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Sir Humphry Davy

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Biography

Sir Humphrey Davy was an influential English Chemist and inventor who pioneered the field of Electrochemistry at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Humphrey Davy was born in Cornwall in 1778 to a woodcarver father and attended the Penzance Grammar School. He was a precocious boy right from his childhood, very interested in history, folk literature and poetry as well as in experimental science. After his father’s death in 1794, Davy was apprenticed to a surgeon in Penzance and there he started his earliest experiments in chemistry. Alongside, he also wrote poetry and painted. He had instructors and friends who were Quakers and they significantly influenced his way of thinking.

In 1798, Davy joined the Pneumatic Institution, which had been established to study the medical powers of certain gases called ‘factitious airs’ and Davy helped in conducting experiments there. Here he developed a close friendship with James Watt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and others with whom he inhaled nitrous oxide or laughing gas on a regular basis and performed life-risking gas experiments. In 1801, Davy joined the prestigious Royal Institution as an assistant lecturer in chemistry, director of the chemical laboratory and assistant editor of the several journals published by the Institution. He delivered a series of lectures on Galvanism and Agricultural chemistry and he became very popular well beyond London’s academic circles. His lectures often contained dangerous but spectacular demonstrations which attracted huge audiences. In 1804, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1807 he founded the Geological Society of London along with William Babington and others. In 1810 he was elected to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Humphrey Davy electrolyzed molten salts and discovered several new metals, such as sodium, potassium and alkali metals. He also isolated calcium, magnesium, boron and barium. In 1812 Davy was knighted. He got married and travelled across Europe and even picked up a medal from France awarded by Napoleon Bonaparte. After returning to England Davy invented a safety lamp for the use of coal mine workers to prevent explosions. It is believed by some that Davy actually invented the first electric light by connecting two wires to a battery.

In 1819, Davy was awarded a baronetcy, the highest honor ever awarded to a man of science in Britain. Davy later lost his vision in a laboratory accident and hired Michael Faraday as a coworker. Faraday worked upon Davy’s work and became very famous. Davy spent the last months of his life in Switzerland, writing a compendium of poetry and ruminations on science and philosophy which were widely read after his death.