Read Consolations in Travel by Sir Humphry Davy, free from Project Gutenberg.
Sir Humphry Davy Biography
Sir Humphry revelled in his status, as his lectures gathered many spectators. Davy became well known due to his experiments with the physiological action of some gases, including laughing gas (nitrous oxide) - to which he was addicted, once stating that its properties bestowed all of the benefits of alcohol but was devoid of its flaws. Davy later damaged his eyesight in a laboratory accident with nitrogen trichloride. In 1801 he was nominated professor at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and Fellow of the Royal Society, over which he would later preside.
In 1800, Alessandro Volta introduced the first electric pile or battery. Davy used this electric battery to separate salts by what is now known as electrolysis. With many batteries in series he was able to separate elemental potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, and magnesium in 1808. He also studied the energies involved in separating these salts, which is now the field of electrochemistry.
Retirement and further work
In 1812 he was knighted, gave a farewell lecture to the Royal Institution, and married a wealthy widow, Jane Apreece. While generally acknowledged as being faithful to his wife, their relationship was stormy and in his later years Davey travelled to continental Europe alone. In October 1813 he and his wife, accompanied by Michael Faraday as his scientific assistant (and valet) traveled to France to collect a medal that Napoleon Bonaparte had awarded Davy for his electro-chemical work. Whilst in Paris Davy was asked by Gay-Lussac to investigate a mysterious substance isolated by Barnard Courtois. Davy showed it to be an element, which is now called iodine. The party left Paris on December 29, travelling south through Montpellier and Nice and then to Italy.
After passing through Genoa, they went to Florence, where, in a series of experiments starting on Sunday March 27, Davy, with Faraday's assistance, succeed in using the sun's rays to ignite diamond, and proved that it was composed of pure carbon. Davy's party continued on to Rome, and also visited Naples and Mount Vesuvius. By the June 17, they were in Milan, where they met Alessandro Volta, and continued north to Geneva. They returned to Italy via Munich and Innsbruck, passed though Venice and returned to Rome. Their plans to travel to Greece and Constantinople (Istanbul) were abandoned after Napoleon's escape from Elba, and they returned to England.
After his return to England in 1815, Davy went on to produce the Davy lamp which was used by miners, although there is evidence to show that Davy "invented" his device at about the same time as an engineer, George Stephenson, but claimed all the credit for the invention.
He also showed that oxygen could not be obtained from the substance known as oxymuriatic acid and proved the substance to be an element, which he named chlorine. (However Carl Scheele is credited as the discoverer of chlorine. Scheele had discovered it 36 years before Davy, but was unable to publish his findings.) This discovery overturned Lavoisier's definition of acids as compounds of oxygen.
Acid and bases studies
In 1815 Davy suggested that acids were substances that contained replaceable hydrogen – hydrogen that could be partly or totally replaced by metals. When acids reacted with metals they formed salts. Bases were substances that reacted with acids to form salts and water. These definitions worked well for most of the century. Today we use the Brønsted-Lowry theory of acids and bases.
In 1818, he was awarded a baronetcy and two years later he became President of the Royal Society.
Further electrochemistry studies
In 1824 he proposed and eventually mounted chunks of iron to the hull of a copper clad ship in the first use of cathodic protection. Whilst this was effective in preventing the corrosion of copper, it eliminated the anti-fouling properties of the copper hull, leading to the attachment of molluscs and barnacles to the "protected" hull, slowing these ships and requiring extensive time in dry docks for defouling operations.
Davy died in Geneva, Switzerland, his various inhalations of chemicals finally taking its toll on his health. His laboratory assistant Michael Faraday went on to enhance his work and in the end became more famous and influential – to such an extent that Davy is supposed to have claimed Faraday as his greatest discovery. However, he later accused his assistant of plagiarism, causing Faraday (the first Fullerian Professor of Chemistry) to cease all research in electromagnetism until his mentor's death.