Volunteer transcribers needed for Humphry Davy’s Notebooks

Ambitious project set to reveal previously unpublished material from nineteenth century’s ‘foremost man of science’

Volunteer transcribers needed for Humphry Davy’s Notebooks

Members of the public from around the world are being asked to help transcribe notebooks by the early nineteenth century’s “foremost man of science”, Director of the Royal Institution, Sir Humphry Davy, as part of a project to shed light on his unpublished work.

Some 70 notebooks are held at the Royal Institution (Ri) in London, where Davy undertook the majority of his scientific research, with a further five being held in Kresen Kernow in Redruth, Cornwall. 

While working at the Ri, Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) discovered more chemical elements than any individual has before or since. In 1815, he invented a miners’ safety lamp that came to be known as the Davy Lamp, saving countless lives in Britain and Europe, and vastly improving the nation’s industrial capability. 

His achievements saw him rise through society’s ranks from relatively modest origins to become, just over 200 years ago, Director of the Royal Institution and the President of the Royal Society. 

The £1 million project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Lancaster University with the University of Manchester, UCL and the Royal Institution, will use the crowdsourcing platform Zooniverse to bring to light Davy’s notebooks – the documents he used to work out scientific ideas alongside lines of poetry, philosophical musings, geological drawings, and accounts of his life.

Davy kept notebooks throughout his life, but most of the pages of these notebooks have never been transcribed before. Most entries have yet to be dated or considered in the light of what they tell us about Davy, his scientific discoveries, and the relationship between poetry and science.

Lucinda Hunt, Director of the Ri, said: “This ambitious project will give important insights into this great scientists’ research methods, preserving his innermost thoughts on behalf of the nation and making them available to researchers around the world. The scale is ambitious – 70 full note books, all with difficult to read handwriting and many lacking any kind of chronological structure – so we won’t be able to complete the project without the public’s help.”

In 2019, AHRC funding enabled Professor Sharon Ruston and Dr Andrew Lacey, both of the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, to crowdsource transcriptions of five of Davy’s notebooks, dating from between 1795 and 1805, using the people-powered research platform Zooniverse.

Following on from this successful pilot project, during which more than 500 participants from around the world transcribed 626 notebook pages in under 20 days, the project team will now crowdsource transcriptions of Davy’s entire 75-strong notebook collection. 

Crowdsourcing will begin by 23 June 2021. The edited transcriptions will later be published online, alongside images of the notebooks, on a free-to-access website, as part of Lancaster Digital Collections. 

Online and in-person discussions with participants will enable the project team to find out how transcribing Davy’s notebooks changes their views of how poetry and science could co-exist today.

On the wider benefits of the project, project lead Professor Ruston said: “The consequences of seeing the arts and sciences as divided and separate are serious. Viewing them as ‘two cultures’ hinders our ability to solve major world problems.

“The Davy Notebooks Project will ask what we can learn from the example of Davy’s notebooks that will help us rethink what we understand about the relationship between the arts and sciences in the nineteenth century and today.”

To take part in transcribing Davy’s notebooks, sign up at Zooniverse.


For more information please contact Robert Davies in the Ri press office:+44 (0)20 7670 2991 /rdavies@ri.ac.uk