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Davy's A Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures (1802)

Read these passages from Humphry Davy’s A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures Delivered in the Royal Institution, on the 21st January 1802 (London, 1802) and think about the questions below:

‘Science has given to [man] an acquaintance with the different relations of the parts of the external world; and more than that, it has bestowed upon him powers which may be almost called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.’ (Discourse, p. 319)

‘Science has done much for man, but it is capable of doing still more; its sources of improvement are not yet exhausted; the benefits that it has conferred ought to excite our hopes of its capability of conferring new benefits; and, in considering the progressiveness of our nature, we may reasonably look forwards to a state of greater cultivation and happiness than that which we at present enjoy.’ (Discourse, p. 319)

‘[The alchemists’] views of things have passed away, and a new science has gradually arisen. The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery, which gave to objects false or indefinite appearances, has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of the gases, have been ascertained; the phenomena of electricity have been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and, lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs.’ (Discourse, p. 321)

‘The unequal division of property and of labour, the difference of rank and condition amongst mankind, are the sources of power in civilized life, its moving causes, and even its very soul: and, in considering and hoping that the human species is capable of becoming more enlightened and more happy, we can only expect that the different parts of the great whole of society should be intimately united together by means of knowledge and the useful arts; that they should act as the children of one great parent, with one determinate end, so that no power may be rendered useless, no exertions thrown away. In this view we do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive dreams, concerning the infinite improveability of man. […] We consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.’ (Discourse, p. 323)

  • Which scientific advances does Davy mention here and why does he choose to bring attention to these specifically?

  • How does Davy characterise the man of science’s relationship with nature?

  • What hopes and ambitions does Davy express here for science?

  • What do you think Davy’s Royal Institution lectures might have been like if this is an example?

If you are keen, you can read the full text of A Discourse, from his Collected Works, vol. 2, pp. 307-26.

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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University