Davy | Sir | Humphry | 1778-1829 | natural philosopher

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) is primarily remembered for his invention of the miner's safety lamp. However, his main body of work was carried out in his role as a chemist. He was also involved in the field of medicine in the early years of his career.

Davy showed signs of brilliance from a young age. As a child, he is known to have developed the interest in the world that persisted for his entire life. He considered becoming a poet, though he abandoned his literature for science aged 19. In his early 20s, Davy became friends with Davies Giddy, later Gilbert (1767-1839), who was to become president of the Royal Society. Davy was able to use Giddy's laboratory to carry out experiments on nitrous oxide (laughing gas) - which he inhaled in order to test the theory that it was the "principle of contagion". On Gilbert's recommendation, Davy was appointed to the Medical Pneumatic Institution in order to continue his experiments into the medical uses of various gases. He nearly died during one experiment while inhaling carburetted hydrogen gas.

His discoveries relating to the chemical effects of electricity won him an invitation to France from Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), to be presented with the emperor's prize at the Institut de France in 1806, despite the state of war that existed between Britain and France at the time. During this trip to the continent, Davy investigated iodine (and its similarity to chlorine) and proved that diamond is a form of carbon. His investigations into electrolysis led directly to his discovery, a year later, of sodium and potassium, which he electrolysed from soda and potash. With other techniques, he also isolated a number of other metals for the first time.

In other work, Davy proved that chlorine was an element (many considered it to be a compound containing oxygen), and disproved therefore the oxygen theory of acids. He (correctly) suggested that all acids contain hydrogen. Davy also invented a form of sacrificial protection for the navy's copper ships that was eventually dropped, because it worked too well: the copper remained free of oxidisation, allowing for the vessels' hulls to be be colonised by shellfish.

Davy's safety lamp for miners is the invention or discovery that is most associated with his name. He had been asked to investigate "fire-damp" (methane gas) explosions in coal mines, caused by the candles miners used as lighting. Davy's solution to the problem was both simple and elegant: he surrounded the flame of the candle with wire gauze, allowing the light to get out, and, crucially, allowing the gas that entered the lamp to explode without the explosion spreading outside the lamp: the lamp cooled the explosion down by dissipating the heat into the gauze, reducing the temperature to below the level at which the surrounding gas could explode. This invention, which Davy never patented, saved many miners' lives.


Sir Humphry Davy discovered the talents of Michael Faraday (1791-1867), though the two men eventually fell out.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

West-Country Collections

Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide and its Respiration, (1799)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1798: Appointed Chemical Superintendent of the Medical Pneumatic Institution

1801: Appointed Assistant Lecturer in Chemistry, Director of the Chemical Laboratory and Assistant Editor of the Journals of the Institution, Royal Institution

1803: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society

1805: Awarded Copley Medal of the Royal Society

1806: Awarded Napoleon Prize, Institut de France

1811: Awarded honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD) degree, Trinity College, Dublin

1812: Awarded Knighthood

1818: Awarded Baronetcy

1820: Elected Predsident of the Royal Society

1826: Awarded Royal Medal of the Royal Society


List of sources for the biographical information:

Concise Dictionary of National Biography, ( London (England), Oxford University Press, 1992)

Lee, Sidney, Dictionary of National Biography, vol V, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1908)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, (Chicago, William Benton, 1964)