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Sir Humphry Davy

By John Reisner

Sir Humphrey Davy was an incredible professor, lecturer and writer whose main connection with the Industrial Revolution was his invention of the safety lamp. He was a man who believed that the people deserved the truth in whatever they read. He wanted the people who read his books to know that he worked as hard as he could so that people could better understand the subject.

Davy was born in 1778 in Penzance, England to Robert and Grace Millet Davy. He went to a small school there but did not really try to learn until he was taught by Bingham Borlase, a surgeon who later qualified as a physician. Davy's scientific career began in 1798 when he was appointed superintendent of Thomas Beddoes' Pneumatic Institute at Clifton. In 1812 he married a wealthy widow named Jane Appreece; they never had any children but were happy throughout their marriage. Most of the rest of his life was spent working at the Royal Institute in London, and he became its president in 1820. In 1826 he suffered from a stroke and some serious illnesses from which he never fully recovered.

Davy loved to read, and with his knowledge he began his career as a chemist and within five years of reading his first chemistry book, he became a teacher of chemistry at the Royal Institute. His first research, which was on the role of light, was published in 1799 in his first book called "An Essay on Heat, Light, and the Combinations of Light." He was impressed with light and believed that the solar system was designed around the sun in order to supply the planets with enough light and heat.

Davy was so into his experiments that he once went as far as to breathe in nitrous oxide in order to prove that another chemist was wrong about his hypothesis saying that the gas would kill anyone instantly. Davy's assumption was right, but he did find out about the gas's anesthetic properties right away. After further studies, he suggested that nitrous oxide be used in surgical operations, but nobody took any notice of this recommendation. On another occasion Davy listened to a man speak on alkalizes, and after hearing the lecture, he decided to further investigate them. He specifically studied Calcium, Magnesium, Strontium, and Barium and in conclusion found out that Alkalies were oxides.

When Davy returned to England in 1815 from a trip to France to receive a medal established by Napoleon, he was asked to work on explosions for coalmines. He was given a sample of the gasses in the mines and found some methane in the mines. He later found out that methane could only be ignited at high temperatures. Davy constructed lamps in which the air intake and chimney were composed of narrow tubes so that the methane could not come in contact with the flame because the cooling effect of the tube was so great. He also found that a wire-gauze wick was equally efficient; and the Davy lamp, in which wire is wrapped around gauze, was born. His invention worked, and the lamps were used in the mines all around England.

Of all Davy's inventions and discoveries, the Davy lamp was the most useful. It saved many lives and made mining a lot safer. Sir Humphrey Davy died in 1828 in Geneva, Switzerland where he had lived for the previous two years. Davy retired there in order to escape his work and so that he could do the things he loved like fishing and hunting.

Source: Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Volume 3, Published by American Council of Learned Societies, Printed in New York, New York USA