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On this day in history in 1778, was born Humphrey Davy.
Davy was a chemist who isolated the elements of sodium and potassium, and created a miner's lamp which led to the acceleration of coal production during the Industrial Revolution.
Humphry Davy was born on 17th December 1778, at Penzance, the son of a prosperous woodcarver, owner of a small country estate. He received an unpresumptuous education at grammar schools in Penzance and Truro, where he learned to the basics of literature, and acquired the ability to perform arithmetic calculations. At school, he was noted for his fondness for nature, particularly mountain scenery, and his predilection for collecting specimens of minerals. He also had affection for literature, and a knack for writing verse.
In 1795, he was apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary, in the hope of qualifying in medicine. He had plans to write a volume of poems, in his spare time, but once he began the serious study of science, the idea ‘fled before the voice of truth.’ He was introduced to Davies Gilbert, president of the Royal Society, who offered him the use of his library and chemistry laboratory. There he prepared and inhaled nitrous oxide, laughing gas, to determine the current hypothesis that it was the ‘principle of contagion,’ that is caused disease. He quickly abandoned his medical studies and took an appointment as chemical superintendent of the Pneumatic Institution, a body founded to inquire into the possible therapeutic uses of various gases. He investigated the composition of oxides and acids of nitrogen and ammonia, and persuaded his scientific and literary friends, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, to report the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. On one occasion, he nearly died inhaling water gas, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. He was invited to lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, where he received assistance in his research from Henry Cavendish. In 1802 he became professor of chemistry.
Davy conducted experiments to separate salts, using a series of batteries, in a process now known as electrolysis. He was able to separate potassium, sodium, calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium, and in 1808, discovered a new metal which he named ‘aluminum’. In 1812, the political journal, Quarterly Review, arbitrarily decided to rename the element ‘aluminium’, arguing that the –ium suffix was consistent with the names of the other elements. For his work in this field, Davy was awarded the Napoleon Prize from the Institut de France, despite the fact that, at the time, Britain was at war with France.
In 1812, Davy received a knighthood, and decided to retire. He delivered a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married Jane Apreece, a society widow. He received special permission to visit the enemy nation, France, and made a grand tour meeting prominent scientists, and was even presented to the French empress, Marie Louise.
In 1815, Davy returned to London, when he was persuaded by the Society for Preventing Accidents in Coal Mines, to investigate the causes of explosions in collieries. Davy explained that explosions were caused by firedamp, now called methane, which ignites when introduced to a spark or flame, such as the candle carried by miners. He went on to produce a safety lamp, the Davy lamp, which used a sodium base, with a metal gauze, and therefore could not cause an explosion. This invention allowed the exploitation of even deeper seams, and led to the expansion of the coal industry in the Nineteenth Century. A similar miner's safety lamp was invented simultaneously by George Stevenson, but the Davy lamp proved to be more popular, except in the Newcastle region. Newcastle miners preferred to use Stevenson’s lamp, which they called the George lamp, or Geordie lamp, and so the men of Newcastle became known as ‘Geordies’.
In 1827, Davy's health began to fail, on account of the repeated inhalation of noxious gases. He left for Europe, in the hope of recuperation. In 1828, he wrote Salmonia: or Days of Fly Fishing, a book in the manner of Izaak Walton. He visited Rome, where he wrote home that he was ‘a ruin amongst ruins’, and, after a heart attack, left to take the mountain air in Switzerland. He died on 29th May 1829, and is buried in the cemetery of Plain-Palais. He is commemorated by a statue in his home town. [Market Jew Street, Penzance, Cornwall, TR18 2HW]
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