Friday, June 21, 2013

Young Scientists: Humphry Davy, Laughing Himself into History

I have a thing for scientists and men with logical minds. I tend to prefer Spock over Kirk, Sherlock Holmes over Iron Man. The hero in my August release, The Courting Campaign, is a natural philosopher, what we would call a scientist today.  And in researching his background, I found that young, handsome scientists were not that uncommon in early nineteenth century England. 

Consider Humphry Davy, for instance.  Born in Cornwall into a woodcarver’s family, Davy did extremely well in school and even considered becoming a poet before developing a fascination for experiments.  That fascination nearly saw him blowing up his home several times as he was growing up.  An old family friend apprenticed him to a surgeon, but that connection led him to a variety of learned gentlemen who furthered his interests in chemistry.  One of these gentlemen, a Dr. Thomas Beddoes, was sufficiently impressed with young Davy that he offered him a position as his assistant at the Pneumatic Institution, a research facility for the study of the medical properties of gasses.  Davy started working there, overseeing experiments, when he was twenty.

It was there that Davy became acquainted with nitrous oxide or laughing gas.  He was convinced it could be efficacious for something, but many times he and his friends simply inhaled it for fun.  It was said the large chamber constructed for his experiments was really built for such inhalation parties.  On the other hand, he also conducted a number of experiments on galvanism, generating electric current through chemistry.  That also ended up also having a nice sideline as a parlor trick.

Between patrons of the institution and trips to London, his circle of influential friends continued to grow and soon included the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey.  Various friends brought him to the attention of the Royal Institution, that exalted haven of scientists.  He was soon assistant lecturer in chemistry there, where he also directed the chemistry laboratory and helped edit the Institute’s journal.

Perhaps it was the poet in him, perhaps it was the fact that he was kind on the eyes, but his lectures proved extremely popular, with scientists and the public alike. At times he packed 500 people, many of them women, in the lecture hall. He was full lecturer by the time he was 23 and knighted when he was 34.  Here's a satirical look at one such experiment, and it's rather rude results.  Davy is the energetic fellow with all the curls, pumping at the bellows. 
Shortly after his knighthood, he quit his position, married a widow of some means, and embarked on a Grand Tour, starting in France, where he was awarded a medal by Napoleon for his work in chemistry.  They then travelled to Florence, Rome, Naples, Milan, Munich, and Innsbruck before the return of Napoleon from Elba forced them back to England. 

More studies followed, including the invention of a lamp to aid coal miners (and a cameo appearance helping my hero in The Courting Campaign).  Davy is credited with discovering a number of elements, including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, boron, barium, and chlorine as well as pioneering electro-chemistry.  For his body of work, he was ultimately granted a baronetcy, the highest honor given a natural philosopher at that time.   He eventually returned to Switzerland and died there of heart disease.  His last gift to the world was a book compiling his thoughts on science and philosophy, in which he spoke quite poetically and with touches of wry humor.

You might say he laughed all the way to the end. 

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