Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy

The Pride of Penzance

December 17th 1778 to Davy, a woodcarver Penzance, and to Mrs K a son, Humphry.

Fifteen years later young Humphry Davy left Penzance Grammar School. His headmaster thought he was lazy. Then his father died and with a mother, brother and three sisters to be supported this lazy teenager became apprenticed to Bingham Borlase, the Penzance surgeon apothecary. His interest in scientific things was fostered by his acquaintanceship with Robert Duncan, a Penzance saddler who made electrical and mechanical models. Ten years later he was a famous lecturer in London. Twenty years later he had had a knighthood conferred on him by the Prince Regent. The headmaster's comments are not on record.

Chemistry was just emerging as a science at the end of the 18th century and young Humphry, when he was not making speeches to the sea along the shores of Mount's Bay, was experimenting in this new field in the house of a family friend, Mr Tonkin. We don't know Tonkin's opinion of young Davy as he dabbled with the unknown in the attic of his house.

The first major step in Davy's career was the recognition of his talent by Davies Giddy of Tredrea in St. Erth. For many years the Member of Parliament for Helston, Giddy (or Gilbert as he was later known) became a life long friend of Davy, and eventually succeeded him as President of the Royal Society. Giddy brought his young protégé to the attention of Dr. Thomas Beddoes of Bristol who offered the 19-year-old Cornishman the job as superintendent of his laboratory which had been set up to study gases for their medicinal effects.

The young scientist set to work to study the properties of nitrous oxide. It was argued that this gas possessed the power to spread disease. Typically, Davy decided to test it himself and breathed two quarts of the gas from a silk bag. He found it to be harmless but, to his astonishment, he also found it made him feel drunk in a very pleasant way. His friends tried it. Some became so uncontrollably hilarious that they called it 'laughing gas'. Davy also observed that the toothache from which he had been suffering had eased. He wrote, "as nitrous oxide appears to destroy pain it may probably be used to advantage during surgical operations". Sadly for mankind this suggestion was not taken up for almost 50 years when an American dentist, Horace Wells, used it as an anaesthetic.

Davy's next move, in 1801 was to the Royal Institution in London. Set up in 1799 by Count Rumford, an American, the R.I. existed to make life easier and more healthy, especially for the poor, by the application of science.

The exuberant Cornishman, who had practised the art of public speaking on the Cornish coast line, was a great success. Hundreds packed the lecture rooms to hear him eloquently talk about chemistry and its applications.

In 1804, at the age of only 25, Humphry Davy became Director of the Royal Institution. At the same time Beethoven had just finished his Eroica Symphony and Napoleon was being crowned Emperor of France.

Throughout these years Davy was mixing with the famous and the great. Wealthy and influential people came to listen to him. His charm and good looks made him sought after by the fashionable leaders of society. His friends included Lord Byron, Samuel Coleridge, Walter Scott, Robert Southey, Thomas Wedgewood and William Wordsworth. In the next few years he isolated and named six previously unknown elements; sodium, potassium, barium, strontium, chlorine and iodine. Not bad going for a lazy schoolboy. In 1811 Davy began to appreciate great wealth when he received 500 guineas for a course of lectures in Ireland. That's about £20,000 in present day currency.

In 1812 a knighthood was conferred on him by the Prince Regent, King George III being insane. In the same year he married a rich widow, Jane Apreece, whose idle fingers are recalled by the missing top waistcoat button on his statue at the top of Market Jew Street in Penzance. Their marriage was commemorated by the Rev. Sidney Smith who wrote;

Too many men have often seen
Their talents under-rated,
But Davy says that his have been
Duly Appreciated.

Perhaps Davy's greatest discovery was the bookbinder's apprentice who became his assistance, Michael Faraday. In 1813 he took him on a grand tour of Europe where they met M. Ampere and Sr. Volta.

The one discovery for which the name Davy was to become a household word was his solution to the problem of explosions in coal mines with his invention of the safety lamp in 1815. Within fourteen days of being acquainted with the problem he had found a solution. The only illumination in mines at that time was by naked flames, the heat of which would ignite the combustible gases. Davy discovered that the heat of the flame would not pass along a narrow metal tube as the metal conducted the heat away. By extending this discovery and completely surrounding the flame of a lamp with a piece of metal gauze (in effect a mass of very short tubes, side by side, which would conduct away the heat) the flame was unable to ignite the gas on the outside of the lamp but the illumination of the flame was sufficient to work by. The mine owners of Tyne and Wear in North-east England presented Davy with a service of gold plate costing £1,200 (£48,000 today).

In 1824 the gentry of Penzance decided to honour Davy. In the words of the local newspaper, "At the general meeting in Penzance it was unanimously resolved that a public dinner be given to Sir Humphry Davy at the Union Hotel in Chapel Street, and that the Mayor be required to wait on him forthwith". A later report concluded, "Every heart, tongue and eye were as one to do honour to him who had not only rendered the name of their town as famous and imperishable as science itself, but (who had added lustre to the intellectual character of their country and)...who is one of the happy few who can claim to be permanent benefactors to the human race".

There was little this 42 year old genius could do to eclipse his brilliant progress since leaving West Cornwall a quarter of a century earlier. Apart from his interest in gasses, he was also the founder of the Zoological Society, with its zoo in Regents Park, London. His health rapidly declined in his late 40's and he died of a stroke in Geneva, Switzerland on 29th May 1829, aged 50. He left the annual interest of £100 (£4,000 today) to the boys of Penzance Grammar School, combined with a holiday on his birthday, 17th December - a practice now sadly discontinued.

A statue was erected to him outside Market House at the top of Market Jew Street in 1872. A commemorative slate plaque on 4 Market Jew Street claims the location as his birthplace. The Humphry Davy Lantern Parade is held in mid December each year.

Famous Cornish People       Penzance