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

The Bristol Set

Thomas Beddoes was a learned scholar with a streak of political radicalism. While a chemistry reader at Oxford, he had all-too-publicly sympathized with the aims of the French Revolution. He promulgated its revolutionary ideals by authoring antigovernment pamphlets, even after the gruesome details of the Reign of Terror and its hungry guillotine became known, thus earning himself a reputation as a Jacobin. Beddoes removed to Bristol after the British Home Office had suggested to Oxford that his employment was unwise. In addition to founding the Pneumatic Institute in Bristol, Beddoes associated with other known Jacobins there, such as the Lake Poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.

Beddoes was much taken with Davy and his experiments on light and heat; he read Davy’s manuscript and soon offered him a job. With no formal education, Davy became a researcher at Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institute in 1796 at the age of 18.

Davy’s research with Beddoes marked the beginning of his fame and his notoriety. At the Pneumatic Institute Davy lectured about the properties of the gases he isolated, and he showed promise early as a dramatic and compelling lecturer. Through his theatrical lectures and his association with prominent citizens, Davy became known among Bristol society.

One of Davy’s early acquaintances was Robert Southey, another of the Lake Poets. Through Southey and Beddoes, Davy later met Coleridge and Wordsworth. He isolated promising gases in his laboratory, especially nitrous oxide, and in the great 18th-century tradition, tested their effects on himself and his friends. Coleridge and Southey, among many others, allowed themselves to be used as drunken human guinea pigs to explore the effects of nitrous-oxide intoxication, and Davy coined the term laughing gas to describe its delights.

In early 1799 Beddoes published a collection of papers that included Davy’s adolescent experiments on light and heat from his apprentice apothecary years in Penzance. The experiments, though intelligent in design, were abysmal in execution, and his conclusions derived more from passion than from scruple. In this publication Davy triumphantly concluded that his phosoxygen theory explained the blue color of the sky, electricity, red color in roses, the aurora borealis, melanin pigmentation in people from Africa, the fire of falling stars, thought, perception, happiness, and why women are fairer than men.

The critics lambasted Davy’s work, tearing it apart for its overreaching conclusions that did not follow from empirical evidence. His theories were mercilessly ridiculed and treated with vitriolic contempt. In addition to the attacks on Davy’s adolescent research, Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institute drew fire. A Tory satirical magazine, the Anti-Jacobin Review, published an attack in verse on the Bristol “Pneumatic Revellers,” mocking Beddoes and Davy’s nitrous-fueled bacchanalia.

Davy was humiliated by the reviewers’ hostile response to his youthful article, but he took the criticism to heart and refined his experimental methods. In 1800 he published another better-received work in which he laid out his analysis of the components of nitrous oxide and apologized for his previous scientific missteps. The ridicule of activities at the Pneumatic Institute had made a fool of Beddoes, but although Davy also took some of the punches, his reputation was not ravaged.

In fact, Davy’s meticulously researched and sober 1800 book on the composition of gases saved his reputation. Despite his scientific overexuberance, his associations with political radicals, his youthful theatrics, and his questionable experimentation at the Pneumatic Institute, Davy was also gaining recognition as an outstanding scientist. After Thomas Charles Hope, a professor of chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, witnessed Davy’s work at the Pneumatic Institute he recommended to Count Rumford, one of the Royal Institution’s founders, that Davy be brought to London to direct the laboratory and become an assistant lecturer in chemistry. In March 1801 the self-educated country chemist arrived in London to take on Europe’s scientific and social elite.