Summing up

Each week, our mentors will compile a short list of questions that have come from learners during discussions to ask the educators, Professor Frank James and Professor Sharon Ruston. See the chosen questions/comments and responses below.

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1): Janet Jordan

Davy was able to think beyond known boundaries and achieve what others at the time must have thought impossible. Perhaps the lack of university schooling, and its possible restraints left him able to develop ideas more freely?

In the 1790s there were probably not more than a hundred people paid for doing science on these islands. Because of the smallness of the community (if it could even be called that), there was no clear route about how one should set about to pursuing a career in science as there is now. This is the main overarching theme of Jan Golinski’s recent study of Davy, The Experimental Self (Chicago). Until well into the nineteenth century, every scientific practitioner had their own unique trajectory into a career in science and Davy is no exception. He received the primary education one would expect for someone of the yeoman class. He then attended Penzance Grammar School and, more importantly, for the entirety of 1793, Truro Grammar School. One needs to appreciate that from Tudor times through to the twentieth century, the grammar school system provided a very good grounding in classical learning (think of Wordsworth at Hawkshead) and they were one of the major feeders of bright boys (of whom Davy was evidently one) into the university system. It is apparent that Davy would have liked to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh (then the world’s leading centre for medical education). In the absence of direct evidence, it has to be assumed that the bankruptcy and subsequent death of Davy’s father, meant that he abruptly left school, thus putting paid to any hopes he might have entertained of attending university. Instead at the start of 1795, Davy’s mother apprenticed him to the Penzance apothecary, John Borlase. There Davy might have remained in provincial obscurity had not Gregory Watt and Tom Wedgwood wintered in Penzance for the sake of their health during 1797/8. They both formed close friendships with Davy which inspired his interest in chemistry and introduced him to Davies Giddy (a minor member of the Cornish gentry). Giddy gave Davy access to his library, well stocked with scientific books, and introductions to organisations such as the Cornish Copper Company in Hayle, the laboratory of which possessed the sort of apparatus that Davy had until then only seen illustrated in books. Being adept at manipulating objects for purposes other than those intended, Davy began experimenting and in youthful exuberance wrote a couple of long papers in which he put forward his rather idiosyncratic ideas on chemical theory. He soon came to regret their publication, but nevertheless they helped, together with the recommendations of Wedgwood, Watt and Giddy, to secure his appointment as Superintendent at Thomas Beddoes’s new Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol which he joined in October 1798, aged nineteen. As is evident Davy’s move to Bristol was contingent on many things entirely outside his control which meant that his career trajectory was unique to him and his circumstances. In such a way he joined the very small number of people who were paid for doing science.

Prof Frank James.

2): Mark Jackson

“dephlogisticated” reminds me of phlogiston theory. I guess there’s a connection:-

During the eighteenth century, chemists sought to explain the phenomena revealed by chemical experimentation, especially those relating to combustion. One theory that was developed supposed the existence of a substance call phlogiston. The word was derived from the Greek ϕλογιστόν, meaning flammable or burnt up. Thus, what we now call oxygen was originally termed by its discoverer, Joseph Priestley, as dephlogisticated air – that is deprived of its flammable component phlogiston, or in modern terms hydrogen. Antoine Lavoisier reworked chemical nomenclature, so that phlogiston was replaced by what he termed caloric, while dephlogisticated air became oxygen – that is the generator of acids. This definition that all acidic substances contained oxygen would be challenged and eventually refuted by Davy. Priestley also discovered dephlogisticated nitrous air, which he so termed because he had made it by reacting zinc and nitric acid, believing that this had removed the phlogiston from the latter. In Lavoisierian nomenclature this gas became nitrous oxide (N2O in the modern formula). It should not be thought that Lavoisier’s theory immediately displaced the phlogiston theory. Priestley, James Watt and James Keir all remained wedded to the latter theory, while Davy tended to vacillate between the two – possibly because by referring to phlogiston he was signalling his anti-French credentials useful at a time of war when Davy in Bristol had been associated with radical Jacobin politics. While still in Penzance, Davy showed experimentally that nitrous oxide was not poisonous as had been asserted by the American physician Samuel Mitchill. However, owing to lack of equipment Davy could not pursue further research while in Cornwall. He had, nevertheless, marked the gas down as a substance that needed further investigation and as soon at the facilities at the Medical Pneumatic Institution opened in April 1799, he quickly started working on the gas. He soon discovered its extraordinary physiological effects when he inhaled in sufficient quantity, which soon earned the gas the popular name of laughing gas. Although he did observe (and publish) that the gas could deaden pain, his prime concern was with its mind-altering properties. As well as inhaling large quantities (sometimes twenty litres) himself, he recorded administering the gas to around fifty people including Anna Barbauld, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Peter Roget, Robert Southey and James Watt. The problem was that not everybody responded in the same way. Roget for example found the experience unpleasant. This lack of consistent effect may be one reason that explains why the anaesthetic properties of the gas were not pursued until about forty years later, though Golinski has argued that the association of the gas with radical politics and with entertainment were also at play in this neglect.

Prof Frank James

3): David Horton

Interesting summary. But it is sad he became so conservative. French Empire bad, British Empire good, eh?

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 desire for expansion 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 with 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 have only found 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.’

Prof Sharon Ruston

4) Margaret Harris

Scientific writing deals with facts, poetry with feelings.

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, 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, 492). This trance-like state between dream and vision is one that we hear of in a number of Romantic poems, from Shelley’s ‘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 transports 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 poems such as ‘On breathing nitrous oxide’ were just quickly jotted down in a notebook. Davy never even copied this poem out in a neat hand and as far as we know, it only exists here 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 interesting for many other reasons than the quality of its verse.

Prof Sharon Ruston

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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University