Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Handsome Master of Acids: Sir Humphry Davy

by J.A. Beard

Often when thinking about the late Georgian Era and the Regency Period, it’s easy to fixate on the many cultural and political changes that occurred. Controversial and charismatic men like Lord Byron challenged social mores, and decades of war, in the form of the Napoleonic Wars, presented an ever-present additional stress to a country that was already undergoing rapid change due to industrialization partially facilitated by many other legal and social changes, such as land reform.

Sometimes lost in discussions of aspects of the period such as industrialization is that the late Georgian Era was also a time of impressive scientific progress. It is easy, in the light of modern genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and control of nuclear power to be dismissive of the achievements of these “natural philosophers” who set the stage for the massive advances in science and technology that define the modern human condition. Today, I will spotlight one of these pioneers: Sir Humphry Davy.

Sir Humphry was born into a respectable, though untitled and not particularly wealthy family in 1778 in Penzance. As a young child both at home and school, he quickly demonstrated above-average intelligence, concentration, dedication, and attention to detail, all traits that would serve him well. He also had the fortune, while as a student, to have as an early mentor one, Robert Dunkin. Though Mr. Dunkin’s background was more business than anything, he had a keen interest in many areas of burgeoning interest in natural philosophy, and, in particular, inculcated in young Sir Humphry the principles of the experimental method and exposed to him devices such as the Leyden Jar (a sort of primitive capacitor that can store static electricity) and other apparatuses that would kindle an interest in electricity and exploring the principles behind electrochemistry. He would remain friends with and discuss scientific principles with Mr. Dunkin even after leaving his tutelage.

After the death of Sir Humphry’s father in 1794 (he was fifteen at the time), the boy was apprenticed to a surgeon. This proved fortuitous for his growing interest in chemistry, as it gave him a ready supply of reagents with which to experiment, not, if some of the anecdotes and statements of the time are accurate, with the greatest attention to personal safety.

A chance encounter with Davies Giddy, a member of the Royal Society, led to Sir Humphry’s introduction to a number of men of science and engineering. He was given the chance to experiment in more dedicated and well-equipped laboratories and exposure to certain electrochemistry phenomenon that were being actively explored at the time, such as the galvanic corrosion (due to the copper and iron construction) of floodgates in the city of Hayle. Though there was initially some resistance by his surgical master (who wanted Davy to stay as a surgeon in Penzance) Davy would eventually leave Penzance with Dr. Thomas Beddoes, a physician and writer.

In 1798, Sir Humphry joined the Pneumatic Institute, a research center founded by Dr. Beddoes to study the medical applications of newly discover gases (particularly oxygen and hydrogen). Well at the Institute, Sir Humphry spent a particular amount of time studying nitrous oxide (aka laughing gas), but, unfortunately, the potential as anesthesia seems to have escaped him (as it would many others) for several decades. Again, while at the Institute, he continued to not always practice what would we consider modern safe experimental practice and nearly killed himself more than once in the pursuit of knowledge. Indeed, in later years, he damaged his vision due to an accident with a laboratory acid experiment.

He also published several scientific studies and continued his intense work into electrical conductors and galvanic electrochemical reactions. In addition, he had the time to establish connections with a variety of men of influence, both scientific and otherwise, including James Watt (the Scottish master of the steam engine whose work was pivotal to the industrial revolution) and poet and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

With the establishing of the Royal Institution, a major multi-disciplinary research organization in London, Sir Humphry made the move to London and, as it were, the big time. His youth, handsome looks, and dramatic public lectures that included flashy chemical demonstrations quickly turned his lectures into a popular event. He also qas not one to downplay the perceived importance of his own work, as can be seen from this excerpt from an 1801 lecture on galvanism:

“The relations of galvanism to the different branches of physical science, are too numerous and too extensive to be connected with the preceding details; and, although in their infancy, they will probably long constitute favourite subjects of investigation amongst philosophers, and become the sources of useful discoveries…

The connexion of galvanism with philosophical medicine is evident. The electrical influence in its common form, as excited by machines, has been employed with advantage in the cures of diseases; in a new state of existence it may possibly be possessed of greater and of different powers.”

For several years, Sir Humphry explored electrochemistry and gas chemistry. Among other things, he was the first to isolate magnesium, potassium, boron, and barium. Although he did not discover chlorine (that honor belongs to the Swedish chemistry Carl Scheele), he gave the substance its current name and also proved several important facts about chlorine, such as the fact that pure chlorine contains no oxygen, would have important impacts on the formation of acid-base chemistry.

In 1812, his various contributions to science had earned him a knighthood (thus he finally actually become Sir Humphry). He married and along with his wife traveled to the Continent in 1813. He was also accompanied by his assistant, a man who would go on to be another pivotal figure in science, Michael Faraday. Unfortunately, in later years, Sir Humphry's ambition and suspicion would cause him to have a falling out with Faraday (who, among other things, he accused of plagiarism).

During the next couple of years in Europe, he received a medal from Napoleon (yes, that Napoleon) for his scientific work, demonstrated iodine was an element and proved diamond was pure carbon.

When he returned to England in 1815, he worked on a number of projects, including improved coal mining lamps with wire gauze that would not leak gas into the environment, which, unfortunately may have inadvertently lead to increased mine-related deaths by encouraging workers to probe more deeply into areas of mines they would have previously avoided due to safety concerns.

He also expanded on his acid-base theories to classify acids as substances with metal-replaceable hydrogen groups and bases as substances that formed water and a salt when combined with an acid. These definitions are not as specific as the more modern Lewis and Bronsted-Lowry Acid-Base definitions but were useful enough to help facilitate a considerable amount of brilliant electrochemistry and acid-base chemistry in the decades after Davy’s death.

For those of you unfamiliar with chemistry, please note that the number of realms that electrochemistry and acid-base chemistry touch are vast. Indeed, for the latter, proper understanding of acid-base chemistry is critical for everything from understandings of drugs and biochemistry to industrial manufacturing. Obviously, Sir Humphry did not fully develop our understanding of this area, but he made very important contributions to the areas for others to build on.

In 1819, his continued contributions to science were recognized by the awarding of a baronetcy (an inheritable non-peerage title, unlike knighthoods which are non-inheritable non-peerage titles). It should be noted this put him above, at the time, higher in honors for science work than even the master of physics, Sir Isaac Newton.

He died in 1829 from a heart issue. Although Sir Humphry’s name is less recognizable to many than someone like Michael Faraday, his work was important and influential and echoes even today in the twenty-first century in a wide variety of applications ranging from hybrid cars to sensor design.


  1. What an interesting post! Thank you for this information, J.A. A treat to read about someone so engaged in the pursuit of knowledge.

  2. I love seeing the men of science get some spotlight particularly since they are rarely used as historical characters in novels. Thanks for sharing about Sir Humphries.

  3. Very interesting tidbit of history...thanks! I like reading about the men of science during the Georgian and Regency period. They were often well rounded men who looked at science as an extension of their understanding of God's world. Fascinating, really.