Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsHumphry Davy lived in exciting and turbulent times. His was an age of political revolution and global war. An era that promised a new world, but brought military destruction on an unprecedented scale. The major political event of Davy's life was the French Revolution, which began when he was 10 years old. The revolution was a complex series of events often symbolised by the storming of the French prison, the Bastille, on the 14th of July, 1789. Broadly speaking, the revolution brought about the overthrow of the old royal and aristocratic order in France and saw the transition from absolute monarchy to republic.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 secondsMany in Britain responded with great enthusiasm to events across the channel, which initially seemed to promise not only a new political regime but a new world. Indeed, a renewed version of mankind itself. Davy's friend, Robert Southey, described the revolution as a time when "a visionary world was opening up for all. Old things seemed passing away," he wrote, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race." However, this Utopian vision of French politics was called into question by the events of the following decade, including the execution of Louis XVI and the start of the mass executions known as "The Terror", both of 1793.

Skip to 1 minute and 49 secondsThat same year, France declared war on Britain, triggering more than two decades of fierce conflict and forcing many to realign their national loyalties. Towards the end of the 1790s, a number of Davy's Bristol-based friends thought that the new saviour of the revolution had arisen in the figure of the Corsican-born French General, Napoleon Bonaparte. Indeed, Southey wrote to Davy in October 1799, describing Napoleon's military campaigns in Italy and Egypt as, "the very spring tide of fortune" adding "It was a dose of gaseous oxide to me whose powerful delights still endures." This is, of course, a reference to nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, which Davy had introduced Southey to earlier in the year.

Skip to 2 minutes and 46 secondsAt this point in history, both science and politics seemed capable of producing new pleasures and glorious happiness. However, Napoleon's subsequent career, especially his military imperialism and his self-elevation to the status of Emperor in 1804, turned Southey and many of his other early admirers against him. For the majority of the British public, Napoleon became the Corsican ogre threatening to invade their homes.

Skip to 3 minutes and 20 secondsDavy shared the new-found patriotism of his friend Southey and Coleridge even celebrating the British fleet in verse. But in 1813, with Britain and France still at war, he embarked on one of his greatest adventures. Crossing the English Channel and travelling to Paris to receive the Volta prize established by Napoleon for his work on electrolysis. Davy was criticised by Southey and others for making the journey but responded by arguing that, "If the two countries or governments are at war, the men of science are not. The role of such men of science," he added, was to "soften the asperities of national hostility." In such statements, Davy gave science a political mission as a force that could break down borders and unite nations.

Skip to 4 minutes and 14 secondsYet when, in 1815, the Battle of Waterloo brought to a close 22 years of national hostilities, Davy was keen to see Europe returned to its pre-revolutionary condition. He wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, arguing that it was the duty of the allies to give France more restricted boundaries and claim that France should pay back all the wealth that the Republican or Imperial armies had stolen. Much of Davy's scientific research in the post-Waterloo period was tied to the age's historical developments. His work on the miner's lamp was an important contribution to safety at the time of the Industrial Revolution, an economic and social transformation powered by coal.

Skip to 5 minutes and 4 secondsHis research for the Navy Board in 1822 was undertaken in an era when Britain had become the global naval superpower and was actively expanding its empire. As these two examples illustrate, while influenced by the dramatic history through which he lived, Humphry Davy sought to use science to shape history itself.

Historical Context

In this audio recording (with accompanying images) Professor Simon Bainbridge will discuss the historical times in which Davy lived. You’ll find out about the main political and historical events of this time and some of the many ways in which Davy’s life and career was shaped by them. Consider the following questions while listening to Simon’s talk:

  • What does learning about the historical context of Davy’s life add to our understanding of his work?
  • Do you think that science is connected with politics today? Can you think of any examples?

Please share your thoughts by posting a comment.

Many thanks to Dr Andrew Lacey for sourcing the images for this slidecast.

Images used in this slidecast:

Thomas Lawrence, portrait of Humphry Davy (c. 1821), NPG 1573, © National Portrait Gallery, London, licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (1830) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux, The Battle of Waterloo: The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Cuirassiers (1874) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

‘Estampe […] reprenant un motif courant de la Première République’ (1793) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

[Unknown artist], Storming of the Bastille (unknown date) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

John James Masquerier, portrait of Robert Southey (1800) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Antoine-François Callet, Louis XVI (1789) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Georg Heinrich Sieveking, copperplate engraving of the execution of Louis XVI (1793) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Jacques-Louis David, The Emperor Napoleon in His Study at the Tuileries (1812) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

James Gillray, ‘Scientific Researches! – New Discoveries in Pneumaticks! – or – an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air’ (1802), from Wikimedia Commons, licenced under CC BY 4.0.

James Gillray, ‘The Plumb-Pudding in Danger: – or – State Epicures Taking un Petit Souper’ (1805) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Vandyke, portrait of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1795) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Auguste Mayer, [untitled] (1806) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

Illustration of galvanic apparatus, courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Thomas Lawrence, portrait of Robert Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool (unknown date), NPG 6307, © National Portrait Gallery, London, licenced under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Davy lamps in the collections of the Royal Institution, courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Thomas Buttersworth, HMS Victory in Full Sail and in a Squall (unknown date) (Public domain), from Wikimedia Commons.

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University