Thursday, 16 July 2009

Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy is best known for inventing the miner's lamp. Inventing it and then declining to patent the design. Here, I present a few notes, rather than a comprehensive guide to or even an overview of one of the most interesting figures of this historical period.

Born in Penzance in 1778, Davy went from provincial origins to become one of the most celebrated chemists of all time. He isolated many elements, including potassium and sodium, and the latter discovery made him the first ever subject of a clerihew:

Sir Humphry Davy
Was not fond of gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

I have not been able to discover anywhere what Davy's true feelings toward gravy were, but of poetry Davy was decidedly fond. He not only read, but wrote poetry. A few of his early pieces were anthologised by Southey in Bristol. It was in Bristol, while he was studying at the Pneumatic Institute with Thomas Beddoes, that Davy met both Southey and Coleridge. Experiments for Davy were not constrained by health and safety, or a sense of distance and objectivity. He would smell and taste chemicals, make himself part of an electric circuit and in examining the effects of laughing gas, Davy, Beddoes and Coleridge had a rather jolly time, supposedly spouting poetry as they danced about the laboratory.

Davy found it hard to shake the reputation created by his provincial origins and the early accounts of the unconventional methods he used. He is also portrayed as a fop and a dandy, especially as he adopted 'a green velvet jacket with gold spangles'. This makes me intensely fond of him. He was ridiculed because rather than banning women from his lectures he actively played to this part of his audience, making a theatrical display of the bangs and puffs of smoke side of chemistry.

In 1804, Davy visited Dove Cottage to meet Wordsworth, along with Coleridge and Walter Scott. Coleridge sends the manuscript of the second edition of Lyrical Ballads to Davy to edit, and while many biographers have sniggered at Davy's attempts at poesy or suffered them as briefly as possible, it seems the circle of writers he socialised with rated his abilities very highly. Coleridge writes in very warm terms about Davy, and their correspondence suggests a sincere and profound attachment. Coleridge wishes to learn about chemistry, and goes to scientific lectures to 'increase [his] stock of metaphors'. Later in life, Davy also befriended the second generation Romantics, including Byron and Shelley.

The current relationship between science and poetry has been at the forefront of debates this year, but the Romantic period offers a great example of the complex interweaving of the disciplines. The idea that the spheres of knowledge in the Romantic period are polarised is ridiculous, when we have so much evidence of the arts and sciences overlapping. Davy's approach to chemistry is a contrast to his poetic pursuits, but they inform one another. And for the Romantics more generally, even where the two disciplines appear in opposition, it is because they in dialogue, not because they are separate, uncommunicating camps.

Davy continued writing all his life, mostly in laboratory notebooks stained and burnt by his experiments.

1 comment:

  1. A pleasure to learn about Davy's interesting life. Thanks :)