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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Material artefacts can often tell us a great deal about developments in science and engineering, which cannot be found from other sources. In this section, we will look at Humphry Davy’s apparatus displayed here in the museum area of the Royal Institution. This is usually open to the public in normal office hours. It contains about 1,000 objects used in their research by the scientific practitioners who lived and worked in the Royal Institution such as Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, John Tyndall, James Dewar, William Bragg, Lawrence Bragg, and George Porter amongst others. There are three sections devoted to Davy, including the miners’ safety lamp.

Skip to 0 minutes and 44 seconds Davy was asked in the summer of 1815 following some very serious explosions to try and find a way of lighting coal mines safely without igniting the fire damp, a gas now known as methane (CH4) in the mine. During August, Davy visited the north-east coalfield collecting gas samples. On his return to the Royal Institution at the start of October, Davy working with his assistant Michael Faraday, undertook in the laboratory an intensive series of experiments and attempts to devise a safe lamp. The basic aim was to produce a lamp that would let light pass but not heat. The earlier lamps show that Davy was seeking to distribute heat over a comparatively large metallic surface area to reduce the temperature.

Skip to 1 minute and 30 seconds Davy never published details of these lamps, so much of what we know of the development of Davy’s ideas at this time comes from these surviving examples. So confident was he that this provided the solution, he submitted a paper in November to the Royal Society of London, and had an illustrative plate engraved. It is this volume of succeeding drafts of his paper that allows us to know in detail the development of Davy’s lamp and relate it to that of the surviving lamps. However, Davy continued experimentation and soon had other ideas which rendered this plate redundant. And indeed, this is the only copy that now exists. He first began to develop the idea of fire sieves, such as these nested cylinders.

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 seconds Then during December, Davy began experimenting with wire gauze and soon concluded that all that needed to be done was to enclose the flame in the gauze, which would absorb the heat, keeping the temperature below the flash point of the fire damp while letting light through. He wrote, “I can control this destructive element flame like a bird in a cage.” Davy’s gauze lamp was tested successfully in Hepburn Colliery, County Durham on the 9th of January 1816. However, Davy’s claim to inventing the lamp was challenged by Newcastle mining engineer, George Stephenson, who had been working on his lamps at exactly the same time as Davy, almost certainly independently of each other.

Skip to 2 minutes and 57 seconds This is one of Stephenson’s lamps that Davy obtained in order to rubbish them, which he did to his own satisfaction if no one else’s since these lamps also seem to have been effective in preventing explosions. There then followed a ferocious dispute between them about who had invented the lamp. Stephenson eventually gave up following Davy marshalling the metropolitan scientific elite against him. And in any case, he wanted to work on steam locomotion. Nevertheless, Davy’s subsequent iconography, including his coat of arms as a baronet, always made reference to the lamp. One effect of all this was that until fairly recently, the lamp was seen as a triumph of applied science over engineering practice.

Skip to 3 minutes and 38 seconds But this is now seen as an exaggerated claim, as there was very little science in Davy’s lamp. Although Davy became mega famous as a result of the lamp, his initial fame stemmed in part from his electrochemical researches. He had begun his electrical work while in Bristol using voltaic piles like this. This is an original pile made by Volta, who gave it to Faraday when they met in Milan in 1814. And it’s my favourite object in the Royal Institution’s collections. Later troughs such as this were made by William Cruickshank of Woolwich, and in effect placed no theoretical limit on the amount of electricity that could be produced when linked together. Davy called this apparatus a battery.

Skip to 4 minutes and 18 seconds With a set of batteries, including this one, Davy in 1807 began discovering new chemical elements, including sodium and potassium, which he so named. And these are illustrated in this illuminating periodic table of the chemical elements, which records the nine elements that Davy discovered, isolated or identified. Perhaps what all these displays have in common is Davy’s love of explosions and spectacular demonstrations, conveying scientific knowledge in a memorable way.

The Development of Davy's Lamp

Watch the video, in which Professor Frank James gives us a tour of the Davy-related items in the Royal Institution.

The main focus of the video is the development of the Davy lamp but Professor James also talks about Davy’s isolation of chemical elements with the use of the Voltaic battery and his demonstration of the transmission of radiant heat.

  • Tell us what you think of the objects you are shown in this video.

  • Why are they important and what do they tell us about Davy’s scientific interests?

Find out more about the Royal Institution

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University