Sir Humphrey Davy
Coleridge said, "Had not Davy been the first chemist, he probably would
have been the first poet of his age."
Said Professor Silliman's "American Journal of Science and Arts:" "His
reputation is too intimately associated with the eternal laws of nature
to suffer decay; and the name of Davy, like those of Archimedes,
Galileo, and Newton, which grow greener by time, will descend to the
Davy was poor and self-taught, but he triumphed over obstacles, and died
The eldest son in a family of five children, Humphrey Davy was born at
Penzance, Cornwall, England, December 17, 1778, the year in which Carl
Linnaeus died. He was a bright, active child, making rhymes when he was
five years old, and reciting them at the Christmas gatherings. In
consequence of his retentive memory, he could repeat a great part of
"Pilgrim's Progress" before he could read it. This book and "AEsop's
Fables" were his favorites.
When Humphrey was six, he was sent to a grammar school kept by Rev. Mr.
Coryton, a man who had the vicious habit of punishing by pulling the
pupils' ears. On one occasion, Humphrey came to school with a large
plaster on each ear. Upon being asked what was the matter, he said, with
a grave face, that he had "put the plasters on to prevent a
As he grew older, he composed Latin and English verses easily, and was
in great demand among the boys as a writer of valentines and
love-letters. Though shy in manner, with his vivid imagination and flow
of language, he told stories remarkably well, and might have been seen,
often, in a cart at the Star Inn, addressing a most attentive audience.
Says his brother, Dr. John Davy, "Humphrey, when a boy, was fond of
declaiming, and indulged in it in his solitary walks and rambles. On one
occasion it is recorded of him, that, on his way to visit a poor patient
in the country (during his apprenticeship), in the fever of declamation,
he threw out of his hand a vial of medicine which he had to administer,
and that when he arrived at the bedside of the poor woman he was
surprised at the loss of it. The potion was found the next day in a
hay-field adjoining the path."
When Humphrey was fourteen he attended the Truro Grammar School for a
year, where he was greatly liked for his good-humor, affectionate
disposition, and originality. Says Mr. Nicholls, a school friend, "I can
never forget that as boys we knew and loved each other. I recollect a
visit he paid in company with his aunt at my father's, who then resided
at Lanarth. He was a great favorite; but there was even then an original
mode of thinking and acting observable in him,--one instance of which I
well remember;--it was on rather a hot day, when my father, mother, your
aunt, Humphrey, and myself, were to walk to a place a mile or two
distant, I forget for what purpose. Whilst others complained of the
heat, and whilst I unbuttoned my waistcoat, Humphrey appeared with his
great-coat close-buttoned up to his chin, for the purpose, as he
declared, of keeping out the heat. This was laughed at at the time,
but it struck me then, as it appears to me now, as evincing originality
of thought and an indisposition to be led by the example of others."
At fifteen his school education was considered complete. The next year
he studied French, gave a good deal of time to fishing, of which he was
always fond, and apparently had little definite purpose. About this time
his father died, and the straitened circumstances of the family now
seemed to awaken all the energy and nobility of his nature. Seeing his
mother in deep affliction, he begged her not to grieve, saying that "he
would do all he could for his brothers and sisters." And he never
forgot this promise.
The following year he was apprenticed to Mr. Bingham Borlase, practising
surgeon and apothecary in Penzance. Young Davy now seemed destined to
become a physician, but his note-books show that he intended to know
other things besides medicine. He laid out a plan for study: theology,
logic, astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and
He said later, "Almost all great deeds arise from a plenitude of hope or
desire. No man ever had genius who did not aim to execute more than he
was able." And all his life he planned to do twice as much as he was
ever able to do. And yet he knew that he must bind himself to a few
things, if he would succeed. He said, "In minds of great power, there is
usually a disposition to variety of pursuits, and they often attempt all
branches of letters and science, and even the imitative arts; but if
they become truly eminent, it is by devotion to one object at a time, or
at most two objects. This sort of general power is like a profusion of
blossoms on a fruit tree, a symptom of health and strength; but if all
are suffered to become fruit, all are feeble and bad; if the greater
portion is destroyed by accident or art, the remainder, being properly
nourished, become healthy, large, and good." In these early note-books,
he began to show an unusual and mature mind. He wrote essays: "On the
Immortality and the Immateriality of the Soul," "On Governments," "On
Moral Obligation," and the like. Of Friendship, he wrote at seventeen:
"It is a composition of the noblest passions of the mind; a just taste
and love of virtue, good-sense, a thorough candor and benignity of
heart, and a generous sympathy of sentiment and affections, are the
essential ingredients of this nobler passion. When it originates from
love and esteem, is strengthened by habit, and mellowed by time, it
yields infinite pleasure, ever new and ever growing. It is the best
support amongst the numerous trials and vicissitudes of life, and gives
a relish to most of our enjoyments. What can be imagined more
comfortable than to have a friend to console us in afflictions, to
advise with us in doubtful cases, and share our felicity?... It exalts
our nobler passions, and weakens our evil inclinations; it assists us to
run the race of virtue with a steady and undeviating course. From
loving, esteeming, and endeavoring to felicitate particular people, a
more general passion will arise for the whole of mankind."
He finishes this essay with an allegory. God is described as
deliberating with the angels on the propriety of creating woman.
Justice, Peace, and Virtue plead against her creation, as through her
Adam will be driven out of Paradise. Then Divine Love stands before
Jehovah, her countenance covered with smiles. "Create her," she says,
"for Paradise itself will afford no delight to man without woman. She
will be the cause of his misery, but she will likewise be the cause of
all his happiness. She will console him in affliction; she will comfort
and harmonize his soul; she will wipe the tears from his eyes, and
compose the fury of his passions. Her friendship shall make him
virtuous, and her love shall make him happy; and, lastly, the tree of
their transgression, and the plant of immortality, nourished by the
blood of her son, shall flourish, and grow out of Paradise, and
overspread the earth: man shall eat of their fruit, and be immortal and
All through these early note-books are scattered his poems, showing a
passion for the blue sea at Penzance, and an unbounded love of nature.
Just as he was entering his nineteenth year, young Davy began the study
of chemistry, as a branch of his profession. He read "Lavoisier's
Elements of Chemistry," and "Nicholson's Dictionary of Chemistry."
Suddenly a new world seemed to open before him. He began to think for
himself, and to make experiments. As his means were limited, his
apparatus consisted of vials, wine-glasses, tea-cups, tobacco-pipes, and
His first experiments were the effects of acids and alkalies on
vegetable colors, the kind of air in the vesicles of common seaweed, and
the solution and precipitation of metals. These were made in his bedroom
in Mr. Tonkin's house, or in the kitchen, when he required fire. This
old gentleman had brought up his mother and her two orphan sisters, and
now was like a father to Humphrey. He said, "This boy, Humphrey, is
incorrigible. Was there ever so idle a dog! He will blow us all into the
air." He was at this time probably making a detonating composition,
which he called "thunder power," his sister Kitty being his assistant.
At this time, a young man came to board at the house of Mrs. Davy,
Gregory Watt, the only child of James Watt, the inventor of the
steam-engine. He was the idol of his parents; possessed of a mind so
unusual in its passionate love for knowledge, and a nature so
companionable, that everybody loved him. He was twenty-one, and Humphrey
Between these two young men there grew a most ardent and lasting
friendship; lasting because it had the only sure foundation, moral and
mental worth. They were always together. They visited the neighboring
mines and mountains, and came home with their pockets filled with
The brilliant Gregory died at twenty-eight, but Davy lived to show the
fruits of one of the most beautiful things in life, the affinity of two
noble and intellectual souls, with similar tastes and aspirations. This
death was a great loss to Humphrey. He wrote to a friend: "Poor Watt! He
ought not to have died. I could not persuade myself that he would die:
and until the very moment when I was assured of his fate, I would not
believe he was in any danger.
"His letters to me only three or four months ago were full of spirit,
and spoke not of any infirmity of body, but of an increased strength of
mind. Why is this in the order of nature, that there is such a
difference in the duration and destruction of her works? If the mere
stone decays, it is to produce a soil which is capable of nourishing
the moss and the lichen; when the moss and the lichen die, and
decompose, they produce a mould, which becomes the bed of life to
grasses, and to more exalted species of vegetables. Vegetables are the
food of animals; the less perfect animals of the more perfect; but in
man the faculties and intellect are perfected. He rises, exists for a
little while in disease and misery; and then would seem to disappear,
without an end, and without producing any effect.
"We are deceived, my dear Clayfield, if we suppose that the human being,
who has formed himself for action, but who has been unable to act, is
lost in the mass of being; there is some arrangement of things which we
can never comprehend, but in which his faculties will be applied....
Gregory was a noble fellow, and would have been a great man. Oh! there
was no reason for his dying--he ought not to have died."
This death broke the spirit of James Watt, the father, who ever after
kept beside him, in the attic at Heathfield, the little, old-fashioned
hair trunk of his beloved Gregory, full of his school-books, letters,
and childish toys. It stands to-day, where it did eighty years ago,
beside the mouldering beams of the sculpture machine. That life is not
short, however few the years, which leaves such an undying influence and
such beautiful memories.
Humphrey was now twenty-six, and much had come into his young life. He
had applied himself with zeal to his professional studies, had read
Locke, and Rollin, and Gibbon, and Shakspeare, and at twenty had been
appointed to take charge of the Pneumatic Institution at Clifton,
established by Dr. Beddoes. It had been founded to give an opportunity
of trying the medicinal effects of various gases, and was supported by
liberal men of science. So distressed was his old friend, Mr. Tonkin,
that he should give up the idea of being a surgeon in Penzance, that he
revoked a legacy he had made him in his will!
Davy's life was now an extremely busy one. He published, when he was
twenty-one, his "Essays on Heat and Light," beginning his work, like Sir
Isaac Newton, when but a youth. He discovered silica in the epidermis of
the stems of weeds, corn, and grasses. He found the intoxicating effects
of breathing nitrous oxide, April 9, 1799, and his experiments on this
subject were published the following year. He spent ten months of
incessant labor in them, often endangering and once nearly losing his
life from breathing carburetted hydrogen. He made experiments on
galvanic electricity, increasing the powers of the Galvanic Pile of
Volta. He also planned and partly wrote an epic poem on the deliverance
of the Israelites from Egypt.
Worn with overwork, he returned to see his widowed mother at Penzance.
He had been absent a year. How glad were all to greet the rising young
scientist! Not least glad was Davy's water spaniel, Chloe. When very
small, and about to be drowned, he begged her as a gift, and with great
care reared her to be his hunting and fishing companion. At first she
did not know him, but when, with his peculiarly musical voice, he called
her by name, "she was in a transport of joy."
Davy never forgot his early life at Penzance. In his will he left a sum
of money to be paid annually to the master of the grammar school, "on
condition that the boys may have a holiday on his birthday."
One secret of Davy's early success was, no doubt, his ambition. He used
to say that he had been kept largely from the temptations of youth by
"an active mind, a deep ideal feeling of good, and a look towards
future greatness." The young man or woman who definitely plans to be
somebody seldom finds any obstacles along the road too great to be
He wrote in his note-book: "I have neither riches, nor power, nor birth
to recommend me; yet, if I live, I trust I shall not be of less service
to mankind, and to my friends, than if I had been born with these
At the Pneumatic Institution he found in Mrs. Beddoes "the best and most
amiable woman in the world," a helper in the development of his genius.
Like the wife of William Humboldt, and like any other woman who combines
heart and intellect, Mrs. Beddoes gathered about her, in her home,
Coleridge and Southey, and other bright minds of Clifton. Here Davy,
scarcely more than a boy, with his soft brown curling hair, his
beautiful smile, and his "wonderfully bright eyes, which seemed almost
to emit a soft light, when animated," in the midst of congenial friends,
was stimulated to do his best.
Years after this, Wordsworth gave Dr. John Davy a letter to Coleridge,
on the back of which he had written: "This from Davy, the great chemist.
It is an affectionate letter."
"MY DEAR COLERIDGE,--My mind is disturbed, and my body harassed by many
labors; yet I cannot suffer you to depart, without endeavoring to
express to you some of the unbroken and higher feelings of my spirit,
which have you at once for their cause and object.
"Years have passed away since we first met; and your presence, and
recollections with regard to you, have afforded me continued sources of
enjoyment. Some of the better feelings of my nature have been elevated
by your converse, and thoughts which you have nursed have been to me an
eternal source of consolation.
"In whatever part of the world you are, you will often live with me, not
as a fleeting idea, but as a recollection possessed of creative
energy,--as an imagination winged with fire, inspiring and rejoicing....
"May blessings attend you, my dear friend! Do not forget me: we live for
different ends, and with different habits and pursuits; but our feelings
with regard to each other have, I believe, never altered. They must
continue; they can have no natural death; and I trust they can never be
destroyed by fortune, chance, or accident."
Thus his sweet, kindly nature was an inspiration to others. He believed
in amiability. He said, later, of temper in the marriage state: "Upon
points of affection it is only for the parties themselves to form just
opinions of what is really necessary to ensure the felicity of the
marriage state. Riches appear to me not at all necessary; but
competence, I think, is; and after this more depends upon the temper
of the individual than upon personal or even intellectual circumstances.
The finest spirits, the most exquisite wines, the nectars and ambrosias
of modern tables, will be all spoilt by a few drops of bitter extract;
and a bad temper has the same effect in life, which is made up, not of
great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles and
kindness, and small obligations given habitually, are what win and
preserve the heart and secure comfort."
When Davy was twenty-three, a brilliant opening came to him; came as it
did to Cuvier, Newton, and others, through the influence of a friend.
Count Rumford had been instrumental in founding the Royal Philosophical
Institution for the diffusion of a knowledge of science. Through his
works on heat, nitrous oxide, and galvanic electricity, Davy had made
the acquaintance of Dr. Hope, the distinguished professor of chemistry
in the University of Edinburgh. He recommended Davy to Count Rumford, as
fitted for the professorship of chemistry in the Royal Institution, an
appointment, Davy wrote to his mother, "as honorable as any scientific
appointment in the kingdom, with an income of at least five hundred
pounds a year." He had evidently kept the "look towards future
greatness" in his heart.
Six weeks after his arrival in London, in the spring of 1801, Davy gave
his first lecture, upon the history of galvanism, and the different
modes of accumulating galvanic influence. "The sensation created by his
first course of lectures at the Institution," says the Philosophical
Magazine, "and the enthusiastic admiration which they obtained, is at
this period hardly to be imagined. Men of the first rank and
talent,--the literary and the scientific, the practical and the
theoretical,--blue-stockings and women of fashion, the old and the
young, all crowded, eagerly crowded, the lecture-room. His youth, his
simplicity, his natural eloquence, his chemical knowledge, his happy
illustrations and well conducted experiments, excited universal
attention and unbounded applause. Compliments, invitations, and presents
were showered upon him in abundance from all quarters; his society was
courted by all, and all appeared proud of his acquaintance." He usually
wrote his lecture the day before he delivered it, on this day dining in
his own room, generally on fish. His manner in speaking was very
animated, but natural. He believed in enthusiasm. He said, "Great powers
have never been exerted independent of strong feelings. The rapid
arrangement of ideas from their various analogies to the equally rapid
comparisons of these analogies, with facts uniformly occurring during
the progress of discovery, have existed only in those minds where the
agency of strong and various motives is perceived--of motives modifying
each other, mingling with each other, and producing that fever of
emotion which is the joy of existence and the consciousness of life."
Coleridge used to say, "I attend Davy's lectures to increase my stock of
In the spacious and well supplied laboratory of the Institution, in
making his experiments, says his brother, "his zeal amounted to
enthusiasm, which he more or less imparted to those around him. With
cheerful voice and countenance, and a hand as ready to manipulate as his
mind was quick to contrive, he was indefatigable in his exertions. He
was delighted with success, but not discouraged by failure; and he bore
failures and accidents in experiments with a patience and forbearance,
even when owing to the awkwardness of assistants, which could hardly
have been expected from a person of his ardent temperament."
He was very happy in these years of work. Says his brother: "In going to
bed, and rising, and sometimes in the dead of night, I used to hear him,
in a loud voice, reciting favorite passages in prose or verse, or
declaiming some composition of his own, or humming some angler's song."
He spent his evenings often in society, but wrote to a friend
concerning himself: "Be not alarmed, my dear friend, as to the effect of
worldly society on my mind.... There are in the intellectual being of
all men paramount elements,--certain habits and passions that cannot
change. I am a lover of nature with an ungratified imagination. I shall
continue to search for untasted charms, for hidden beauties. My real,
my waking existence is amongst the objects of scientific research.
Common amusements and enjoyments are necessary to me only as dreams to
interrupt the flow of thoughts too nearly analogous to enlighten and
During his vacations he explored most parts of Great Britain, the
Hebrides, and Ireland, studying the geological structure, collecting
agricultural knowledge, and making sketches. He never hesitated to ask
questions, and often the miners and farmers thought they had never seen
a person so inquisitive.
In his early years at the Institution he was asked to investigate
astringent vegetables in connection with tanning. He entered the work
with his usual ardor; visited tan-yards, and made the acquaintance of
practical farmers. In 1802 he began to deliver, at the request of the
Board of Agriculture, a course of lectures, "On the Connection of
Chemistry with Vegetable Physiology." He had made himself acquainted
with the different kinds of soil and the various methods of agriculture.
For ten years he delivered these lectures at the meetings of the Board.
They were published in book form, and translated into almost every
"We feel grateful," said the Edinburgh Review, "for his having thus
suspended for a time the labors of original investigation, in order to
apply the principles and discoveries of his favorite science to the
illustration and improvement of an art which, above all others,
ministers to the wants and comforts of man."
He now continued his work with the voltaic pile or battery. If water
could be decomposed by it, why not some substances heretofore regarded
as simple or elementary bodies?
In October, 1806, he discovered that potash and soda can be decomposed,
with potassium and sodium as resultant bases.
When he saw the minute globules of potassium burst through the crust of
potash, and take fire as they entered the atmosphere, he is said to have
bounded about the room in ecstatic delight, some time elapsing before he
could compose himself sufficiently to go on with his experiment.
He had worked so constantly that he became very ill, and for several
weeks his life was despaired of. All London was agitated over the
expected death of the young chemist. Bulletins were prepared by the
physicians morning, noon, and night, for the scores who came to ask
When he had recovered and returned to his work, the Royal Institution
provided him with a voltaic battery of six hundred double plates of four
inches square, four times as powerful as any that had been constructed,
and not long after, one of two thousand plates. Scientific papers were
constantly coming from his pen. He soon decomposed boracic acid with the
battery. By heating boron in oxygen, it burnt, and was reconverted into
boracic acid. In his experiments with muriatic acid gas he found
chlorine to be a simple substance, and discovered euchlorine, a compound
of chlorine and oxygen.
He had already been made a fellow of the Royal Society at twenty-five,
and at twenty-nine one of the secretaries. His lectures were crowded, as
ever, by a thousand people. The Dublin Society now invited him to give
courses of lectures in 1810 and 1811, which he did, ticket-holders each
paying ten dollars for a course. So difficult was it to gain admission
to the lectures that many offered from fifty to a hundred dollars for a
He writes these facts to his mother, and adds, "This is merely for your
eye: it may please you to know that your son is not unpopular or
useless. Every person here, from the highest to the lowest, shows me
every attention and kindness.
"I shall come to see you as soon as I can. I hear with infinite delight
of your health, and I hope Heaven will continue to preserve and bless a
mother who deserves so well of her children."
Trinity College, Dublin, conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of
Civil Law. Cuvier said of him: "Davy, not yet thirty-two, in the opinion
of all who could judge of such labors, held the first rank among the
chemists of this or of any other age." The National Institute of France
had awarded him the prize given by Napoleon to the greatest discovery by
the means of galvanism.
And yet all this fame and honor had been won by incessant labor. He
writes to his mother: "At present, except when I resolve to be idle for
health's sake, I devote every moment to labors which I hope will not be
wholly ineffectual in benefiting society, and which will not be wholly
inglorious for my country hereafter; and the feeling of this is the
reward which will continue to keep me employed."
His brother John, who had been for three years at the Royal Institution,
now went to Edinburgh to study medicine. Davy writes him: "Let no
difficulties alarm you, you may be what you please. Trust me, I know
what your powers are. Preserve the dignity of your mind, and the purity
of your moral conduct. You set sail with a fair wind on the ocean of
life. You have great talents, good feelings, and an unbroken and an
uncorrupted spirit. Move straight forward on to moral and intellectual
excellence. Let no example induce you to violate decorum,--no ridicule
prevent you from guarding against sensuality or vice. Live in such a way
that you can always say, the whole world may know what I am doing."
In 1812 Davy was knighted by the Prince Regent. Only thirty-three, and
he had come to great renown!
And now an important change was to come into his life. During the
preceding year he had become acquainted with Mrs. Appreece, towards whom
esteem gradually ripened into affection. When their marriage had been
decided upon, he wrote his mother: "I am the happiest of men, in the
hope of a union with a woman equally distinguished for virtues, talents,
and accomplishments.... You, I am sure, will sympathize in my happiness.
I believe I should never have married but for this charming woman, whose
views and whose tastes coincide with my own, and who is eminently
qualified to promote my best efforts and objects in life."
To his brother he writes: "I have been very miserable. The lady whom I
love best of any human beings has been very ill. She is now well, and I
am happy. Mrs. Appreece has consented to marry me: and when the event
takes place I shall not envy kings, princes, or potentates.... I am
going to be married to-morrow; and I have a fair prospect of happiness,
with the most amiable and intellectual woman I have ever known." How
love idealizes all things, makes a new heaven and a new earth for us! He
found in her the two needed qualities for happiness; amiability, without
which the life of a man is usually made wretched, and intellectuality,
without which a cultivated man can have little companionship in a wife.
The marriage seems to have been a happy one, for he writes to John
later: "Lady D. is a noble creature, and every day adds to my
contentment by the powers of her understanding, and her amiable and
delightful tones of feeling."
Like the wife of Herschel, she was a wealthy widow, so that after his
marriage Davy was enabled to travel, and devote himself wholly to
original investigation. He resigned his professorship at the Royal
Institution after twelve most useful years.
His "Elements of Chemical Philosophy" was now published, and dedicated
to Lady Davy. After a pleasure trip with his wife to the highlands of
Scotland, taking his portable chemical apparatus with him for study,
they took a journey to France, Italy, Sicily, and Germany, accompanied
by Mr. Michael Faraday, afterward so celebrated, then "his assistant in
experiments and writing."
In Paris, where he spent two months, he discovered that iodine is a
simple substance, analogous to chlorine. Here he became the intimate
friend of many distinguished men. "Humboldt," he said, "was one of the
most agreeable men I have ever known; social, modest, full of
intelligence, with facilities of every kind; almost too fluent in
conversation. His travels display his spirit of enterprise. His works
are monuments of the variety of his knowledge and resources."
Gay-Lussac he placed "at the head of the living chemists of France."
At Fontainebleau, on the banks of the Rhone, at Mont Blanc, at Vaucluse,
Sir Humphrey's artistic nature voiced itself in song. He had the poet's
temperament, intense, quick, earnest, ardent, aspiring. He loved
science, and paid her homage; he loved poetry, and made her his rest and
solace and soul-companion.
At Florence he studied the diamond, and found it merely crystallized
carbon. At Rome he met Canova, who showed him great attention, and to
whom he wrote this sonnet:--
"Thou wast a light of brightness in an age
When Italy was in the night of art:
She was thy country; but the world thy stage,
On which thou actedst thy creative part.
Blameless thy life--thy manners, playful, mild,
Master in art, but Nature's simplest child.
Phidias of Rome! like him thou stand'st sublime:
And after artists shall essay to climb
To that high temple where thou dwell'st alone,
Amidst the trophies thou from time hast won.
Generous to all, but most to rising merit;
By nobler praise awakening the spirit;
Yet all unconscious of the eternal fame,
The light of glory circling round thy name!"
At Milan he met Volta, nearly seventy years old. "His conversation was
not brilliant," he said; "his views rather limited, but marking great
ingenuity. His manners were perfectly simple."
Around Naples he investigated the phenomena of volcanic eruptions. On
his return to London they bought a house in Grosvenor Square. He now
published several papers: "Experiments and Observations on the Colors
used in Painting by the Ancients"; "Experiments on a Solid Compound of
Iodine and Oxygen, and on its Chemical Agencies"; "Action of Acids on
the Salts usually called the Hyper-oxymuriates, and on the Gases
produced from them."
All his life, besides his ambition to be great, he desired to aid his
fellow-men, and in the year 1815 he made a discovery which placed him
among the benefactors of the race. In 1812 a terrible explosion of gas
had taken place in a mine, causing the death of nearly a hundred men.
The mine was on fire, and the mouth had to be closed, thus bringing sure
death to the poor creatures within. Such accidents were so frequent,
that a committee of mine proprietors visited the great chemist, to see
if science could suggest a remedy.
He at once visited several mines, investigated fire-damp, and found it
to be light carburetted hydrogen. After a long and careful series of
experiments through several months, he invented the safety-lamp, "a cage
of wire gauze, which actually made prisoner the flame of the fire-damp,
and in its prison consumed it; and whilst it confined the dangerous
explosive flame, it permitted air to pass and light to escape; and
though, from the combustion of the fire-damp, the cage might become red
hot, yet still it acted the part of a safety-lamp."
Sir Humphrey at thirty-seven had immortalized himself. At a public
dinner given in his honor at Newcastle, a service of plate worth over
twelve thousand dollars was presented to him. After his death this
service was given to the Royal Society by his widow, to be sold, and
the proceeds applied to the encouragement of science. Emperor Alexander
of Russia sent him a splendid silver-gilt vase, with a personal letter;
his own sovereign conferred a baronetcy upon him.
When Davy was urged by some friends to take out a patent upon the
safety-lamp, and thus make five or ten thousand a year for himself, he
said, "I never thought of such a thing: my sole object was to serve the
cause of humanity; and if I have succeeded, I am amply rewarded in the
gratifying reflection of having done so. I have enough for all my views
and purposes; more wealth could not increase either my fame or my
happiness. It might undoubtedly enable me to put four horses to my
carriage; but what would it avail me to have it said that Sir Humphrey
drives his carriage and four?"
He said later of his discovery of the safety-lamp: "I value it more than
anything I ever did: it was the result of a great deal of investigation
and labor; but if my directions be attended to, it will save the lives
of thousands of poor men. I was never more affected than by a written
address which I received from the working colliers when I was in the
North, thanking me on behalf of themselves and their families for the
preservation of their lives."
Sir Humphrey used to say: "Whoever wishes to enjoy peace, and is
gifted with great talents, must labor for posterity. In doing this he
enjoys all the pleasures of intellectual labor, and all the desire
arising from protracted hope. He feels no envy nor jealousy; his mark is
too far distant to be seen by short-sighted malevolence, and therefore
it is never aimed at.... To raise a chestnut on the mountain, or a palm
in the plain, which may afford shade, shelter, and fruit for generations
yet unborn, and which, if they have once fixed their roots, require no
culture, is better than to raise annual flowers in a garden, which must
be watered daily, and in which a cold wind may chill or too ardent a
sunshine may dry.... The best faculties of man are employed for
futurity: speaking is better than acting, writing is better than
In the spring of 1818 he took his second continental journey with his
wife, going through Austria, Germany, and Italy. Commissioned by his
king, he made some researches on Herculaneum manuscripts.
On his return to England he was made President of the Royal Society, the
position so ably filled by Sir Isaac Newton. Every Saturday evening,
poets, artists, and men of science gathered at his receptions. This
office he held for seven years, till his declining health compelled his
In December, 1821, Davy paid a visit to his old home in Penzance, and
saw his mother for the last time before her death. A public dinner was
given him by his townsmen, which honor he greatly appreciated. He was no
longer the poor lad among them. "Every heart, tongue, and eye were as
one to do honor to him who had not only rendered the name of their
town famous and imperishable as science itself, but who had added
lustre to the intellectual character of their country."
From year to year he continued his experiments. Urged by the
commissioners of the navy to remedy the corrosion of copper sheathing on
vessels by sea water, he succeeded in rendering the copper negatively
electrical by small pieces of tin, zinc, or iron nails. Shells and
seaweeds adhered to the non-corroded surface, but the principle of
galvanic protection has been applied to various important uses.
In 1824, Sir Humphrey took a journey to Norway, Sweden, and Denmark,
visiting Berzelius of Sweden, "one of the great ornaments of the age,"
he said, and Oersted of Denmark, distinguished for his discovery of
Towards the close of 1826, when he was only forty-eight, Davy was
attacked by paralysis in the right side, having suffered for a year with
numbness and pain in his right arm. During his confinement in his room,
he corrected the proof sheets of his "Discourses to the Royal Society,"
published in January, 1827.
In this year, having improved, he went through France, Italy, and
Switzerland, hunting and fishing as in his boyhood, and writing
"Salmonia, or Days of Fly Fishing," giving descriptions of his journey
and his observations on natural history.
In the spring of 1828, he made another journey, to Southern Austria,
spending the winter in Italy, and writing his "Consolation in Travel,"
which Cuvier called the work of a dying Plato. "I was desirous," he
says, "of again passing some time in these scenes, in the hope of
reestablishing a broken constitution; and though this hope was a feeble
one, yet, at least, I expected to spend a few of the last days of life
more tranquilly and more agreeably than in the metropolis of my own
country. Nature never deceives us. The rocks, the mountains, the
streams, always speak the same language. A shower of snow may hide the
verdant woods in spring; a thunder storm may render the blue limpid
streams foul and turbulent: but these effects are rare and transient; in
a few hours, or at least days, all the sources of beauty are renovated;
and Nature affords no continued trains of misfortunes and miseries, such
as depend upon the constitution of humanity,--no hopes forever blighted
in the bud,--no beings full of life, beauty, and promise, taken from us
in the prime of youth. Her fruits are all balmy, bright, and sweet; she
affords none of those blighted ones so common in the life of man, and so
like the fabled apples of the Dead Sea,--fresh and beautiful to the
sight, but, when tasted, full of bitterness and ashes."
From Rome he writes to a friend, a year later, in the spring of 1829: "I
am here wearing away the winter,--a ruin amongst ruins!... I fight
against sickness and fate, believing I have still duties to perform, and
that even my illness is connected in some way with my being made useful
to my fellow-creatures. I have this conviction full on my mind, that
intellectual beings spring from the same breath of infinite
intelligence, and return to it again, but by different courses. Like
rivers born amidst the clouds of heaven, and lost in the deep and
eternal ocean,--some in youth, rapid and short-lived torrents; some in
manhood, powerful and copious rivers; and some in age, by a winding and
slow course, half lost in their career, and making their exit by many
sandy and shallow mouths."
Davy was destined to go back to the Infinite Intelligence in manhood, "a
powerful and copious river," however much he "fought against sickness
On February 23, 1829, he dictated a letter to his brother John: "I am
dying from a severe attack of palsy, which has seized the whole body,
with the exception of the intellectual organ." He added in his own hand,
just legible, "Come as quickly as possible."
When the brother arrived, and was overcome with grief, Sir Humphrey
received him with a cheerful smile, and bade him not to grieve, but
consider the event like a philosopher. He talked more earnestly than
ever, and his mind seemed all aglow as with the brilliancy of a setting
At one time he was so near death, that he said "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." Reviving
somewhat, they journeyed from Italy to Geneva, by slow and easy travel,
arriving May 28, 1829. In the night, at half-past two, Sir Humphrey was
taken very ill, and died almost immediately.
He was buried June 1, in the cemetery outside the walls of the city,
having requested to be interred where he died, without any display. The
grave is marked by a simple monument erected by his wife. She also
founded a prize in his honor, to be given every two years, for the most
original and important discovery in chemical science. Only fifty, and
his work finished,--no not finished,--for his books and his discoveries,
his character, with its earnest perseverance, its tenderness, its
sympathy, its noble aspirations, and its helpfulness to mankind, will