A little over 200 years ago, a small boyish, 20-something made this place the centre of European science. Here at the Royal Institution, Humphry Davy, a charismatic lecturer and a brilliant experimentalist, defined the role of Romantic hero, triumphing over humble origins by force of personality. Davy’s lectures were wildly popular, because he spoke of science as the means of unlocking the secrets of life and backed his words with spectacular deeds. Wielding a new technology, the voltaic battery, he used electricity to break substances apart and reveal unknown elements. He isolated sodium, potassium, barium, strontium, calcium, boron, and magnesium.
He overthrew the oxygen-based chemical theory then in vogue by showing chlorine’s elementary status, achievements that led him to be hailed as the greatest chemist that has ever lived. By 1818, Davy was known across Europe. Napoleon awarded him a medal and the Prince Regent made him a baronet. He had become the scientific genius, penetrating into nature, fictionalised by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein. Davy’s love of nature and fascination by experiments began in his Cornish childhood. Born in 1778, he was a poor boy, apprenticed to a local surgeon and never went to university. But his appetite for knowledge was noticed by two visiting convalescents with scientific and industrial backgrounds, Gregory Watt and Tom Wedgwood.
In 1798, on their recommendation, Davy was appointed as assistant to the new Medical Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, where Thomas Beddoes hoped to cure the sick with newly discovered gases. Davy’s understanding of scientific inquiry and of the role of the inquirer was shaped by the radical intellectual circles he encountered at the Pneumatic Institution. It was there that he came into contact with other inquirers into nature, Beddoes, Coleridge, Southey, John King, Wordsworth, for whom experiment and poetry were related ways of exploring man’s relationship to the world. Davy’s guiding principles of genius, power, sublimity, and nature were developed at this time. The most promising discovery of the Bristol years was nitrous oxide, the wonder working gas.
Davy and his friends trialled its effects– mental and physical exhilaration– in the laboratory, but also outside by night in the Avon Gorge. It heightened and lightened consciousness. It conduced to poetic visions of nature. But Davy ultimately showed in systematic tests it did not cure diseases. The Pneumatic Institution had not found a revolutionary cure for consumption. In 1801, Davy left the Pneumatic Institution behind, remodelled himself under the patronage of Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society, and began his meteoric rise to fame. He shed his radicalism and became an establishment man, associating with lords and ladies as well as fellow men of science.
He used these associations to get support for his research, raising funds to build the largest voltaic pile in existence here in the laboratory of the Royal Institution. He devoted great energy to not just to experimenting with the pile, but to persuading others of the truth of his discoveries and therefore, of his own genius as a discoverer. His letters reveal him consciously fashioning his selfhood to embody this chosen role. They also reveal the negative of this positive self-modeling. When others were not persuaded of his rightness, originality, or genius, Davy rapidly grew angry. In 1812, Davy married a wealthy widow– a socialite– Jane Apreece.
He was knighted, and in 1813, the couple travelled to France with Davy’s new assistant, Michael Faraday, where Davy demonstrated the elemental status of a new substance he named iodine, but became involved in disputes with French chemists. Davy and his party then went to Italy, where Davy used a lens to melt a diamond, demonstrating it was made of carbon. He also climbed Vesuvius and began to develop a theory of volcanism. Returning in 1815, Davy began the work that established his popular fame. In response to a series of mine disasters in the north-east, he designed a safety lamp that would light collieries without causing explosions.
Davy was in Italy again in 1818 and 1819, attempting to unroll the carbonised papyri that had survived burial by volcanic ash at Herculaneum. Once again, he became embroiled in conflict. The local curators saw his methods as destructive of the delicate material and resented his interference with their own procedures. Davy was pressurised to withdraw, the first major setback in applying his science, but not the last.