World’s Super Scientists – Humphry Davy

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Why not the younger generation produce “a Watt, a Davy or a Faraday” – Humphry Davy

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Sir Humphry Davy (1778 to 1829) a semi-centenarian, father of electro-chemistry was born in December 1778  in Penzance, Cornwall.

After completion of schooling, he was apprenticed as a pharmacist; the apothecary and its library gave him good foundation.

Highlights of Sir Humphry Davy’s career

Sir Humphry Davy’s scientific career began in 1797.

  • At his age of 20, Davy was in charge of Medical Pneumatic institution and began investigating the medicinal properties of gases.
  • In 1799 this self-taught scientist discovered the “happy and drunk” effect of nitrous oxide on the human system. It made the body immune to pain.
  • It had a euphoric effect and made Davy hysterical in the beginning; after inhaling for some more time, he felt a laughing sensation – hence the name “laughing gas” was given to it.
  • In the year 1800 while lecturing, Davy  made some people from the audience inhale the gas and feel pleasant. It was used to control and console quarrelsome wives.
  • In 1844 an American dentist, Horace Wells used it on himself prior to extraction of tooth. Even today this gas is used to induce anesthesia.

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1801 Lecturer, Royal Institution.

1802 Professor in the Institution.

  • Sir Humphry Davy also gave an account of nearly fatal inhalation of “water gas” – a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.
  • For the next ten years he specialized in agricultural chemistry and chemical fertilizers. He did research on tanning and Voltaic cells.
  • In 1807 Sir Humphry Davy isolated sodium and potassium through electrolysis. As a matter of fact, Davy used his electro­chemical method to isolate magnesium, strontium, calcium, chlorine and barium.
  • This discovery and his first Bakerian lecture won him a prize from the Emperor Napoleon, although France and England were at war and logger-heads. In 1812 he was knighted.
  • Some streets are lighted with yellow coloured lamps that contain sodium vapour – this colour is seen in contrast to the pure ivory white colour of a tube-light.
  • As a bye-product of his experiments, Davy discovered arc light which he demonstrated in 1809. Years later, carbon arc lamps were used in military searchlights as well as street lighting.
  • In 1813 he resigned from the Royal Institution and went on a tour of the world accompanied by his wife and young Michael Faraday who became his disciple. Later Faraday emerged as another “giant of science”.
  • Davy and Faraday proved that diamond is a form of carbon. A research paper entitled “Elements of Chemical Philosophy” was published by them.
  • Sir Humphry Davy conducted work on volcanic action and corrosion of copper in salt water.
  • On his return to England in 1815 he invented a safety lamp for miners by wrapping the lantern flame in a metal gauze. This gave him the zenith of his fame.
  • In 1818 Sir Humphry Davy was made a baronet of England.
  • In 1820 the crowning scientific honour of recognition of his talent was bestowed when he was elected President of the Royal Society of London.
  • Sir Humphry Davy was erratic, tactless and irritating in his behaviour; he was ‘mercurial’ in temperament.
  • Sir Humphry Davy was a poet, too. Samuel Taylor Coleridge commented thus, “If he were not the first chemist he would have been the first poet of his age.”

Sir Humphry Davy died in 1829 at his age of fifty. Because of his work in electro-chemistry, industries worth billions of dollars are thriving!

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