Interactive timeline: Humphry Davy

Explore the extraordinary life and work of Humphry Davy in this interactive timeline.


Explore the life and work of Humphry Davy

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Humphry Davy was the first Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution and was very influential in the development of the organisation through his hugely popular lectures and his original scientific research.

Life and works

Davy’s scientific career began when he moved to Bristol to work at the Pneumatic Institution, run by the policially radical Thomas Beddoes. Davy was employed to investigate gases, often by breathing them in himself. He published his discovery of the physiological effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and this helped to attract the notice of the wider scientific community. While in Bristol he also became friends with Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and edited the 2nd edition of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads.

Davy moved to London in 1801 to work at the Royal Institution as Assistant Lecturer, he proved to be an extremely gifted lecturer and was promoted to Professor of Chemistry the following year. Davy was famous for his lectures which were so popular that a one way system was put in place in Albemarle Street to cope with the traffic, but he was also interested in pursuing chemical research in the Ri laboratories. Using the latest electrochemical techniques he isolated several elements over the next ten years, including sodium, potassium and magnesium. He was later instrumental in identifying other elements such as chlorine and iodine, which had been discovered but were thought to be compounds.

In 1812 Davy was knighted and married a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece. He then retired from lecturing, although not from research. His fame was such that he was granted special permission to travel to the continent to meet with other famous scientists (taking the young Michael Faraday along as an assistant). However, the political situation was fragile and the trip had to be cut short in 1815 on Napoleon’s escape from Elba. On his return he developed a form of miner’s safety lamp and later, in the 1820s he advised the Admiralty on protection of ships' bottoms and on improving optical glass. He was made President of the Royal Society, but was not a success and after resigning due to ill health he again toured the Continent, dying in Geneva in 1829.

To learn more about Humphry Davy visit his biography page.

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