T. E. (Thomas Edward) Thorpe.

Humphry Davy, poet and philosopher online

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Edited by SIR HENRY E. ROSCOE, D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S.


The Century Science Series.



John Dalton and the Rise of Modern Chemistry.
By Sir Henry E. Roscoe, F.R.S.

Major Rennell, F.R.S., and the Rise of English

By Sir Clements R. Markham, C. B., F.R.S., President
of the Royal Geographical Society.

Justus von Liebig : his Life and Work (1803-1873).

By W. A. Shenstone, F.I.C., Lecturer on Chemistry in
Clifton College.

The Herschels and Modern Astronomy.

By Agnes M. Clerke, Author of "A Popular History
of Astronomy during the 19th Century," &c.

Charles Lyell and Modern Geology.

By Rev. Professor T. G. Bonney, F.R.S.

James Clerk Maxwell and Modern Physics.

By R. T. Glazebrook, F.R.S., Fellow of Trinity College,

Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher.

By T. E. Thorpe, LL.D., F.R.S., Principal Chemist of
the Government Laboratories.

In Preparation.

Michael Faraday : his Life and Work.

By Professor Silvanus P. Thompson, F.R.S.

Pasteur : his Life and Work.

By M. Armand Ruffer, M.D., Director of the British
Institute of Preventive Medicine.

Charles Darwin and the Origin of Species.

By Edward B. Poulton, M.A., F.R.S., Hope Professor
of Zoology in the University of Oxford.

Hermann von Helmholtz.

By A. W. Rucker, F.R.S., Professor of Physics in the
Royal College of Science, London.

MACMILLAN & CO., Limited, New York.






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For the details of Sir Humphry Davy's personal history, as
set forth in this little book, I am mainly indebted to the
well-known memoirs by Dr. Paris and Dr. John Davy. As
biographies, these works are of very unequal value. To begin
with, Dr. Paris is not un frequently inaccurate in his state-
ments as to matters of fact, and disingenuous in his inferences
as to matters of conduct and opinion. The very extravagance
of his laudation suggests a doubt of iiis.- judgment or of his
sincerity, and this is strengthened by the too evident relish
with which he dwells ; upon the fo.ibles and frailties of his
subject. The insincerity is reflected in the literary style of
the narrative, which i$ inflated and over-wrought. Sir Walter
Scott, who knew Davy well Egnd who admired his genius and
his many social gifts, characterised the book as " ungentlemanly"
in tone; and there is no doubt that it gave pain to many
of Davy's friends who, like Scott, believed that justice had
not been done to his character.

Dr. Davy's book, on the other hand, whilst perhaps too
partial at times — as might be expected from one who writes
of a brother to whom he was under great obligations, and
for whom, it is evident, he had the highest respect and
affection — is written with candour, and a sobriety of tone
and a directness and simplicity of statement far more effective
than the stilted euphuistic periods of Dr. Paris, even when
he seeks to be most forcible. When, therefore, I have had
to deal with conflicting or inconsistent statements in the two
works on matters of fact, I have generally preferred to accept
the version of Dr. Davy, on the ground that he had access to
sources of information not available to Dr. Paris.

Davy played such a considerable part in the social and
intellectual world of London during the first quarter of the
century that, as might be expected, his name frequently
occurs in the personal memoirs and biographical literature
of his time ; and a number of journals and diaries, such as
those of Horner, Ticknor, Henry Crab b Robinson, Lockhart,
Maria Edgeworth, and others that might be mentioned, make
reference to him and his work, and indicate what his con-
temporaries thought of his character and achievements. Some


of these references will be found in the following pages. It
will surprise many Londoners to know that they owe the
Zoological Gardens, in large measure, to a Professor of
Chemistry in Albemarle Street, and that the magnificent
establishment in the Cromwell Road, South Kensington, is
the outcome of the representations, unsuccessful for a time,
which he made to his brother trustees of the British Museum
as to the place of natural history in the national collections.
Davy had a leading share also in the foundation of the
Athenamm Club, and was one of its first trustees.

I am further under' 'very, §pe/cial obligations to Dr.
Humphry D. Rollestoh, the grand -nephew of Sir Humphry
Davy, for much valuable material, procured through the
kind co-operation of M-ss ' Davy, v jhe granddaughter of
Dr. John Davy. This' consisted of letters from Priestley,
Kirwan, Southey, ColeriJge, Maria, Edgoworth, Mrs. Beddoes
(Anna Edgeworth), Sir Joseph ' 'Banks, Gregory Watt, and
others ; and, what is of especial interest to his biographer, a
large number of Davy's own letters to his wife. In addition were
papers relating to the invention of the Safety Lamp. Some of
the letters have already been published by Dr. John Davy,
but others now appear in print for the first time. I am also
indebted to Dr. Rolleston for the loan of the portrait represent-
ing Davy in Court dress and in the presidential chair of the
Royal Society, which, reproduced in photogravure, forms the
frontispiece to this book. The original is a small highly-
finished work by Jackson, and was painted about 1823. The
picture originally belonged to Lady Davy, who refers to it
in the letter to Davies Gilbert (quoted by Weld in his
" History of the Royal Society "), in which she offers
Lawrence's well-known portrait to the Society, and which,
by the way, the Society nearly lost through the subsequent
action of the painter.

For the references to the early history of the Royal
Institution I am mainly indebted to Dr. Bence Jones's book.
I have, moreover, to thank the Managers of the Institution
for their kindness in giving me permission to see the minutes
of the early meetings, and also for allowing me to consult the
manuscripts and laboratory journals in their possession. These
include the original records of Davy's work, and also the notes
taken by Faraday of his lectures. ^ The Managers have also
allowed me to reproduce Miss Harriet Moore's sketch- — first


brought to my notice by Professor Dewar — of the chemical
laboratory of the Institution as it appeared in the time of
Davy and Faraday, and I have to thank them for the loan
of Gillray's characteristic drawing of the Lecture Theatre, from
which the illustration on p. 70 has been prepared.

I have necessarily had to refer to the relations of Davy to
Faraday, and I trust I have said enough on that subject.
Indeed, in my opinion, more than enough has been said
already. It is not necessary to belittle Davy in order to exalt
Faraday ; and writers who, like Dr. Paris, unmindful of George
Herbert's injunction, are prone to adopt an antithetical style
in biographical narrative have, I am convinced, done Davy's
memory much harm.

I regret that the space at my command has not allowed
me to go into greater detail into the question of George
Stephenson's relations to the invention of the safety lamp.
I have had ample material placed at my disposal for a dis-
cussion of the question, and I am specially indebted to Mr.
John Pattinson and the Council of the Literary and Philo-
sophical Society of Newcastle-upon-Tyne for their kindness in
lending me a rare, if not unique, collection of pamphlets
and reprints of newspaper articles which made their appear-
ance when the idea of offering Davy some proof of the value
which the coal owners entertained of his invention was first
promulgated. George Stephenson's claims are not to be dis
missed summarily as pretensions. Indeed, his behaviour
throughout the whole of the controversy increases one's respect
for him as a man of integrity and rectitude, conscious of
what he thought due to himself, and showing only a proper
assurance in his own vindication. I venture to think, how-
ever, that the conclusion to which I have arrived, and
which, from the exigencies of space, is, I fear, somewhat
baldly stated, as to the apportionment of the merit of this
memorable invention, is just and can be well established
Stephenson might possibly have hit upon a safety lamp if
he had been allowed to work out his own ideas independently
and by the purely empirical methods he adopted, and it is
conceivable that his lamp might have assumed its present
form without the intervention of Davy; but it is difficult
to imagine that an unlettered man, absolutely without know-
ledge of physical science, could have discovered the philosophical
principle upon which the security of the lamp depends.
May, 1896. T. E. T.



L— Penzance: 1778-1798 9

IT. — The Pneumatic Institution. Bristol : 1798-1801 . . 26

III. — The Pneumatic Institution, Bristol: 1798-1801 {con-
tinued) . 54

IV. — The Royal Institution 66

V. — The Chemical Laboratory of the Royal Institution . 90

VI. — The Isolation of the Metals of the Alkalis . 110

VII.— Chlorine 134

VIII. — Marriage — Knighthood — li Elements of Chemical

Philosophy" — Nitrogen Trichloride — Fluorine. 155

IX. — Davy and Faraday — Iodine 173

X. — The Safety Lamp 192

XI. — Davy and the Royal Society — His Last Days . . 213

Humphry Davy,



PEXZANCE : 1778-1798.

Humphry Davy, the eldest son of "Carver" Robert
Davy and his wife Grace Millett, was born on the 17th
December, 17 78.* His biographers are not wholly agreed
as to the exact place of his birth. In the "Lives of
Philosophers of the Time of George III." Lord Brougham
states that the great chemist was born at Yarfell, a
homestead or " town-place " in the parish of Ludgvan,
in the Mount's Bay, where, as the registers and tomb-
stones of Ludgvan Church attest, the family had been
settled for more than two hundred years.

Mr. Tregellas, in his " Cornish Worthies " (vol. i.,
p. 247), also leaves the place uncertain, hesitating,
apparently, to decide between Varfell and Penzance.

According to Dr. John Davy, his brother Humphry
was born in Market Jew Street, Penzance, in a house
now pulled down, but which was not far from the statue
of him that stands in front of the Market House of
this town. Dr. Davy further states that Humphry's
parents removed to Varfell some years after his birth,
when he himself was taken charge of by a Mr. Tonkin.

* In some biographical notices— e.g. in the Gentleman's Magazine,
xcix. pt. ii. 9 — the year is given as 1779.


The Davys originally belonged to Norfolk. The
first member of the family that settled in Cornwall
was believed to have acted as steward to the Duke
of Bolton, who in the time of Elizabeth had a con-
siderable property in the Mount's Bay. They were,
as a class, respectable yeomen in fairly comfortable
circumstances, who for generations back had received
a lettered education. They took to themselves wives
from the Eusticks, Adamses, Milletts, and other old
Cornish families, and, if we may credit the testimony
of the tombstones, had many virtues, were not over-
given to smuggling or wrecking, and, for the most
part, died in their own beds.

The grandfather of Humphry, Edmund Davy, was
a builder of repute in the west of Cornwall, who married
well and left his eldest son Robert, the father of the
chemist, in possession of the small copyhold property
of Varfell, to which reference has already been made.
Robert, although a person of some capacity, seems
to have been shiftless, thriftless, and lax in habits.
In his youth he had been taught wood-carving, and
specimens of his skill are still to be seen in and about
Penzance. But he practised his art in an irregular
fashion, his energies being mainly spent in field
sports, in unsuccessful experiments in farming, and in
hazardous, and for the most part fruitless, ventures
in mining. At his death, which occurred when he
was forty-eight, his affairs were found to be sadly
embarrassed ; his widow and five children were left in
very straitened circumstances, and Varfell had to be
given up.

Fortunately for the children, the mother possessed
the qualities which the father lacked. Casting about
for the means of bringing up and educating her family,


she opened a milliner's shop in the town, in partnership
with a French lady who had fled to England during
the Revolution.

By prudence, good management, and the forbearance
of creditors, she not only succeeded in rearing and
educating her children, but gradually liquidated the
whole of her husband's debts. Some years later, by an
unexpected stroke of fortune, she was able to relinquish
her business. She lived to a good old age, cheerful
and serene, happy in the respect and affection of her
children and in the esteem and regard of her towns-
people. Such a woman could not fail to exercise a
strong and lasting influence for good on her children.
That it powerfully affected the character of her son
Humphry, he would have been the first to admit.
Nothing in him was more remarkable or more beautiful
than his strong and abiding love for his mother. No
matter how immersed he was in his own affairs, he
could always find time amidst the whirl and excitement
of his London life, amidst the worry and anxiety of
official cares— or, when abroad, among the peaks of the
Noric Alps or the ruins of Italian cities — to think of
his far-away Cornish home and of her round whom it
was centred. To the last he opened out his heart to
her as he did to none other: she shared in all his
aspirations, and lived with him through his triumphs ;
and by her death, just a year before his own, she was
happily spared the knowledge of his physical decay and
approaching end.

Davy was about sixteen years of age when his father
died. At that time he was a bright, curly-haired,
hazel-eyed lad, somewhat, narrow-chested and under-
grown, awkward in manner and gait, but keenly fond


of out-door sport, and more distinguished for a love of
mischief than of learning.

Dr. Cardew, of the Truro Grammar School, where,
by the kindness of the Tonkins, he spent the year
preceding his father's death, wrote of him that he did
not at that time discover any extraordinary abilities,
or, so far as could be observed, any propensity to those
scientific pursuits which raised him to such eminence.
" His best exercises were translations from the classics
into English verse." He had previously spent nine
years in the Penzance Grammar School under the
tyranny of the Rev. Mr. Cory ton, a man of irregular
habits and as deficient in good method as in scholar-
ship. As Davy used to come up for the customary
castigation, the worthy follower of Orbilius was wont to

repeat —

" Now, Master Davy,
Now, sir ! I have 'ee
No one shall save 'ee —
Good Master Davy ! "

He had, too, an unpleasant habit of pulling the boys'
ears, on the supposition, apparently, that their recep-
tivity for oral instruction was thereby stimulated. It
is recorded that on one occasion Davy appeared before
him Avith a large plaster on each ear, explaining, with
a very grave face, that he had " put the plasters on to
prevent mortification." Whence it may be inferred
that, in spite of all the caning and the ear-pulling,
there was still much of the unregenerate Adam left in
"good Master Davy."

Mr. Coryton's method of inculcating knowledge and
the love of learning, happily, had no permanent ill-effect
on the boy. Years afterwards, when reflecting on his
school- life, he wrote, in a letter to his mother —



" After all, the way in which we are taught Latin and Greek
does not much influence the important structure of our minds. I
consider it fortunate that I was left much to myself when a child,
and put upon no particular plan of study, and that I enjoyed much
idleness at Mr. Coryton's school. I perhaps owe to these circum-
stances the little talents that I have and their peculiar application."

' If Davy's abilities were not perceived by his masters,
they seemed to have been fully recognised by his school-
fellows—to judge from the frequency with which they
sought his aid in their Latin compositions, and from
the fact that half dhe love-sick youths of Penzance
employed him to write their valentines and letters.
His lively imagination, strong dramatic power, and reten-
tive memory combined to make him a good story-teller,
and many an evening was spent by his comrades
beneath the balcony of the Star Inn, in Market Jew
Street, listening to his tales of wonder or horror, gathered
from the " Arabian Nights " or from his grandmother
Davy, a woman of fervid mind stored with traditions
and ancient legends, from whom he seems to have
derived much of his poetic instinct.

Those who would search in environment for the
conditions which determine mental aptitudes, will find
it very difficult to ascertain what there was in Davy's
boyish life in Penzance to mould him into a natural
philosopher. At school he seems to have acquired
nothing beyond a smattering of elementary mathematics
and a certain facility in turning Latin into English
verse. Most of what he obtained in the way of general
knowledge he picked up for himself, from such books as
he found in the library of his benefactor, Mr. John
Tonkin. Dr. John Davy has left us a sketch of the
estate of society in the Mount's Bay during the latter part
of the eighteenth century, which serves to show how un-


favourable was the soil for the stimulation and develop-
ment of intellectual power. Cornwall at that time had
but little commerce ; and beyond the tidings carried by
pedlars or ship-masters, or contained in the Sherborne
Mercury — the only newspaper which then circulated in
the west of England — it knew little or nothing' of what
was going on in the outer world. Its roads were mostly
mere bridle-paths, and a carriage was as little known in
Penzance as a camel. There was only one carpet in
the town, the floors of the rooms being, as a rule, sprinkled
with sea-sand : —

" All classes were very superstitious ; even the belief in witches
maintained its ground, and there was an almost unbounded
credulity respecting the supernatural and monstrous.
Amongst the middle and higher classes there was little taste for
literature and still less for science, and their pursuits were
rarely of a dignified or intellectual kind. Hunting, shooting,
wrestling, cock-fighting, generally ending in drunkenness, were
what they most delighted in. Smuggling was carried on to a
great extent, and drunkenness and a low scale of morals were
naturally associated with it.' J

Davy, an ardent, impulsive youth of strong social
instincts, fond of excitement, and not over studious,
seems, now that he was released from the restraint of
school-life, to have come under the influence of such
surroundings. For nearly a year he was restless and
unsettled, spending much of his time like his father in
rambling about the country and in fishing and shooting,
and passing from desultory study to occasional dis-
sipation. The death of his father, however, made a
profound impression on his mind, and suddenly changed
the whole course of his conduct. As the eldest son,
and approaching manhood, he seems at once to have
realised what was due to his mother and to himself.
The circumstances of the family supplied the stimulus



to exertion, and he dried his mother's tears with the
assurance that he would do all in his power for his
brothers and sisters. A few weeks after the decease
of his father he was apprenticed to Mr. Bingham Borlase,
an apothecary and surgeon practising in Penzance, and
at once marked out for himself a course of study and
self- tuition almost unparalleled in the annals of biography,
and to which he adhered with a strength of mind and
tenacity of purpose altogether unlooked for in one of his
years and of his gay and careless disposition. That it
was sufficiently ambitious will be evident from the
following transcript from the opening pages of his
earliest note-book — a small quarto, with parchment
covers, dated 1795 : —

1. Theology,
or Religion,

Ethics or Moral virtues

2. Geography.

3. My Profession.

1. Botany.

2. Pharmacy.

3. Nosology.

4. Anatomy.

5. Surgery.

6. Chemistry.

4. Logic.

5. Languages.

1. English.

2. French.

3. Latin.

4. Greek.

5. Italian.

6. Spanish.

7. Hebrew.

taught by Nature ;
by Revelation.
6. Physics.

1. The doctrines and pro-
perties of natural bodies.

2. Of the operations of


3. Of the doctrines of


4. Of the properties of

organised matter.

5. Of the organisation

of matter.

6. Simple astronomy.

7. Mechanics.

8. Rhetoric and Oratory.

9. History and Chronology.
10. Mathematics.

The note-book opens with " Hints Towards the Investi-
gation of Truth in Religious and Political Opinions, com-
posed as they occurred, to be placed in a more regular


manner hereafter." Then follow essays " On the Immor-
tality and Immateriality of the Soul " ; " Body, Organised
Matter " ; on " Governments " ; on " The Credulity of
Mortals " ; " An Essay to Prove that the Thinking
Powers depend on the Organisation of the Body " ; "A
Defence of Materialism"; "An Essay on the Ultimate
End of Being"; "On Happiness"; "On Moral Obligation."

These early essays display the wor kings of an original
mind, intent, it may be, on problems beyond its immature
powers, but striving in all sincerity to work out its own
thoughts and to arrive at its own conclusions. Of course,
the daring youth of sixteen who enters upon an inquiry
into the most difficult problems of theology and meta-
physics, with, what he is pleased to call, unprejudiced
reason as his sole guide, quickly passes into a cold fit
of materialism. His mind Avas too impressionable, how-
ever, to have reached the stage of settled convictions ;
and in the same note-book we subsequently find the
heads of a train of argument in favour of a rational
religious belief founded on immaterialism.

Metaphysical inquiries seem, indeed, to have occupied
the greater part of his time at this period ; and his note-
books show that he made himself acquainted with the
writings of Locke, Hartley, Bishop Berkeley, Hume, Hel-
vetius, Condorcet, and Reid, and that he had some know-
ledge of the doctrines of Kant and the Transcendentalists.

That he thought for himself, and was not unduly
swayed by authority, is evident from the general tenour
of his notes, and from the critical remarks and comments
by which they are accompanied. Some of these are
worth quoting: —

" Science or knowledge is the association of a number of ideas,
with some idea or term capable of recalling them to the mind in
a certain order."


" By examining the phenomena of Nature, a certain similarity
of effects is discovered. The business of science is to discover
these effects, and to refer them to some common cause ; that is
to generalise ideas."

As his impulsive, ingenuous disposition led him, even
to the last, to speak freely of what was uppermost in
his mind at the moment, we may be sure that his elders,
the Rev. Dr. Tonkin, his good friend John Tonkin, and
his grandmother Davy, with whom he was a great
favourite, as he was with most old people, must have
been considerably exercised at times with the meta-
physical disquisitions to which they were treated ; and
we can well imagine that their patience was occasionally
as greatly tried as that of the worthy member of the
Society of Friends who wound up an argument with the
remark, " I tell thee what, Humphry, thou art the most
quibbling hand at a dispute I ever met with in my life."
Whether it was in revenge for this sally that the young
disputant composed the " Letter on the Pretended In-
spiration of the Quakers " which is to be found in one
of his early note-books, does not appear.

We easily trace in these early essays the evidences

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Online LibraryT. E. (Thomas Edward) ThorpeHumphry Davy, poet and philosopher → online text (page 1 of 19)