On 8th April 1812 Humphry Davy was knighted by The Prince Regent and three days later he married a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece. Born in Penzance in 1778 his father died when he was nine and Davy spent much of his childhood in Ludgvan, went to Penzance Grammar School and then to Truro School. On leaving school he was fortunate to be tutored by Bingham Borlase, a surgeon and apothecary and relative of William Borlase, the well-known Vicar of Ludgvan.
Davy's abilities came to the attention of Davies Giddy of Tredrea Manor at St Erth, who allowed him use his library and to see the chemical apparatus at the local copper works – the Cornish Copper Company at Hayle. There he met Gregory Watt, the son of James Watt. Through these connections he was introduced to Dr Thomas Beddoes of Bristol and in 1797 moved to Clifton in Bristol where he made his first noteworthy discovery by producing pure amounts of nitrous oxide or ‘laughing gas’ and saw its potential for use as a painkiller especially during surgery.
Moving to London in the late 1790s Davy joined the Royal Institution and was quickly appointed their Professor of Chemistry. He was now a celebrity and hundreds of people attended his lectures on his work and its applications. Unusually for a scientist Humphry Davy had the gift of communication and showmanship; he was described as ‘all brilliance and dash’! During this time he made many ground-breaking discoveries and was the pre-eminent scientist of his day.
Davy is best known for the Davy Safety Lamp. Coal was a key industry at that time and as the mines went deeper there were many tragic accidents where the open flames carried by the miners exploded with the gas or firedamp in the mines. Following the death of 92 miners in a major disaster at Felling Colliery, near Gateshead in 1812, Humphry Davy was approached and although familiar with Cornish mines visited the North East to study the coal mines for himself. In 1815 he produced a lamp which protected the flame with thin wire gauze and found that the heat of the flame was conducted away and did not raise the temperature on the outside, therefore the gas did not ignite. Indeed if any inflammable gas passed through the wire gauze the flame burned brighter and quite differently giving a warning of the danger. Humphrey Davy refused the patent his lamp as he wished it to be available as widely as possible thus saving countless lives.
Ever since 1815 controversy has surrounded the invention of the safety lamp. The first safety lamp to be used underground in a working mine is known to have been developed by George Stephenson, whose Geordie Lamp worked on the same principle as Davy's. It seems the two men arrived at their solutions independently, one from 'practical empiricism' and one from scientific principles. 2018 will see the publication of the Davy letters which will perhaps throw more light on the controversy though at this remove in time, perhaps it is simply more fitting to remember both men as having contributed enormously to the safety of coal mining.
Humphry Davy 1778-1829: Nuffield Foundation 1978
The Mercurial Chemist, Anne Treneer, Butler & Tanner, 1963
The picture of Humphry Davy is a photo of the portrait held by the National Portrait Gallery taken by D Coetzee and made available by Wiki Commons.