upon him that he should die before he had completed his discoveries. It was in this condition of body and mind that he had applied himself to the task of putting together an account of his results.
  • Four days after this was given to the world he took to his bed, and he remained there for nine weeks. Such a blow following hard on the heels of such a triumph aroused the liveliest sympathy. The doors of the Royal Institution were beset by anxious inquirers, and written reports of his condition at various periods of the day had to be posted in the hall.
  • The strength of the feeling may be gleaned, too, from the sentences with which the Rev. Dr. Dibdin, who... began the lecture introductory to the Session of 1808.
"...If it had pleased Providence to deprive the world of all further benefit from his original talents and intense application, there has certainly been sufficient already effected by him to entitle him to be classed among the brightest scientific luminaries of his country. ...These may justly be placed among the most brilliant and valuable discoveries which have ever been made in chemistry, for a great chasm in the chemical system has been filled up; a blaze of light has been diffused over that part which before was utterly dark; and new views have been opened, so numerous and interesting, that the more any man who is versed in chemistry reflects on them, the more he finds to admire and heighten his expectation of future important results.
Mr. Davy's name, in consequence of these discoveries, will be always recorded in the annals of science amongst those of the most illustrious philosophers of his time. His country... will be proud of him, and it is no small honour to the Royal Institution that these great discoveries have been made within its walls—in that laboratory, and by those instruments... placed at the disposal and for the use of its most excellent professor of chemistry."
  • Have sodium and potassium at all justified the hope that they would facilitate the means of procuring the comforts and conveniences of life? I have not the time... to attempt to follow the many changes in the metallurgy of the metals of the alkalis of the past century. Let me... show how the matter stands at the end of a hundred years.
  • The general properties and chemical activities of potassium and sodium are so very similar that as a matter of commercial production that metal which can be most economically obtained is necessarily the one most largely manufactured, and of the two that metal is sodium. To-day, sodium is made by thousands of tons, and by a process which in principle is identical with that by which it was first made by Davy, i.e., by the electrolysis of fused caustic soda.
  • [A]fter a series of revolutions in its manufacture, sodium, having been produced from time to time on a manufacturing scale by a variety of metallurgical methods involving purely thermal processes of reduction and distillation, entirely dissociated from electricity, we should have now got back to the very principle of the process which first brought the metal to light. And that this has been industrially possible is entirely owing to another of Davy's discoveries - possibly indeed the greatest of them all—Michael Faraday.
  • As we all gratefully acknowledge, it is to the genius and labours of Faraday—Davy's successor in this place—that the astonishing development of the application of electrical energy which characterises this age has taken rise.
  • The modern method of production of sodium is based, therefore, as regards principles upon the conjoint labours of Davy and Faraday. ...These principles took their present form of application at the hands of... Hamilton Y. Castner... It is by Castner's process that all the sodium of to-day is manufactured.
  • The greater quantity of the sodium made in England is... converted into sodium cyanide... for use in the extraction of gold. As gold is... generally considered the principal material factor in procuring the comforts and conveniences of life, Davy's great discovery may be thus said to have secured the primary object which the projectors of the Royal Institution had in view. Other important uses of sodium are in the manufacture of peroxide for bleaching purposes, of artificial indigo, and of a number of other synthetic dye stuffs and of drugs like antipyrin.
  • I am indebted to the directors of the Castner-Kellner Company... or affording me the opportunity, in connection with this lecture, of actually witnessing the modern process of manufacturing sodium as it is carried out at Wallsend... And in concluding may I be permitted to recall here the feelings to which that visit to Wallsend gave rise. ...Before me, stretching down to the river, was the factory where a score of workers, clad in helmets and gauntlets and swathed like so many Knights Templar, travel-stained and war-worn, their visages lit up by the yellow soda flames, and their ears half-deafened with the sound of exploding hydrogen—a veritable inferno—were repeating on a Gargantuan scale the little experiment first made a century ago in the cellars of this building; turning out, day and night, hundredweights of the plastic metal in place of the little pin-heads which then burst upon the astonished and delighted gaze of Davy.
  • Behind me was the magnificent power-house... furnishing not only the electrical energy which transformed the soda into sodium, but diffusing this energy for a multitude of other purposes over an entire district—a noble temple to the genius and prescience of Faraday. Surely one might here say, if you desire to see the monuments of these men, look around!

See also[edit]

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