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This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Royal Institution's online course, Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp . Join the course to learn more.

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 15th 2019.

Gary Williams: ‘I find the letters to J.G. Children interesting. Children was Davy’s friend and seems to have had a close influence on him. In 1812 Tonbridge Bank, owned by Children’s father, collapsed bankrupting the family. While Children’s fortunes were falling, Davy was on the rise. Children had then started a gunpowder business which, it sounds like, Davy had assisted him to develop. […] The gunpowder business also failed but Davy still helped him obtain the vacant post of assistant librarian in the department of antiquities at the British Museum and later in 1822 helped him to become Director of Zoology over the heads of more deserving candidates.’

It is certainly true that Davy was writing privately – for the most part – in the letters on the lamp, certainly in the letters to John Hodgson and John Buddle, which are among the least guarded of his entire correspondence. Davy also had had previous problems with issues of priority – but priority is an issue for men of science generally at this time (at all times?). As Gary mentions here, on the question of Davy’s intolerance of other rivals and his making of enemies, there was a previous episode in Davy’s career that may be of interest.

In July 1812, Davy signed articles establishing his partnership in a gunpowder manufactory, with his close friend John George Children and another friend, James Burton. It seems that Davy originally intended to be a full partner in the venture; he wrote to his brother John on the matter of money that he had lent him on 15 October 1811: ‘please consider it as a loan which you shall repay when you are a rich physician & I a poor gunpowder merchant’.

In keeping with his sense of himself as a natural philosopher – rather than merely an experimentalist – Davy determined to apply the law of definite proportions to the manufacture of gunpowder. He claimed that this law was ‘perhaps the most important of our science’ because ‘Nature acts by this fixed and immutable law’. In the same source (lectures to the Royal Institution), Davy makes a distinction between the ‘practical and philosophical chemist’. June Fullmer in Young Humphry Davy claims that there is evidence that Davy was at this time intending to profit commercially by means of a patent and that he had not yet arrived at the stage where he would refuse to engage with the idea of taking out a patent for one of his inventions. His marriage to the wealthy socialite Jane Apreece in April 1812 has been proposed as a factor in his decision to reject the idea of monetary gain; her letters and Michael Faraday report of her behaviour towards him suggest she was a social snob who introduced Davy to a world of shooting and hunting parties in various aristocratic mansions.

Davy continued to send Children positive letters: for example, on 14 October 1812 Davy referred to ‘our gunpowder works’. Later in October he visited Children in Tonbridge and received a serious injury to his eye when he managed to prepare the explosive compound nitrogen trichloride for the first time. However in a letter dated 7 April 1813 we see the first glimmers of Davy being unhappy with his association with the gunpowder manufactory. He attempts here and in later letters to dictate exactly what is written on the labels of the canisters. In the course of a few months in Davy’s letters, then, ‘our gunpowder works’ has become ‘your new Manufactory’. By his letter of 21 July 1813, Davy describes himself being ‘much disturbed & vexed by enquiries respecting the price of my gunpowder which from the labels I find is supposed to be sold by me.’ Such enquiries place Davy in the role of a merchant and this demeans him; he continues with ‘it must be understood by the public that I have given my gratuitous assistance & advice only.’ He specifies the form of words that labels must take, and emphasises the care that must be taken. For example, he writes that the words ‘under my directions […] implies that I am a superintendent of the manufactory’.

Davy wrote some more letters in this vein expressing his ‘extreme harass & anxiety’ at the way his ‘name was used’ to Children on 22 July 1813. In the same letter he also stated ‘I have resolved to make no profit of any thing connected with Science — I devote my life to the public in future & I must have it clearly understood that I have no views of profit in any thing I do.’ This is one of a number of such comments that appear in the letters across Davy’s entire career and it seems that this was the moment that he determined henceforth to ‘make no profit’ by his scientific activities. Here we also see his desire to present himself as a servant to the public. On 23 July 1813 still bothered by the wording of the labels he writes: ‘I must not have it supposed that I sell my name I would not do it for millions’.

I think that this episode offers us an insight into the safety lamp controversy. We see Davy trying to control the way that people think of him and his scientific achievements. John George Children may get the final word on this matter, though, with the publication of our edition of Davy’s letters: when Davy wrote to him on 6 February 1816 (i.e. a few years later) after he has returned from his travels abroad, he again asks Children to make legal his withdrawal from the company and this in the midst of the financial difficulties Children was going through at this time. On this letter, Children wrote angrily in pencil: ‘This letter contains a flat lie. Davy had as real a concern in this himself as any – as we should have found had it prospered. J. C.’ The evidence we have in those early letters quite clearly supports Children’s accusation here. Children stayed Davy’s friend (at least as far as we can tell) going so far as to be asked by Davy to defend him in a later priority case, which you will hear more about next week, the copper sheathing of ships’ bottoms. In an article to the British Press, 1 November 1824 Children explicitly made the connection between this invention (the copper sheathing of ships) and the safety lamp and the way Davy has been treated. I think all three episodes show Davy to be anxious about his reputation, his social and class status, and unsurprisingly he makes enemies.


Bill Wright: ‘Yikes, I wouldn’t want to cross swords with this man. What comes over to me in the letters is a huge amount of arrogance and self-belief, nobody else can be right, nothing which anybody says which contradicts Davy’s view can possibly be right.’

This is interesting to mull over. Davy’s reputation and wealth were now secure at this point in his life: he had given up his paid positions at the Royal Institution and elsewhere and now lived the life of a gentleman, moving from one fishing and shooting party to the next at the aristocratic houses to which he and his wife were invited. There is a touch of vanity and pride perhaps – as well as genuine humanitarian desire to help – in Davy’s responding to the call of the coal mine owners when they wrote to ask him to put his mind to the task of making mining safer. His first letter to them is full of confidence – he is sure that he can help and is excited by the prospect of such an enquiry. In his subsequent dealings with Stephenson there is of course the very real prospect that Davy believed Stephenson had stolen his idea, but the fact that he cannot countenance the idea that Stephenson may have come up with a very similar idea completely independently does not show Davy to his best advantage.

The letters written about the safety lamp controversy are fascinating and offer an interesting glimpse into Davy’s psyche during this strained and unsettling episode. In these letters, Davy persists in misspelling Stephenson’s name in his letters until late in 1816, which may well be deliberate. Clanny is written as ‘Clansy’, perhaps also deliberately, in a letter to Hodgson. It certainly is deliberate and telling that Davy never identifies Stephenson with the title ‘Mr’ thus alluding to his lower status. Instead, as the dispute continues, Davy describes Stephenson and his supporters using a number of unflattering terms, such as here to Hodgson on October 27, 1816: ‘I can only pity those persons whose malevolence induces them [to] find in the incoherent dreams of an ignorant mechanic not told at all or told only to persons as ignorant as himself the germs of an important discovery.’ There is an echo here of Macbeth: ‘It is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.’ (5. v. 26-8). Stephenson is an ‘ignorant mechanic’, which phrase evokes Bottom in Midsummer Night’s Dream here, whose ‘incoherent dreams’ are not to be taken as containing the ‘germs of an important discovery.’ This repeats the claim that Stephenson’s invention was not informed by scientific knowledge and that there was a single ‘important discovery’. Davy’s letters from here on become increasingly angry. Uncharacteristically, there are words missing as seen in the quotation above. They are often cross-written or written down the side. Davy seems annoyed at himself for engaging in the debate at all and we witness sarcasm, pettiness, and class superiority.

All of the above seems to me to suggest that Davy did really feel threatened by Stephenson’s claim but why he felt threatened is still uncertain. He certainly couldn’t just shrug off the other claims of priority and he does not take his own advice not to rise to the bait: ‘I have no desire to go out of my way to crush gnats that buzz at a distance & that do not bite me’ (29 October 1816). The buzzing was loud to him and he did respond as though bitten. By the 6 January 1818 he has quite worn himself out with it all: ‘I have already tormented myself more than I ought to have done about these scoundrels’. I think his response to the claims of Stephenson and Clanny shows a man ill at ease with his new social position and ill-equipped to deal with criticism. For all of his arrogance, he appears to lack the confidence to rise above the fracas. The earlier episode with Children shows how much he wished to control the way that his name and reputation were invoked. I wonder whether the whole episode reveals that he was uncomfortable in his new social context and desperate to belong.


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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University