The eldest child of Robert and Grace Millett Davy, Humphry Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall, on December 17, 1778. The young Davy was a voracious reader, and read everything he could find on history, geography, mathematics, physics, and logic. He became captivated by science and spent much of his adolescence conducting diverse experiments under the early tutelage of Robert Dunkin, a member of the Society of Friends. It was Dunkin who taught the budding young scientist mathematic concepts through models and the fundamentals of scientific experimentation.
After his father's death in 1794, Mr. Davy became an apprentice to a surgeon named John Bingham Borlase, and it was while working in the apothecary that he became a promising chemist. His formal study of chemistry commenced four years' later, and much of his early experiments involved the effects of inhaling nitrous oxide. In 1801, Mr. Davy joined London's Royal Institution. While in London, he became acquainted with photographic pioneer Thomas Wedgwood, who sought the young chemist's advice on how to prevent light from destroying his photographs. Mr. Davy experimented with nitric acid and also discovered that prints could be copied, but the camera image was too light to generate a favorable result. After experimenting with silver chloride, he discovered its properties had greater sensitivity, and while he intended to explore the possibilities of destroying the sensitive compounds that were not exposed to light, his scientific journey led him elsewhere.
During the early nineteenth century, Mr. Davy studied various combinations of nitrogen and oxygen and engaged in exhaustive electro-chemical research. For his contributions to science, he was knighted in 1812, the same year he married widowed heiress Jane Apreece. The marriage, though often stormy, lasted for the remainder of Mr. Davy's life. Also in 1812, a deadly explosion in northern England emphasized the need for safety lamps in coal mines. During his travels through Europe, Mr. Davy constructed such a safety lamp, which saved countless lives.
In 1819, Sir Humphry Davy received a baronetcy, which was then Great Britain's greatest scientific honor. The next year, he was named President of the Royal Society. However, following his mother's death in 1826, Mr. Davy's health began to fail, with increasing pain and numbness in his right extremities and heart palpitations. He went to Geneva, Switzerland for several months to rest and regain his strength. His last months were spent on his other great love, poetry and in the composition of 'Consolations in Travel,' which featured prose as well as his musings on philosophy and science. Sir Humphry Davy succumbed to heart disease on May 29, 1829, and is buried in Geneva's Plainpalais Cemetery. There is a monument in his hometown and a tablet in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the scientist and his contributions to chemistry, photography, and in the coal mining industry.
1860 The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (Washington, DC: George W. Bowman), p. 375.
1831 The Life of Sir Humphry Davy, Vol. I (London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley), p. 349.
1845 Littell's Living Age, Vol. IV (Boston: T.H. Carter & Company), pp. 3-17.
1913 Photography of To-Day (Philadelphia: B. Lippincott Company), pp. 76-77.
Copyright © 2002 - 2019 Historic Camera