Chemistry

Educator's Summary

Each week, our educators and mentors will compile and answer a short list of questions that have come from learners during discussions. These will be attached to the page on November 2nd 2018.


Margaret Townsend: ‘Davy it seems was able to see & take advantage of the political upheavals of his time & had no compunction in doing so. A clever man who used whatever & whoever were presented to him for advancement of his science’.

It is interesting that many Romantic writers became conservative (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Davy). When the French revolution first took place (1789) many of them felt as though France was simply catching up with Britain’s so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 but when French expansionism provoked war with Britain and the Terror began in 1793 there was little sympathy. As soon as war was called it became unpatriotic to support the French and the British government feared insurrection at home and invasion from abroad during the 1790s. It was a decade of suspicion and paranoia, as can be seen in such events as the Treason Trials of 1794. Radicals who continued to support French revolutionary ideals were in danger of being arrested, transported or hanged. There is much evidence in Davy’s letters of his patriotism. For example, Davy described his journey to Bristol to take up his post at the MPI with Thomas Beddoes to his mother with ‘I came into Exeter in a most joyful time – The celebration of Nelsons victory’. This letter was written on 11 October 1799; it had taken months for news of Nelson’s victory on 1 August at the Battle of the Nile to reach Britain but Davy certainly shared sentiments of joy. In 1804, Davy wrote to his mother: ‘My predictions with regard to invasion, you will find, have been so far fulfilled. God has not intended this favoured island to be desolated by unprincipled ruffians; nor has he intended that the great, the good, and the brave amongst our countrymen should be placed upon a level, and brought into the field to meet the banditti of France’. Later in life, Davy writes some quite shocking things to Lord Liverpool in a letter sometime in the summer of 1815 that perhaps was never sent since we only have a number of draft versions of it. In this letter he seems far more positive about Napoleon than he does about the French people: ‘Bonaparte & the army are no more than the expiatory sacrifices of France. – The sins of the people are laid upon the head of the scape goats & of the burnt offering; but the [xxxx] the Nation itself is guilty.’ Despite this Davy was still able to enjoy Napoleon’s defeat; after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, Davy writes: ‘I saw Napoleon on his throne defeated & discomfited’.

I guess all of this means that Davy was able to reconcile his patriotism with his sense that scientists are not at war even when their countries are and of course, he courted much controversy in going to collect the Volta medal from Paris during he war. I think that patriotism also motivated some of Davy’s scientific endeavours. He wanted very much to build a larger battery than the French (and succeeded); he raced the French chemist Gay Lussac to be the first to name iodine, and his later efforts to improve the speed of British ships were definitely motivated by national as well as personal aspiration. In of his final projects, the establishment of the zoo in Regent’s Park, London, we can see him being driven by national competition: ‘I hope to see in two or three years a Zoological gallery established & a collection superior to that of the Jardin du Roi’. (SR)

June Sperber: ‘Poetry is often a quick response to an emotional feeling and therefore quite different from narrative and factual writing’.

Davy’s nitrous oxide experiments – on himself and others – are detailed in his book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, published in 1800, but there also exist unpublished letters and manuscript diary entries from this period. As one would expect, the published account differs considerably from these, for example in adopting a more objective ‘scientific’ tone.

Taking nitrous oxide quickly moved beyond being solely of scientific interest to become a pleasurable pastime for the collection of like-minded men gathered around Beddoes and Davy in Bristol. Indeed, Davy speaks of taking his green silk bag of gas along with him on a moonlight walk in an attempt to enhance by artificial means his experience of the sublime: ‘On May 5th, at night, after walking for an hour amidst the scenery of the Avon, at this period rendered exquisitely beautiful by bright moonshine; my mind being in a state of agreeable feeling, I respired six quarts of newly prepared nitrous oxide’ (Researches, pp. 491-2). The experience lasts beyond the length of his walk and he experiences that night an ‘intermediate state between sleeping and waking’ of ‘vivid and agreeable dreams’ (Researches, p. 492). This trance-like state between dream and vision is one that we hear of in a number of Romantic poems, from Shelley’s ‘The Triumph of Life’ to Keats’s The Fall of Hyperion; it is a state that De Quincey and Coleridge describe as opium-induced, and clearly nitrous oxide could have the same effect.

When Davy visits the Wye valley to see Tintern Abbey by moonlight later in 1800, he experiences a kind of ‘reverie’ and we might speculate that nitrous oxide was involved on this occasion too. Davy clearly thinks the drug offers access to the sublime, and after breathing it on 26 December 1799 records in a notebook that taking it makes him feel like he has become a ‘sublime being’ himself. In another notebook he records these sublime experiences in a poem titled ‘On breathing the Nitrous Oxide’: ‘Yet are my limbs with inward transport thrill’d / And clad with new born mightiness round’. The identification of the experience as a ‘reverie’ alerts us to its potential as a counterpart of the Romantic poet’s experience. In ‘Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ for example, Wordsworth describes how in

that serene and blessed mood,  
In which the affections gently lead us on,  
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,  
And even the motion of our human blood  
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep  
In body, and become a living soul:  
While with an eye made quiet by the power  
Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,  
We see into the life of things.  
(lines 41-9)  

When the breath and the circulation of the blood are almost ‘suspended’, when our bodies are ‘asleep’, we enter into a new kind of consciousness and thus can see more deeply ‘into the life of things’. Wordsworth is here describing the new vision brought on by a trance that is not chemically induced but is the result of harmony and joy, a ‘serene and blessed mood’. Davy was asked by Coleridge and Wordsworth to proofread the second volume of the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800); while this volume did not contain ‘Tintern Abbey’, he would surely have known the poem. In a notebook dated ‘Clifton 1800’ Davy parodied Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad form in a notebook poem, ‘As I was walking up the street’; the poem even mentions Wordsworth by name (‘By poet Wordsworths Rymes’ [sic]). For Davy, nitrous oxide offered an enhancement of the sublime experience, and seemed, at times, even capable of creating the sublime.

I think it is important to remember that the poem ‘On breathing the Nitrous Oxide’ was something just quickly jotted down in a notebook. Davy never even copied it out in a neat hand and as far as we know, it only exists in this one instance. I feel pretty sure that it was either composed while under the influence of nitrous oxide or soon after and is an attempt to get his feelings immediately down on paper. There is some evidence in the poem that he was struggling to express what he was feeling. Davy certainly never intended this poem to be published or possibly to be read by anyone else. I would never argue that it is a good poem but it is still interesting. (SR)

Paul Kettle (and others): ‘[Davy’s] achievements are far greater than I realised. And all done without a university background’.

In discussing Davy’s early life this week, several learners have commented on the (perhaps surprising) fact that Davy did not receive a university education. In large part, this was due to family circumstances: Davy’s father, Robert Davy, died in 1794, on the day before Davy’s sixteenth birthday, and the need for Davy to bring money into the family was therefore pressing. Robert Davy had speculated unwisely in a mining venture, and he left the family with various debts; in a manuscript memoir (the author is probably Thomas Richard Underwood, who met Davy in Penzance in the winter of 1797-8), Davy’s father is also described as being susceptible to ‘habitual drunkenness’. Davy had shown interest in science from an early age: John Tonkin, who acted, in effect, as a surrogate father to Davy, complained of the various ‘experiments’ Davy carried out at home, including the making of crude fireworks with his sister, Kitty. Taking the needs of the family and Davy’s own predilections into account, it seemed a good move to apprentice Davy to a local surgeon and apothecary, John Bingham Borlase. The geographical remoteness of Cornwall must also have played a role in the Davy family’s choice.

In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, medical men (and they were almost always men) were divided into three classes: physicians, surgeons, and apothecaries. Only physicians were university-educated, the principal centres of medical education in Britain at that time being Edinburgh (where Davy’s younger brother John would later study medicine, in 1811-13) and London. Davy’s course – an indenture for a period of five years, during which time he would learn the basics of Borlase’s profession – seemed set. As June Z. Fullmer, one of Davy’s biographers, has pointed out, it is plain that Davy was as ambitious at this stage in his life as he was in later years: before signing up for his apprenticeship, he set out a grand plan for his learning:

1. Theology:  
    Religion (taught by Nature)
    Ethics (taught by Revelation)
2. Geography  
3. My Profession:  
    Botany
    Pharmacy 
    Nosology
    Anatomy
    Surgery
    Chemistry
4. Logic  
5. Language:  
    English
    French
    Latin
    Greek
    Italian
    Spanish
    Hebrew
6. Physics:  
    The doctrines and properties of natural bodies
    Of the operations of nature
    Of the doctrines of fluids
    Of the properties of organised matter
    Of the organisation of matter
    Simple Astronomy 
7. Mechanics  
8. Rhetoric and Oratory  
9. History and Chronology  
10. Mathematics  

It was, of course, chemistry (listed under ‘My Profession’, above) that would occupy Davy for most of his life; what Davy had conceived of, in 1795, as being a necessary element of the learning he would need for his planned career as a surgeon and apothecary soon became his main focus. In 1797, beginning with Lavoisier’s Elements of Chemistry and William Nicholson’s Dictionary of Chemistry, Davy began his formal study of chemistry.

It was in the winter of 1797-8 that, entirely fortunately for Davy, James Watt’s son Gregory came to Penzance to recuperate from an illness. Davy’s and Watt’s conversation quickly turned to chemical matters (particularly the French theory of heat, and how to disprove it). Further attention, from well-connected men of science such as Thomas Wedgwood, Davies Giddy, and Thomas Beddoes, followed, and all of these introductions, in the age of the patronage system, were of extreme advantage to Davy: these men, in possession of various types of valuable capital, opened up doors for Davy that a university education alone simply would not have done. Davy, responding to the overtures of Beddoes, who needed an assistant at the Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, managed to free himself from his indenture with Borlase. Davy’s early supporter, Tonkin, was dismayed and angry at this, as Davy was abandoning a potentially lucrative career for something far more risky (as David Knight, another of Davy’s biographers, points out, ‘Instead of taking a scientific career as something normal, we have to look back to a time when spending one’s life in science [as opposed to an established profession] was a curious ambition’).

It seems that Davy could see an advantage in the position with Beddoes that he simply could not see in his position with Borlase: Bristol, then a thriving port city, offered more, in terms of opportunity, than rural Cornwall could, and a lack of a university education was, as it turned out, no barrier to progress. The young Davy had already persuaded men in positions of power of his capability and potential, and now he had the opportunity to prove himself. Davy’s choice to leave was soon vindicated, as his letter to Henry Penneck dated 26 January [1799], suggests: ‘I […] see the greater number of Dr Beddoes private patients so that I have greater opportunities for studying Anatomy & Medicine here than I could possibl[y] have had either at London or Edinburgh’. (AL)

Rob Bollington: ‘I am struck by […] how the use of [nitrous oxide] fitted into a worldview where the sublime was so important’.

It is perhaps easy to overlook the fact that those who participated in Davy’s nitrous oxide experiments in the late 1790s were, in effect, what we might term ‘guinea-pigs’ – a person or thing used as a subject for experiment. (As an aside, Davy also tested his gas on actual guinea-pigs, as well as cats, dogs, rabbits, mice, and other unfortunate creatures). Although nitrous oxide was not discovered by Davy, he was the first to inhale it (when to do so was thought to be fatal) and the first to systematically investigate its physiological properties. In doing so, he enlisted the help of several of his friends and associates, one of whom, as we know from step 1.6 this week, was the poet Robert Southey. In his letter to Thomas Southey, dated 12 July 1799, Robert Southey writes that ‘Davy has actually invented a new pleasure for which language has no name’. Others, in the accounts given in Davy’s book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, also write of the ‘newness’ of the experience of inhaling nitrous oxide, and of the difficulty of describing its effects by using language. James Tobin, for example, recalled that, on inhaling ‘I […] found my nervous system agitated by the highest sensations of pleasure, which are difficult of description’. And later:

I breathed nearly six quarts of the pure nitrous oxide. It is not easy to describe my sensations; 
they were superior to any thing I ever before experienced. My step was firm, and all my 
muscular powers increased. My senses were more alive to every surrounding impression; I threw 
myself into several theatrical attitudes, and traversed the laboratory with a quick step; my mind 
was elevated to a most sublime height. It is giving but a faint idea of the feelings to say, that 
they resembled those produced by a representation of an heroic scene on the stage, or by 
reading a sublime passage in poetry when circumstances contribute to awaken the finest 
sympathies of the soul.

Tobin’s use of the word ‘sublime’ (twice) is, in my view, particularly interesting. Part of the difficulty of description, I want to suggest, inheres in the inadequacy of language to reflect what we might think of as ‘sublime’ experiences: those that are somehow elevated, thrilling, perhaps even overwhelming (Tobin, again twice, connects sublimity with height; how would you define ‘sublime’?). The eighteenth-century philosopher Edmund Burke, in his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), describes the sublime in this way:

Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is 
in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to 
terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the 
mind is capable of feeling. 

Davy himself writes, in Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide: ‘Sublime emotion with regard to natural objects, is generally produced by the connection of the pleasure of beauty with the passion of fear’. As Sharon Ruston has pointed out elsewhere, this combination of pleasure and fear seems to be key to the ‘sublime’ experience of breathing nitrous oxide. The pleasure to be had from breathing ‘laughing gas’ is straightforward enough; the fear perhaps arises from the fact that one’s mind will certainly be altered, albeit temporarily, by taking the drug (which, in Davy’s time, was still very ‘new’, i.e. unknown).

Pleasure and fear are primal emotions, which are far more deeply rooted in the human psyche than language. Pleasure and fear are among the first things we might feel on earth; language, which is always learned, comes much later. The inadequacy of language, as pointed out by Tobin (and perhaps by Southey too: ‘Davy has actually invented a new pleasure for which language has no name’), to describe the experience of inhaling nitrous oxide is, it would seem, at least partly owing to what we might term the ‘sublimity’ of that experience: how can we adequately describe, using language, some of the most intense feelings we are capable of feeling? How can we use language to give a name to that which lies beyond its limits? (AL)

On Davy’s volcano experiment

Thank you for all your feedback. I’d just like to discuss the volcano experiment in the context of how science was done at the start of the nineteenth century. There was no clear demarcation between experimenting in a laboratory and demonstrating a phenomenon in the lecture theatre. In the work of both Davy (and indeed of his successor Faraday) the two were intertwined. It was important to move a phenomenon discovered in the laboratory to demonstrate it in the lecture theatre – publication was not the sole means of transmitting knowledge and certainly not of persuading an audience of the reality of something novel. Such a move often entailed enlarging the appearance of whatever had been discovered, so that even those at the back of the lecture could see what was happening. This very process of enlargement could in and of itself produce new insights.

In terms of the volcano, Davy from when he was in Cornwall had strong interests in mineralogy and geology, interests that received support from his early friends, Gregory Watt and Tom Wedgwood. This issue was what was the cause of geological phenomena and on this there were various theories but no consensus. Davy threw into the mixture another, chemical, theory of volcanic action which evidently occurred to him following his discovery of the volatility of potassium. In the ensuing years he spent considerable time visiting various volcanoes in Italy and France seeking evidence of their chemical nature, but it was not until right at the end of his life that he published any of this work. In the meantime his audiences at the Royal Institution, via the lecture theatre, had got his point and there are quite a few accounts of this particular demonstration. So Davy was not just into showmanship (though there are obviously elements of that), but got across a piece of scientific theory that would not be published for many years. (FJ)

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This article is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University