Humphry Davy's original samples

Dating from the early 1800’s, these small glass jars are filled with some of Davy’s original element samples of sodium, calcium, magnesium and chlorine from when they were first isolated.

  • Humphry Davy's original chemical element samples

    Humphry Davy's original chemical element samples. 

    Credit: Paul Wilkinson
  • Date

    1807 - 1812
  • Place made

    Basement laboratory at the Ri

  • People

  • Materials

    Glass, magnesium, calcium, chlorine, sodium, oil

  • Measurements

    Magnesium -  H: 141mm,  diameter: 62mm
    Sodium - H: 180mm,  diameter: 200mm
    Chlorine - H: 141mm,  diameter: 62mm
    Calcium - H: 122mm,  diameter: 76mm

  • Key words

    Electrochemistry, elements, Humphry Davy, magnesium, sodium, chlorine, calcium, electrolysis, chemistry, atoms, compounds, gas, metal, alkali metal


These substances, contained in small glass vessels, are the samples kept by Humphry Davy of some of the elements he discovered through the process of electrolysis. This process involves using an electrical current to split up compound molecules into elements which are the simplest substances you can isolate using chemical means.

Davy was appointed Professor of Chemistry in 1802 and spent his first few years at the Royal Institution working on very practical science, looking into tanning and agriculture. In 1806 he turned the laboratory’s resources to electrical research, reaching the conclusion that electrical attraction holds elements together in compounds.

Davy was able to acquire several huge batteries, which he joined together in a series, in order to carry out his electrolysis experiments. He isolated Potassium from potash in 1807 and shortly afterwards, Sodium. Following this he also isolated and identified Barium, Calcium, Magnesium, Strontium and Boron. Later he proved that Chlorine and Iodine, which were already known to exist, were elements when they were thought to be compounds.

More images

  • Humphry Davy's sample of sodium

    Davy's sample of sodium

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Humphry Davy's sample of calcium

    Davy's sample of calcium

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Davy's sample of chlorine

    Davy's sample of chlorine

    Credit: Royal Institution

  • Humphry Davy's sample of magnesium

    Davy's sample of magnesium

    Credit: Royal Institution

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