Humphry Davy

Humphry Davy was born on 1778 in Penzance in Cornwall. He was apprentice to a surgeon and went to Bristol to study science. There he investigated gases. He prepared and inhaled nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and in 1800 published the results of his work in ‘Researches, Chemical and Philosophical’. This made his reputation and the following year he was hired as an assistant lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Institution. There he was a great success, with his lectures soon becoming a draw for fashionable London society.

He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803 and was awarded its Copley Medal in 1805. In 1800 Davy invented the first light bulb and used the then new invention of the battery for what is now called electrolysis which enabled him to isolate a series of substances for the first time – potassium and sodium in 1807 followed by calcium, strontium, magnesium and barium the following year. Through investigating the forces that created these separations he created the field of electrochemistry.

By 1812 Davy was considered one of Britain’s leading scientists and was knighted and in 1813, he set off on a two year trip to Europe.

He visited Paris (despite the war between Britain and France) where he received a medal presented to him by Napoleon himself, and identified the element iodine for the first time.

In 1815 Davy received a letter from some Newcastle miners which told of the dangers of using the candles in their helmet lamps, which were known to occasionally ignite pockets of methane gas underground. In reply to this troubled correspondence he invented the ‘Davy Lamp’ which used a fine mesh capable of filtering air without allowing combustible underground gases to pass through. Davy was made a baronet in 1818 and from 1820 – 1827 was president of the Royal Society. He died on 29 May 1829 in Switzerland.

His assistant, Michael Faraday, went on to establish an even more prestigious reputation than Davy.



Davy, Sir Humphry – 1778-1829

Lateral Science – Humphrey Davy & Laughing Gas

Safety Lamp History

Invention of the Light Bulb