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Davy, Sir Humphry (1778-1829)

Identity Statement

Reference code(s): GB 0116 Humphry Davy Collection
Held at: Royal Institution of Great Britain
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Full title: Davy, Sir Humphry (1778-1829)
Date(s): 1795-1861
Level of description: Collection (fonds)
Extent: 3.81 metres
Name of creator(s): Davy, Sir Humphry, 1778-1829. Baronet. Chemist. Natural Philosopher.


Administrative/Biographical history:

Humphry Davy was born the son of Robert Davy, a wood carver, and Grace Millet in Penzance, Cornwall. He taught himself a great deal through reading, but also attended local grammar schools in Penzance and Truro. In 1795 he was apprenticed to John Bingham Borlase, surgeon of Penzance, where he was introduced to the rudiments of science by Robert Dunkin, a saddler. In 1798 he joined the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol as an assistant to Thomas Beddoes. There he began researches into heat and light which he later published. In 1799 he published the first volume of West Country Collections and Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly Nitrous Oxide and its Respiration. He experimented with nitrous oxide and suggested that it could be used for surgery due to its anaesthetic properties, however this was ignored and not used until much later in the century. In 1801 he gave his first lecture at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) and became Director of the Chemistry Laboratory. In 1802 he became Professor of Chemistry at the RI which he held until 1812. In 1803 he gave his first lecture to the Royal Society, of which he was elected a Fellow and received its Copley medal in 1805. In 1804 he entered Jesus College Cambridge perhaps to finish his medical studies, but he never attended. As Assistant Lecturer at the RI, he undertook research for the Managers, and he also became Chemistry Professor to the Board of Agriculture and Internal Improvement (a non-government organisation). In particular he researched into the problems of using oak bark for the tanning of leather and discovered that catechu from mimosa of India was much better. In 1805-1806, he toured Ireland and Cornwall with Thomas Bernard to research into mineralogy. After this he was released from investigations for the RI and in 1807 he won the Napoleonic Prize from the Institute of France for his discoveries of the constitution of oxymuratic acid and for demonstrating the existence of potassium, sodium and chlorine by agency of a galvanic battery, thus developing the theory of electrochemical action. In 1812 he was knighted by the Prince Regent and also married a wealthy widow, Mrs Jane Apreece. He then retired from the RI and was made Honorary Professor. In 1813 he visited laboratories in France, Italy, Switzerland and Germany with his wife and Michael Faraday (1791-1867) as his assistant, secretary and reluctant valet. He experimented with pigments and combustion of diamonds as well as iodine which he discovered at the same time as the French chemist, Joseph Louis Gay-Lusaac (who called it iode). On his return to London in 1815, Humphry was asked to look into the problem of explosions in mines. He discovered that gas and the flames used to give light to miners caused the explosions, so he designed the miners safety lamp. He toured the continent again in the late 1810s. In 1820 he became President of the Royal Society which he held until 1827. During the 1820s, he discovered that by applying zinc or iron to the copper bottoms of ships, corrosion could be prevented. However, it was deemed a failure as plant life in the sea would adhere to the ships thus causing dragging. In 1826 he travelled to Europe again where he continued to work until his death in 1829. He was buried in the cemetery of Plain-Palais, Geneva and there is a tablet in his memory at Westminster Abbey.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Sir Humphry Davy are extensive including the bond of indenture of apprenticeship, 1795 with its release, 1798; lecture notes of 1805-1812 relating to subjects such as the history of electricity, vegetable chemistry, electrochemical science, agricultural chemistry and geology; honours and diplomas relating to various institutions such as the Academy of Sciences, Saint Petersburg for 1826, the Danish Royal Society of Sciences for 1821 and the Pilman Society of Edinburgh for 1823; laboratory notebooks of 1805-1829 relating to experiments on galvanism, sulphur and phosphorous, ammonia on potassium, sodium, metals, muriatic and oxymuriatic gas, copper, and decompositions amongst others; RI laboratory notebooks of 1830-1861 which includes Davy's work on copper and water; correspondence relating to his work and personal life, to and from his mother, Mrs Jane Apreece, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and others; personal notebooks c 1795-1829; mathematical notebooks; scientific observations notebooks of 1799-1800 relating to phosphorous, the combustion of iron and the philosophy of heat and light; papers relating to his published works such as the Elements of Chemical Philosophy, Consolations in Travel and Salmonia; papers collected by Michael Faraday (1791-1867) which includes some of the above mentioned notebooks; papers collected by John Davy (1790-1868) his brother, relating to extracts from Humphry Davy's journals and John's observations of his brother; papers of his poetry and sketches; his Commonplace book 1812-1815; a ledger of Edmund Davy (1785-1857) his cousin and appraisal for the miners safety lamp of 1815.

Access & Use

Language/scripts of material:

System of arrangement:

By section as follows: (HD1) Bond and lecture notes; (HD2, HD3, HD4) Lectures 1805-1812; (HD5) Honours and diplomas; (HD6, HD7, HD7/A) Laboratory notebooks; (HD8/A, HD8/B) RI laboratory notebooks; (HD9) Letters and papers; (HD10, HD11) Papers collected by Michael Faraday; (HD12) Commonplace book 1812-1815; (HD13, HD14, HD15) Personal notebooks (c 1795-1829); (HD16, HD17) Geology lectures; (HD18) Agricultural chemistry lectures; (HD19) History of natural science notebooks,volumes on science; (HD20) Scientific observations notebooks; (HD21) Mathematical notebooks, copies of journals and John Davy's observations of Humphry Davy; (HD22) Scientific and philosophical notes, Edmund Davy's ledger; (HD23) Salmonia, Consolations in travel; (HD24) Elements of chemical philosophy 1812; (HD25) Correspondence with Mrs Apreece, mother and family (HD26/A-HD26/C); (HD26D) Miscellaneous correspondence; (HD26/E-HD26/F) safety lamp appraisal and correspondence; (HD26/G) Gregory Watt correspondence; (HD26/H-HD26/L) poetry, correspondence, printed material, miscellaneous; (HD27) Bergman-Schwediauer correspondence); (HD29) Elements of chemical philosophy lectures 1812.

Conditions governing access:

Access to bona fide researchers by appointment with the Keeper of Collections or Assistant Archivist, the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI).

Conditions governing reproduction:

Reproduction of material is permitted at the discretion of the Keeper of Collections, RI.

Finding aids:

Catalogue at the RI.

Archival Information

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Michael Faraday presented Humphry Davy's 1805-1812 notebooks of the RI laboratory to the Managers of the RI in December 1829. Other material donated and purchased during the twentieth century.

Allied Materials

Related material:

Other papers of Sir Humphry Davy are located at: the Royal Society; the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall Library; the National Maritime Museum manuscripts section (reference: ADM BP/43-45); the Science Museum Library (reference: MS 333); the British Library Manuscripts Collections; Gloucestershire Record Office; Lambton Park; the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; the Institution of Electrical Engineers; the American Philosophical Society Library. The Royal Institution of Great Britain holds a number of portraits, electrical apparatus such as batteries, original samples and prototypes of the miners safety lamp, of Sir Humphry Davy.

National Register of Archives: Click here to view NRA record

Publication note:

The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, John Davy Editor, 9 Volumes, London 1839-1840; Humphry Davy on Geology: The 1805 Lectures for the General Audience, Robert Siegfried and Robert H. Dott, Junior, Editors, Wisconsin and London, University of Wisconsin Press Limited, 1980; Sir Humphry Davy's Published Works, June Z. Fullmer, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1969.

Description Notes

Archivist's note:
Sources: Catalogue at the RI. Other useful published sources on Sir Humphry Davy: Science and the Sons of Genius: Studies on Humphry Davy, Sophie Forgan (editor), Science Reviews, London, 1980; Humphry Davy: Science and Power, David Knight, Blackwell, Oxford, 1992; reprinted Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996; Young Humphry Davy: The Making of an Experimental Scientist, June Fullmer, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2000. Description based on that created by NCUACS, University of Bath. Description compiled by Miss Ivone Martins, Assistant Archivist, RI.

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:
January 2001.

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