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Sir Humphry Davy

1778-1829

English chemist and physicist

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Humphry Davy

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

 
Sir Humphry Davy, Bt

 
Portrait by Henry Howard, 1803
Born 17 December 1778
Penzance, Cornwall, England, United Kingdom
Died 29 May 1829 (aged 50)
Geneva, Switzerland
 
Nationality British
Fields Chemistry
Institutions Royal Society, Royal Institution
Known for Electrolysis, sodium, potassium,calcium, magnesium, barium, boron,Davy lamp
Influenced Michael Faraday, William Thomson

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet FRSMRIA (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a British chemist and inventor.[1] He is probably best remembered today for his discoveries of several alkali and alkaline earth metals, as well as contributions to the discoveries of the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He invented the Davy lamp, which allowed miners to enter gassy workings. Berzelius called Davy's 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity[2] "one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry."[3]This paper was central to any chemical affinity theory in the first half of the nineteenth century.[4]

  Biography

Statue of Davy in his hometown of Penzance, Cornwall

Davy was born at Penzance in Cornwall on 17 December 1778. The parish register of Madron (the parish church) records ‘Humphry Davy, son of Robert Davy, baptized at Penzance, January 22nd, 1779.’ Robert Davy was a wood-carver at Penzance, who pursued his art rather for amusement than profit. As the representative of an old family (monuments to his ancestors in Ludgvan Church date as far back as 1635), he became possessor of a modest patrimony. His wife, Grace Millet, came of an old but no longer wealthy family. Her parents died within a few hours of each other from malignant fever, whereupon Grace and her two sisters were adopted by John Tonkin, an eminent surgeon in Penzance. Robert Davy and his wife became the parents of five children — two boys, Humphry, the eldest, and John, and three girls. In Davy's childhood the family moved from Penzance to Varfell, their family estate in Ludgvan. Davy's boyhood was spent partly with his parents and partly with Tonkin, who placed him at a preparatory school kept by a Mr. Bushell, who was so much struck with the boy's progress that he persuaded the father to send him to a better school. Davy was at an early age placed at the Penzance Grammar School, then under the care of the Rev. J. C. Coryton. Numerous anecdotes show that Davy was a precocious boy, possessing a remarkable memory and being singularly rapid in acquiring knowledge of books. He was especially attracted by the ‘Pilgrim's Progress,’ and he delighted in reading history. When but eight years of age he would collect a number of boys, and standing on a cart in the market-place address them on the subject of his latest reading. He delighted in the folklore of this remote district, and became, as he himself tells us, a ‘tale-teller.’ The ‘applause of my companions,’ he says, ‘was my recompense for punishments incurred for being idle.’ These conditions developed a love of poetry and the composition of verses and ballads.

At the same time Davy acquired a taste for experimental science. This was mainly due to a member of the Society of Friends named Robert Dunkin, a saddler and a man of original mind and of the most varied acquirements. Dunkin constructed for himself an electrical machine, voltaic piles, and Leyden jars, and made models illustrative of the principles of mechanics. By the aid of these appliances he instructed Davy in the rudiments of science. As professor at the Royal Institution, Davy repeated many of the ingenious experiments which he had learned from his Quaker instructor. From the Penzance school Davy went in 1793 to Truro, and finished his education under the Rev. Dr. Cardew, who, in a letter to Davies Gilbert, says: ‘I could not discern the faculties by which he was afterwards so much distinguished.’ Davy says himself: ‘I consider it fortunate I was left much to myself as a child, and put upon no particular plan of study. … What I am I made myself.’[5]


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