Science and Celebrity: Humphry Davy’s Rising Star

Davy using a voltaic battery to experiment with the decomposition of alkilis

Davy using a voltaic battery to experiment with the decomposition of alkilis

For his June 1808 lecture Davy carted one of the Royal Institution’s enormous 600-plate voltaic batteries into the hall to demonstrate electrochemistry for the crowd. Stored in flasks, the molten fluid shimmered in the sunlight, and when the battery was connected to the electrolytic cell, the sudden appearance of metal electroplating one electrode and oxygen effervescing from the other must have seemed like magic.

Ladies in the audience twittered at Davy’s fireworks and surreptitiously took notes. Aristocrats preened and even took turns standing in as Davy’s assistant. He was revered by the audience as a scientific wunderkind. Davy was at the top of his game.

But there was another element to his celebrity. Davy was an unlikely star of the Regency period. His humble country beginnings, some early scientific missteps, and a youthful association with political radicals made his London celebrity and aristocratic patronage suspect. He was perceived by some London conservatives as a pretentious social climber, who turned his back on early loyalties in order to curry favor with the Royal Society’s elite. Davy wore rustic clothing, pitched his theatrics toward the women in his audience, and seemed to aspire to a social class to which he did not belong; all this earned him the label of a dandy and a fop. And while the general public revered him for his scientific accomplishments, he was often criticized by the aristocratic and scientific elite.

A self-starting student

Most scientists of the age were formally educated men of independent wealth. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, whose chemistry textbook inspired many of Davy’s early experiments, was a wealthy French nobleman who attended the Collège Mazarin and the University of Paris. Joseph Banks, who served as president of the Royal Society when Davy presented most of his Bakerian lectures, was born into a wealthy family, owned country estates and lavish town houses, and attended Eton, Oxford, and Christ Church, where he privately paid honoraria for lecturers with whom he wished to study. In contrast Davy’s parents, though from respectable families, were middle-class, and his cobbled-together education, first in Penzance and later in Bristol, was rather informal. 

As a child Davy was given some formal education, but his desultory studies were largely left to chance. He spent some of his childhood as a ward in the home of John Tonkin, a family friend and surgeon-apothecary, whose shop was a source of the chemicals that Davy regularly pilfered. He created firecrackers using tobacco pipes and teacups as vessels and painted phosphorescent figures on the walls to scare his sisters. Full of mischief, with a penchant for explosions, he was a born chemist.

At age 16, shortly after the death of his father, Davy set out on a course of self-education, and with Tonkin’s help found an apprenticeship with Bingham Borlase, an apothecary in Penzance. In addition to writing poetry and reading up on history, theology, philosophy, and metaphysics, Davy began performing basic chemical research and reading Lavoisier in the original French. He advanced quickly and wrote a manuscript detailing his theories on the material makeup of light. The manuscript expounded on Davy’s “phosoxygen theory,” which proposed that oxygen gas consisted partly of light, and that light itself was made of minute particles. Such a manuscript was a great accomplishment for an apprentice apothecary in backwater Cornwall with no university training, one who had never witnessed a scientific experiment being designed or performed.

Although Davy’s education was informal, he began to attract attention and respect from the local academic and social elite. While still an apprentice he met the Sheriff of Cornwall, Davies Gilbert (born Davies Giddy), an Oxford graduate who would later succeed Davy as president of the Royal Society. Impressed with Davy’s intelligence, Gilbert granted Davy the use of his private library and introduced him to scientists, including Thomas Beddoes, another former Oxford academic. When he met Davy, Beddoes was establishing the Pneumatic Institute, an experimental hospital in Bristol, to study the therapeutic effects of the local “airs” and various gases in the treatment of disease. Of particular interest for Beddoes (and Davy) was nitrous oxide, which many believed spread disease. Others thought it a panacea.