Humphry Davy Biography (1778-1829)


Humphry Davy grew up poor, helping his mother pay off debts left by his father, a woodcarver who had lost his earnings in speculative investments. As a result, Davy's education was haphazard, and he disliked being a student. The schools in his part of the country (Cornwall, the southwest tip of England) were far from outstanding at that time; still, Davy managed to absorb knowledgeof classic literature and science. In later life, he said that he was happy he didn't have to study too hard in school so that he had more time to think on his own. Without money for further education, Davy began at age seventeen to serve as an apprentice to a pharmacist/surgeon. During this time, he took it upon himself to learn more about whatever interested him, such as geography, languages, and philosophy, as well as science. When he was nineteen, Davy read a book on chemistry by the French scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) that convinced him to concentrate on that subject. For the rest of his life, Davy's career was marked by brilliant, if impetuous, scientific explorations in chemistry and electrochemistry that led to the inventions for which he is known today.

Davy's style in the laboratory was to work quickly and intensely, pursuing one new idea after another. He aimed at originality and creativity, rather thantediously repeating tests and confirming results. Stimulated by the Italianphysicist Alessandro Volta's invention of the electric battery , Davy rushedinto the new field of electrochemistry and, in 1808, invented the carbon arclamp. Although scientists knew that sparks were created between electrodes ina battery, Davy proposed using carbon as the electrode material instead of metal. With carbon electrodes, Davy made a strong electric current leap from one electrode to the other, creating an intense white light that was practicalfor illumination. Davy's invention thus gave birth to the entire science ofelectric lighting. Arc lamps are still used today; so is arc welding, anotherpractical outcome of Davy's electric arc research. Luckily for Davy's reputation, the arc lamp made a perfect subject for public display. Davy had been hired in the 1800s to lecture for the Royal Institution, a new scientific institution that was having financial problems. Davy's charm as a speaker, alongwith his spectacular demonstrations of electric arc lighting, drew enthusiastic crowds from London's high society and soon reversed the institution's fortunes. (Some historians have also referred to Davy's good looks, which probably contributed to his popularity with the fashionable women in the audience.)

In his early thirties, after being knighted in 1812, Davy married a wealthy Scottish widow and began to travel extensively, enjoying his fame wherever hewent. He was accompanied on some of these tours by his assistant/valet Michael Faraday, who was destined to eclipse his mentor's reputation in the realm of science. Upon his return to England, Davy was called upon to study coal-mine explosions, which in those days were killing hundreds of miners each year.In less than three months, he invented the miner's safety lamp, also called the Davy lamp. When Davy tested samples of the "fire-damp" gas that caused the explosions, he confirmed that it was mainly methane and that it wouldignite only at high temperatures. In Davy's safety lamp, the flame is surrounded by wire gauze to dissipate heat and prevent ignition of flammable gases.This invention was the first major step toward safety in the coal mining industry.

Davy's career, which included several discoveries as well as inventions, wasrewarded by many honors and medals. In addition to his knighthood, he was made a baronet in 1818 and was elected president of the prestigious Royal Society in 1820. In his conflicts with other scientists, however, Davy made some enemies who thought he was arrogant, as he well may have been. He even tried toprevent his associate Faraday from being elected to the Royal Society. Whilestill in his thirties, Davy began to be plagued by ill health. The same curiosity that drove him to discover and invent with such success had also takenits toll on his body. By sniffing and tasting unknown chemicals, he had poisoned his system, and his eyes had been damaged in a laboratory explosion. Although Davy continued to pursue scientific interests, he suffered a stroke whenhe was only forty-nine and died abroad just two years later. One of Davy's last inventions was a method for protecting metal from corrosion. Called cathodic protection, it was used to prevent the corrosion of copper-bottomed shipsby seawater. Although only partially successful, Davy's method represents the first application of cathodic protection in scientific history. Today similar methods are used to protect metal pipelines and other equipment from corrosion.

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