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DAVY, Edward (1806-1885)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0108 SC MSS 015
Held at: Institution of Engineering and Technology
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Full title: DAVY, Edward (1806-1885)
Date(s): 1836-1847
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 69 items
Name of creator(s): Davy | Edward | 1806-1885 | Chemist and promoter of the telegraph


Administrative/Biographical history:

Edward Davy was born the son of Thomas Davy of Ottery St Mary, Devon, a doctor, in 1806. Davy trained as an apothecary in London, receiving his licence from the Society of Apothecaries in 1827. He became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1828. He began working as a dispensing chemist in London in 1830. His interests however, lay in the general sciences, particularly chemistry and electricity, and a catalogue of instruments, appended to his Experimental Guide to Chemistry, published in 1836, includes several devices invented by him in the list of goods and instruments for sale; he patented Davy's diamond cement, an adhesive for mending china and glass in 1836, from which he gained a small annual income until he sold the rights to the process. Also in 1836, Davy published Outline of a New Plan of Telegraphic Communication, and he carried out telegraphic experiments in Regent's Park in 1837. He laid down a mile of copper wire in the park and developed his 'electric renewer' or relay system, which renewed the signal with the aid of a local battery to compensate for attenuation of the original signal. He demonstrated a working model of his telegraph that year and a needle telegraph in the Exeter Hall in central London for several months in 1838. He applied for a patent for his telegraph, which was granted on 4 July 1838 after the solicitor-general asked Michael Faraday's advice as to whether it constituted a different mechanism from that of Cooke and Wheatstone, patented on 12 June 1837. Davy managed to interest two railway companies, the Birmingham Railway and the Southampton Railway, in his telegraph, but left England for Australia before developing a practical system or completing negotiations, which he left in the hands of his father and a friend, Thomas Watson, a London dentist. Eventually his patent was bought by the Electric Telegraph Company in 1847 for 600. Although his telegraph was never developed, Davy was important for popularizing to the general public the concept of telegraphy, and was the first to develop a relay system. Without Davy's demonstrations, public awareness of the telegraph would perhaps have been much slower. Moreover, his correspondence with public figures and engineers, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, did much to hasten the adoption of the telegraph. He also devised a block system for recording train movements between stations by means of an electrically operated dial, which would advance when the train passed a milestone, but he never patented this idea. In 1883 J. J. Fahie, a historian of the telegraph, initiated a campaign to have Davy's contribution recognized, and in November 1884 the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians (later the Institution of Electrical Engineers) made him an honorary member. While in London, Davy married Mary Minshull; they had one son, George Boutflower Davy, who was born before 1837. Their marriage had irretrievably broken down, and Mary Davy tried unsuccessfully to divorce her husband by 1838. Her extravagance and Davy's lack of business sense led to mounting debts, which he settled with help from his father. To free himself from his wife Davy decided to emigrate. He left his son in the care of his family, and set sail for Australia intending to take up a smallholding in April 1839. He soon abandoned farming to settle in Adelaide, South Australia, where he engaged in various pursuits. He edited the Adelaide Examiner 1843-1845, built up a small medical practice, and for a time managed the Yatala copper-smelting works, where he developed a process for copper refining. He patented the process in Australia, and an English patent was granted in 1847 under his brother's name. He was appointed head of the government assay office in Adelaide which he ran very successfully from 1848. The following year he was invited to set up the assay office in Melbourne, Victoria, which he also ran very well until a change of government led to its abolition in 1854. Davy again took up farming near Malmsbury, Victoria, but soon settled in the town itself, where he engaged in local politics, serving for twenty years as a justice of the peace and for three terms as mayor. He developed his medical practice, and acted for twenty years as the first honorary health officer of the borough. When he retired from that position in August 1882, the Malmsbury borough council presented an address of thanks to him at a special evening conversazione. He had become a much loved figure in the Malmsbury area. Davy married twice while in Australia; it is not clear whether his first marriage had ended (by divorce or his wife's death) or whether these marriages were bigamous. He married Rebecca Soper 1845, with whom he had five sons and two daughters. After her death in 1877 he married Arabella Cecil, the daughter of Stephen Tunbridge Hardinge, postmaster-general of Tasmania. They had four children, two of whom, a son and a daughter, survived him. Davy died on 26 January 1885, aged 79, at Mollison Street East, Malmsbury, and was buried on 27 January in Malmsbury. Efforts to secure a government pension in Australia and England for his widow were unsuccessful, but the Royal Society of Victoria, which had elected Davy an honorary member in March 1883, raised 150 by a subscription among its members for her and her children.


Scope and content/abstract:

These papers show Davy's first ideas for an electric telegraph from his early sketches in 1836 of a frictional electric telegraph to one worked by electromagentism which he developed 1836-1839. His first patent was lodged in 1837 in opposition to Cooke and Wheatstone's first patent. The papers indicate his efforts to find a purchaser for the patent rights and to establish a company to develop the telegraph. He made agreements with several business men but none of these arrangements bore any fruit. He also negotiated with the railway companies and demonstrated the telegraph for them. The papers record the efforts of his father, Thomas Davy, and several others, to continue Davy's negotiations with the railway companies and the arrangements which were made to re-exhibit a working model of the telegraph. The papers also relate to the sale of the patent to the Electric Telegraph Company in 1847. Fahie's memoir on Davy is included in the papers.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

Chronological, by subject: printed items relating to the telegraph; manuscript notes written by Davy about and in defence of his telegraph; private correspondence; letters from various people about Davy and his telegraph after his departure for Australia.

Conditions governing access:


Conditions governing reproduction:

Refer to IET Archivist

Finding aids:

Online item level catalogue

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

The papers were kept in the Davy family and shown to J J Fahie by Henry Davy, a nephew of Edward Davy, during his research on the pioneers of telegraphy. Fahie arranged the papers in a leather bound volume, which Henry Davy presented to the Institution of Electrical Engineers Library.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Publication note:

Description Notes

Archivist's note:

Rules or conventions:
Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions:
Live Jan 2010

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