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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Discover Humphry Davy and his contribution to science and the arts.

5,324 enrolled on this course

 New Discoveries in Pneumaticks!  or - an Experimental Lecture on the Powers of Air, a historic cartoon by James Gillray, 1802 (credit: Royal Institution).

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

5,324 enrolled on this course

  • 4 weeks

  • 3 hours per week

  • Digital certificate when eligible

  • Open level

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Before culture was divided into the sciences and the arts there was a chemist who was also a poet. Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is one of the best known men of science of the nineteenth century: he was the first person to inhale nitrous oxide; he isolated nine chemical elements; and he invented the miners’ safety lamp known as the Davy lamp. This course will consider Davy’s life and career using manuscript sources held at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. We will read Davy’s letters, his poetry and even recreate some of his most famous experiments! We have revised this online course to incorporate some of the discoveries made during our three-year project to transcribe Davy’s notebooks.

(See the Davy Notebooks Project here if you want to help complete transcribing the notebooks: https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/humphrydavy/davy-notebooks-project)

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Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds From Cornwall, the land of tin, legend, and Poldark, came Humphry Davy, boy genius who rose the ranks to become president of the Royal Society. So Humphry Davy remains one of Britain’s best known men of science as the 19th century. And he made his name and reputation here at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, in Albemarle Street in London. This free online course, Humphry Davy Laughing Gas, Literature and the Lamp is filmed here and is a special collaboration between Lancaster University and the Royal Institution where Davy lectured in this very lecture theatre between 1801 and 1812. Davy was the first person to inhale nitrous oxide, more commonly known now as laughing gas, when people thought it was fatal to do so.

Skip to 0 minutes and 55 seconds He isolated, more chemical elements than anyone has before or since. And most famously, he invented a miners safety lamp that became known as the Davy lamp. But not many people know the he also wrote poetry throughout his life.

Skip to 1 minute and 14 seconds On this course, we’ll be asking questions about the possible connections between science and poetry using Davy’s life and career as an example of a man of science who was also a poet. We’ll look at the role of science in society then and now, and consider moments when politics and science collided. This course is for anyone interested in poetry or the history of science and the connections between them. If you haven’t had of Davy before, we’ll introduce you to a fascinating figure from the 19th century. And if you have heard of Davy before, we’ll tell you about a side of him that you may not already know.

What topics will you cover?

  • The key moments of Humphry Davy’s early life and career
  • The importance of lecturing at the Royal Institution of Great Britain
  • The purpose of different kinds of writing from poetry, to letters, notebooks, and published scientific writing
  • The significance of Davy’s scientific achievements
  • The safety lamp controversy
  • The relationship between Davy and Michael Faraday

When would you like to start?

Start straight away and join a global classroom of learners. If the course hasn’t started yet you’ll see the future date listed below.

  • Available now

Learning on this course

On every step of the course you can meet other learners, share your ideas and join in with active discussions in the comments.

What will you achieve?

By the end of the course, you‘ll be able to...

  • Explore key aspects of Davy’s life, career, and the times in which he lived
  • Investigate the relationships that can exist between science and the creative arts
  • Identify the role that science can play in society
  • Assess the cultural and political function of science
  • Explore Davy's different modes of communication (e.g. poetry, notebooks, lectures, scientific writings) and reflect upon their differences

Who is the course for?

This course is open to anyone with an interest in history, particularly the history of science and medicine, or with an interest in poetry. No prior knowledge of Humphry Davy’s life and times is required.

Who will you learn with?

I am Professor of Romanticism at Lancaster. My main research interests are in the relations between literature, science and medicine, 1780-1820. I am currently co-editing the Letters of Humphry Davy.

I am Professor of History of Science at UCL. I am currently studying Humphry Davy's practical work, to help understand how scientific knowledge is applied, or more usually, not.

Who developed the course?

Lancaster University

Lancaster University is a collegiate university, with a global reputation as a centre for research, scholarship and teaching with an emphasis on employability.

Royal Institution

The Royal Institution of Great Britain is an organisation devoted to scientific education and research, based in London.

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Develop skills to further your career

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  • Access to 1,000+ courses
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Digital certificate when you're eligible

Cancel for free anytime

Buy this course

$134/one-off payment

Fulfill your current learning need

  • Access to this course
  • Learn at your own pace
  • Discuss your learning in comments
  • Printed and digital certificate when you’re eligible

Limited access


Sample the course materials

  • Access expires 15 May 2024

Find out more about certificates, Unlimited or buying a course (Upgrades)

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