Biographies & Memoirs


Davy and the Lamp


After the hugely successful Geology Lectures of spring 1811 in Dublin, Humphry Davy returned to the west of England on a summer fishing expedition. Here, while innocently angling along the banks of the river Wye, he himself was hooked by a small, dark and vivacious Scottish beauty, Jane Apreece. For the first time in his life he fell desperately in love, and felt a power that might be greater than science.

Jane, who had heard him lecture in Ireland, was, initially at least, rather cool about him. She wrote to a friend on 4 March 1811: ‘Mr Davy is remarkably pleasant, & all the fashion & celebrity of admiration do not injure his unaffectedness. It is said that a more dangerous Power in the sprightly form of an Irish Peeress may probably burn some of his combustible matter & at least singe if not scarifying his heart.’1

Jane was thirty-one, a widow and an heiress. She was known in Edinburgh as a wit and a belle esprit. She dressed beautifully, and talked flamboyantly: she had a kind of electrical energy about her. Davy loved energy. Jane had travelled widely in Europe, and spoke fluent French and Italian. She could read Latin, and she liked going to lectures. She was clever, self-confident and original.

Apart from Anna Beddoes, Davy’s decade of success and glamour at the Royal Institution had brought him various flirtations, as evidenced by the many Valentine poems addressed to him there.2 But as he wrote to his mother, until he met Jane Apreece he had never seriously considered marriage, and had felt that a scientific career was not compatible with a wife and family. His true bride was Science. However, perhaps his notions of scientific celibacy were changing.

Jane was a romantic figure. She was the daughter of Charles Kerr of Kelso, who had made a fortune in Antigua, and left her a considerable inheritance. She may also have had some West Indian blood in her veins. There was certainly something tropical in her temperament. Her first marriage, at nineteen, to a much older man, a decrepit Welsh baronet languidly named Shuckburgh Ashby Apreece, had been unhappy and childless. Its best aspect, said Jane, was that he had frequently taken her abroad. In Geneva she made friends with Madame de Staël, and later claimed to be the original of the heroine of de Staël’s sensational romance Corinne (1807), about a lonely woman who finds love in southern climes.

She had other literary connections. She knew Sydney Smith and the waspish novelist Horace Walpole. In London, she once dined with William Blake. She was a subscriber to Coleridge’s philosophical magazine The Friend. Walter Scott was a distant cousin, and a close friend. In the summer of 1810 they had toured the Highlands and the Hebrides together, and he observed that she was headstrong, inquisitive and not frightened by storms. They got on well, teasing each other as cousins should, but Scott was clearly a little in awe of her. He wrote in his journal that he thought her ‘more French than English, and partaking of the Creole vivacity and suppleness’. It is not quite clear what he meant by this last compliment, perhaps that Jane was volatile and sexually provocative. She certainly had social ambitions: ‘as a lion-catcher, I would pit her against the world. She flung her lasso over Byron himself.’3

But Jane was also clever and independent-minded. After she was widowed in 1809, she established an intellectual salon in Heriot Row, and cut a swathe through the Scottish academics. She was particularly drawn to scientific men. The mathematician Professor John Playfair, who had superbly interpreted Hutton’s geology to the world, was said to have once knelt submissively in Princes Street to resolve the complicated stratifications of her laced boots. The wit Sydney Smith-who was also lecturing at the Royal Institution-was enchanted by her, and throughout his life retold endless suggestive anecdotes about her encounters. Everyone agreed that beneath a certain flamboyance and affectation, Jane had ‘an excellent heart’.

Evidently Jane Apreece was a vivid personality, and someone who attracted gossip all her life. Yet her story is not well-documented, compared to Davy’s, and it is strange for such a beauty that no portrait exists in a public collection.4 Little of her early correspondence is known to have survived, though it is remarkable that she eventually kept more than ninety of Davy’s letters to her.5 He began writing them in August 1811, after they had been briefly together in a sailing party on the Wye. He was still fishing at Denham and preparing his autumn lectures, while she had returned to Scotland. From the start his letters were a dreamy combination of science and sensibility: ‘The clear and rapid Colne which moves over a green bed, living with beautiful aquatic plants the flowers of which glisten on its surface, is immediately beneath the window at which I am writing…I have scarcely a wish beyond the present moment except that I might see you as the Naiad of this stream, but you are now a mountain Nymph & scorn our low and quiet pastoral scenery.’6 Receiving letters from her gave him ‘a higher sensation than even exhilatory gas. I may be permitted a chemical allusion as we are both now pursuing the same science.’7

Rather surprisingly, Davy consulted his old flame Anna Beddoes about Jane Apreece. Anna had met Jane socially through the Edgeworth family in Ireland, and Davy innocently passed on her barbed compliments. ‘Mrs Beddoes says “I do admire Mrs Apreece, I think her very pleasing, feel her abilities and almost believe if I knew her I should love her-more I suppose than she should love me.” ’8

That autumn, Jane left Edinburgh and moved to London, taking up residence in an elegant house at 16 Berkeley Square, strategically placed within ten minutes’ walk of the Royal Institution.9 Davy began sending her books-Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler, of course, but also Anacreon and other classical love poets. Then came copies of his Chemical Lectures ‘decyphered’ into plain English; and then-his own sonnets. She in turn began to attend his autumn lectures, announced that she was ‘of the true faith of the genuine Angler’, and gallantly set herself to undertake a private course of ‘chemical studies’.

It was now Jane’s turn to send verses to Davy, though these have not survived. He responded gravely: ‘Your mind is “of poetical frame” for there is no mind in which so much feeling is blended with so much thought.’ The man who had once seen the poems of Southey and Wordsworth through the press risked the mild criticism that perhaps her verses were a little artificial by Romantic standards: ‘You want only the habit of connecting pictures from natural imagery with moods of human passion to become a genuine poet.’10 Jane took this well.

Throughout that autumn Davy assiduously introduced Jane to the lions of the scientific world. She was escorted to his lectures by the distinguished chemist Professor Charles Hatchett (’we shall both be proud to be in your train’), and dined in a party with William Herschel, when they discussed the distance of the furthest stars.11 He was also able to introduce her to Robert Southey, and share literary gossip about the quarrel between Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Davy was now less intimate with Coleridge. In March 1809 Coleridge had come near to quarrelling with him, because Davy would not let the Royal Institution support his scheme to publish The Friend: ‘Davy’s conduct wounds me.’ Coleridge felt fame had gone to Davy’s head, and that his high-handed (or perhaps prudent) behaviour betrayed their friendship, even though they had been ‘intimate these nine years or more’. He claimed he had written a long poem-‘the only verses I have made for years’-praising Davy’s ‘Genius and great Services to mankind’. But now he had no thoughts of publishing it: Davy was too caught up in his own fame, exactly as Coleridge had once prophesied.12

But love, not fame, was on Davy’s mind. By 1 November he was writing to Jane with increasing intensity, the romantic fisherman now replaced by the romantic man of science. ‘There is a law of sensation which may be called the law of continuity & contrast of which you may read in Darwin’s Zoomania [sic]. An example is-look long on a spot of pink, & close your eyes, the impression will continue for some time & will then be succeeded by a green light. For some days after I quitted you I had the pink light in my eyes & the rosy feelings in my heart, but now the green hue & feelings-not of jealousy-but of regret are come.’13

When Davy left for his December lectures in Dublin, absence only deepened his feelings. His lectures were heaped with praise, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Trinity College, and was ‘overpowered’ by admirers at receptions and banquets. Yet despite all this, he could think of nothing but Jane Apreece. His courtship became more open and direct. Amidst his public triumph, Davy secretly gave way to the language of love. On 4 December 1811 he wrote from his rooms at the Dublin Society: ‘I have the power of dreaming and picture-making as strong as when I was fifteen. I call up the green woods and the gleams of sunshine darting through them, and the upland meadows where we took our long walk. I seem to hear, as then, the delightful sound of the nightingale interrupted by the more delightful sound of your voice. You will perhaps laugh at this visionary mood, and call it romance; but without such feelings life would be of little worth…Without this, its tones are like those of the Aeolian harp, broken, wild, and uncertain, fickle as the wind that produced them, beginning without order, ending without effect…To see you is the strongest wish of my heart.’14 The imagery of several of Coleridge’s poems rises opportunely through these letters.

On his return to the Royal Institution, Davy set himself to storm her with more scientific seductions. ‘You are my magnet (though you differ from a magnet in having no repulsive points) and direct my course.’ By March 1812 he was writing: ‘I no longer live for anything but you…Your felicity will be the pole star of my future course.’15 But he was intimidated by her aristocratic friends, and perhaps by her money. He may secretly have feared that Jane’s sparkling wit and love of socialising might interfere with the necessary routine and self-concentration of his laboratory work. He continued gallantly to insist that they would not; and what is more, so did she.

Jane, in turn, admired Davy’s brilliance, his handsome boyish figure, and the intellectual glamour that attached to him as celebrated lecturer. She had many other suitors at this point in her life, but none so intense or determined-or so serious. Perhaps that may have been a problem. In private she may have laughed at Davy’s didactic and over-earnest moments, the lecturer overcoming the suitor, as was sometimes revealed in the solemn longueurs of his love letters: ‘Your moral virtues always improved me & exalted my ideas of human nature.’ Jane was not impressed by her own moral virtues.

When she once teased him with being absurdly romantic about her, he was incapable of wittily turning the shaft, as Sydney Smith would certainly have done. Instead of a seductive epigram, he delivered a solemn oration. ‘If this be romantic, it is romantic to pursue one’s object in science; to attach the feelings strongly to any ideas; it is romantic to love the good, to admire the wise, to quit low and mean things and seek excellence.’16

Jane may also have been worried by his Cornish background, though in a way she was a social adventurer just like him. She shrewdly suspected that her only real rival was chemistry. Davy himself once unguardedly admitted that ‘the pleasure I derived from your conversation interfered with my scientific pursuits’, though hastily adding: ‘I have gained much and lost but little.’17

On this score, both sets of friends predicted disaster. She was made for society, he was made for the laboratory. Sydney Smith, now clearly jealous, cattily used chemical imagery to beg Jane to reject Davy out of hand. On 29 December he wrote: ‘Pray remain single and marry nobody…you will be annihilated the moment you do, and instead of being an exciting alkali or acid, become a neutral salt. You may very likely be happier yourself, but you will be lost to your male friends.’18

So Jane Apreece prevaricated in a way that Jane Austen (just writing Pride and Prejudice) would have approved of. She twice refused Davy’s offers of marriage, took to her bed in Berkeley Square and announced she was ill and incommunicado. But she was astonished by the tender and unguarded declaration this released from Davy: ‘For the first time in my life I have wished to be a woman that I might watch by your bedside; I might wish that I had not given up the early pursuit of medicine for then I might have been admitted as a Physician. Though an untoward Beau, you would find no more devoted Nurse.’19 In the passionate declarations that followed, it seems that each was able to reassure the other. Davy agreed to the momentous step of giving up full-time lecturing at the Royal Institution (a thing he had secretly wanted to do for some time), while Jane assured him that her fortune would allow them to travel, while he continued his chemical researches independently. This was a tantalising prospect for both of them.

Davy had one further scientific seduction to offer. He confided to Jane that the Prince Regent was about to confer a knighthood upon him, for services to chemistry, in the forthcoming Birthday Honours. It would be the first scientific knighthood of the Regency, indeed the first since Sir Isaac Newton. She need no longer feel ashamed of him at the dinner tables of Mayfair. At the third time of asking, Davy’s proposal of marriage to Jane Apreece was at last accepted. He reacted with genuine rapture. T have passed a night sleepless from excess of happiness. It seems to me as if I began to live only a few hours ago…The great future object of my life will be your happiness…My happiness will be entirely in your will.’20

Congratulations were now in order, and Sir Joseph Banks was pleased and rather amused that one of his young scientific protégés had made such a fine-and wealthy-match: ‘She has fallen in love with Science and marries him in order to obtain a footing in the Academic Groves…It will give to Science a new kind of eclat; we want nothing so much as the countenance of the ladies to increase our popularity.’21 Banks evidently teased the bridegroom in a worldly way. ‘Davy is on the point of being married to the gentle Dame Apreece who has at least £4,000 a year, the half of it her own. He swears he will never desert Science. I tell him she will bring him into Parliament and make a fool of him. We shall see how this matter will end.’

Davy had no such political ambitions, and believed that Jane fully accepted his passionate commitment to science. In fact Banks was quite handsome about Jane, and saw her as a valuable, if probably bossy, addition to the social life of the Royal Society: ‘If she is satisfied with being installed as the Queen of Literature we shall all be ready to put ourselves under her Dominion, and I think she is Quick and Clever enough to reign over us and keep us all in very Good Order.’ Coming from Banks, who had no high opinion of bluestockings, this was handsome indeed.22

Davy wrote delightedly to his mother in Penzance, proudly and rather grandly announcing the news. He said that but for Jane, he had never expected to marry. His letter to his younger brother John of March 1812 has a touching nobility and simplicity.

My dear John,

Many thanks for your last letter. I have been very miserable. The lady whom I love best of any human being, has been very ill. She is now well and I am happy.

Mrs Apreece has consented to marry me, and when this event takes place, I shall not envy kings, princes, or potentates.

Do not fall in love. It is very dangerous!…

Ever most affectionately yours

H. Davy.23

The romantic dénouement was carefully orchestrated. In April Davy delivered what was agreed would be his final lectures at the Royal Institution. He was awarded an emeritus professorship, and granted the continuing use of all research facilities. On 8 April he was knighted by the Prince Regent, and three days later, on 11 April, he married Mrs Apreece, who thereupon became Lady Davy.

Among much expensive jewellery, he gave her a symbolic wedding present. He had collected a decade of his Royal Institution lectures, and now edited and assembled them as his Elements of Chemical Philosophy. This book was the cornerstone of his early scientific career, and proclaimed the progressive value of science and its power to ‘investigate and master’ nature. On 1 June it was published with a formal dedication to Lady Jane Davy.24

Chemical Philosophy was too technical to achieve a wide general readership, but it contained a powerful historical ‘Introduction’, which placed chemistry at the forefront of all contemporary scientific research. By contrast, his more popular Agricultural Chemistry, published simultaneously, ran to many editions over the next decade. With these two publications, for which he was paid 1,000 guineas (a sum which compares well with what Walter Scott received for his poems), Davy had made chemistry as popular as astronomy.25 He himself seemed to symbolise the hopes and ambitions of Romantic science to produce a better world for all mankind. Among others, the young poet Percy Shelley began to incorporate Davy’s ideas into his work, beginning with his visionary materialist poem Queen Mab of 1812, with its long scientific prose notes.26

Shelley’s book order for 29 July 1812, when he was beginning the poem at Lynmouth in Devon, included Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, David Hartley’s Observations on Man and Davy’s Elements of Chemical Philosophy: a characteristic mixture of radical politics, sceptical philosophy and the new science. The vogue for attaching explanatory prose notes, both historical and scientific, to epic poems had been popularised by Erasmus Darwin in The Botanic Garden, taken up by Southey in Thalaba (which Davy had edited for the press), and then admiringly imitated by the twenty-year-old Shelley in Queen Mab. Underlying it was the formal problem of how far scientific data could any longer be convincingly expressed in poetry (as Lucretius had done). De Quincey would later suggest that they had to be separated as the ‘Literature of Knowledge’ and the ‘Literature of Power’. Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820) was to be arguably the last successful attempt to combine the two in a major English poem.27

Davy’s lectures in Chemical Philosophy opened with a brilliant short survey of the entire field: ‘An Historical View of the Progress of Chemistry’.28 Starting with the early Egyptians and the Greeks, continuing with the ‘delusions’ of medieval alchemists and the revolutionary discoveries of the early Royal Society in seventeenth-century London, he then celebrated the astonishing advance of Enlightenment chemistry throughout Europe over the past thirty years, culminating in the work of Priestley, Cavendish and Lavoisier, and his own discoveries in electrochemistry, which he emphasised were being rapidly developed by many other chemists on the Continent. Davy was notably generous to the French-Lavoisier, Berthollet and Gay-Lussac-and the Scandinavians; but he drew a convincing picture of an entire scientific community of minds at work across Europe. He made numerous unexpected asides: the importance of Arabic chemistry, the witty suggestion that Cleopatra might have been an ‘experimental’ chemist with her love potions, the crucial importance of ‘new instruments’ (such as the voltaic battery) in taking research forward, and the paradoxical fact that Newton’s genius in many ways hindered chemistry by turning attention to ‘optics, mechanics, and astronomy’.29

Most striking is Davy’s power to engage the reader in a direct, non-technical way. The essay opens with poetic simplicity: ‘The gradual and almost imperceptible decay of the leaves and branches of a fallen tree exposed to the atmosphere, and the rapid combustion of wood in our fires, are both chemical operations. The object of Chemical Philosophy is to ascertain the causes of all phenomena of this kind, and to discover the laws by which they are governed. The ends of this branch of knowledge are the applications of natural substances to new uses, for increasing the comforts and enjoyments of man; and for the demonstrating of the order, harmony, and intelligent design of the system of the earth.’30

From this time chemistry joined astronomy and botany as the most popular and accessible forms of modern science for amateurs, and as a new doorway into the ‘intelligent design’ of the universe. It was a sign of the times that ‘Portable Chemical Chests’ began to go on sale in Piccadilly, priced between six and twenty guineas.31 Davy would later emphasise how few pieces of equipment an experimental chemist needed.32 Chemistry guides and primers, besides Jane Marcet’s, began to be widely available. Coleridge reflected in one of his notebooks of this time: ‘Whoever attended a first Course of Chemical Lectures, or read for the first time a Compendium of modern Chemistry (Lavoisier, Parkinson, Thomson, or Brande) without experiencing, even as a sensation, a sudden enlargement & emancipation of his Intellect, when the conviction first flashed upon him that the Flame of the Gaslight, and the River Water were the very same things (= elements) and different only as AB uniting with B, and as AB united?’33

While annotating the visionary works of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, Coleridge added a further aside on the clarifying intellectual impact of the scientific approach: ‘Humphry Davy in his laboratory is probably doing more for the Science of Mind, than all the Metaphysicians have done from Aristotle to Hartley, inclusive.’34 Later he would fear, wrongly, that Davy was becoming a ‘mere Atomist’, but his recognition of the significance of Davy’s ‘chemical revolution’ and the ‘dynamic’ vision of nature that it revealed never faltered, despite their personal estrangement.35

In many ways spring 1812 was the climax of Davy’s early career. The unknown boy from Penzance had achieved a European reputation in science, an emeritus professorship and a knighthood, and a glamorous society marriage. Yet he was still only thirty-three. A formal visit to Cornwall by the new Lady Davy was promised at this moment of celebration, but never in fact materialised. It seems that Davy was still embarrassed by his humble roots.

A rather unusual honeymoon followed in Scotland that summer. They were joined by Davy’s younger brother John, now twenty-two years old, the only member of her husband’s family that Jane ever met. He was fresh from medical studies in Edinburgh, and very much on his best behaviour. Jane approved. They embarked on a tour of misty lochs and highland castles. Davy frequently leapt from the open carriage and abruptly disappeared with his fishing tackle to explore a river, while John was left to manage the horses and amuse Jane. This arrangement worked well, and there was much hilarity, some at Davy’s expense. Jane would recall it regretfully the following year, while touring in different circumstances.

The official holiday business was salmon-fishing and grouse-shooting. But the Davys were a celebrity party, the most eminent scientific family in the land, and they stayed in succession with the Marquis of Stafford, the Duke of Gordon, the Duke of Atholl and Lord Mansfield. This was delightful and natural for Jane, but also appealed to Davy, who had a growing relish for aristocratic company. Their triumphal progress was finally cut short in September by Jane twisting her foot, and Davy achieving his ambition of shooting a stag.36

They were much in love, but there was no talk of children, and no visit to Davy’s beloved childhood haunts in Cornwall. Instead, he wrote to his mother praising John’s behaviour during the trip, and generously offering to pay his student allowance of £60 per annum. Perhaps on Jane’s promptings, he was also tactful towards his younger brother: ‘Lest it should injure John’s feelings of independence, it may appear to come from you.’ As to Jane: ‘She desires her kind remembrances to all my family. We are as happy and well-suited as I believe it is possible for people to be; we have nothing to regret in our past lives, and everything to hope for.’37

Perhaps there was something wistful in that last phrase. Yet all was well, and the prospects for the glamorous young couple were glowing. Davy was soon happily back at work in the laboratory, and a further tour-perhaps even to Jane’s beloved Italy-was planned for the following spring.


Davy now began his life as an independent man of science. His first project, with the blessing of the Royal Society, was a patriotic one: he intended to contribute to the British war effort. He began to investigate explosives, using a formula communicated to him by the French physicist André Ampère. This was not at the Royal Institution, but at a secret commercial manufactory at Tunbridge in Kent. The plan was to produce improved high explosives for the Royal Engineers. They were to be used against Napoleon’s troops in Spain, for the mining of besieged cities and the blowing up of fortifications during the Peninsular War. The scheme had the unofficial encouragement of Joseph Banks, although it was dangerous work. Ampère warned Davy that one French chemist had lost an eye and a finger.

In November 1812 Davy was nearly blinded by a test tube explosion while mixing chlorine and ammonium nitrate. Slivers of glass punctured his cornea, and cut his cheek. He informed Banks at the Royal Society that he had discovered a substance so powerful that a quantity as small as ‘a grain of mustard seed’ had caused the damage. He did not remark on the more sinister slant this gave to the principle of scientific progress, or on the paradox that French science was being turned against the French. He tried to hide the seriousness of the ‘slight accident’ from Jane, telling her on 2 November, ‘there is no evil without a good, always excepting the toothache’. But his vision was seriously impaired for many weeks, and he sought for an amanuensis to help him write up his report for the Royal Society.38

Some odd rumours went around about this accident. William Ward, the future Lord Dudley and a prize London gossip, wrote speculatively to a friend in December: ‘I have been to see Sir Humphry Davy Kt, who has hurt one of his eyes. Some say it happened when he was composing a new fulminating oil, and this I presume is the story that the Royal Society and the Institut Imperial [in Paris] are expected to believe; others that it was occasioned by the blowing up of one of his own powder mills at Tunbridge; others again that Lady D scratched it in a moment of jealousy-and this account is chiefly credited in domestic circles.’39

But other gossips gave an idyllic impression of the couple. Henry Crabb Robinson, garrulous friend of the Lake Poets and one-time foreign correspondent for The Times, came across the them at a London literary dinner given for Wordsworth a few months later, in May 1813. He noted in his diary: ‘Sir Humphry and Lady Davy there. She and Sir H seem hardly to have finished their honeymoon. Miss Joanna Baillie [the Scottish playwright] said to Wordsworth, “We have witnessed a picturesque happiness!” ’40 Not the least picturesque thing was the way in which the Davys effortlessly united the worlds of literature, science and high society.

When Davy had returned to London, half-blinded in a patriotic cause, he urgently sought help to continue his experiments. In his absence he found an increasing chaos had overtaken the Royal Institution laboratory. The most basic materials were neglected-pens, ink, towels, soap, the servicing of the huge voltaic battery. ‘The laboratory is constantly in a state of dirt and confusion…I am now writing with a pen and ink such as was never used in any other place.’41 Although no longer officially on the staff, Davy peremptorily dismissed the drunken laboratory assistant William Payne, and began to search for a replacement. On 1 March he interviewed a young bookbinder for the post of Chemical Assistant at the Royal Institution. The young man’s father had been a London blacksmith. His chief recommendations were punctuality, neatness and sobriety. His name was Michael Faraday, aged twenty-one.

Faraday had read Jane Marcet’s Conversations in Chemistry, Mainly intended for Young Females, which particularly singled out Davy’s contribution. Her book was a new kind of science popularisation, aimed at opening ‘young minds’ to scientific methods and the wonders of the natural universe.42 The first edition (1806) had cautiously recounted Davy’s experiments with ‘nitrous oxide or exhilarating gas’ (’some people become violent, even outrageous…I would not run any risk of that kind’). In the new edition (1811) Marcet gave a heroic assessment of Davy’s Bakerian Lectures. ‘In the course of two years, by the unparalleled exertions of a single individual, chemical science has assumed a new aspect. Bodies have been brought to light which the human eye never before beheld, and which might have remained eternally concealed under their impenetrable disguise.’43

Thus inspired, Faraday had begun attending Davy’s lectures in 1812, having been given free tickets. He had taken detailed notes, immaculately written out and illustrated in his neat hand. He then bound them in his spare time at the bookbindery where he worked off Oxford Street. When interviewed by Davy, he submitted the bound book as his curriculum vitae and proof of his dedication. He was given lodgings in the attic of the Royal Institution, coal and candles and an evening meal, and a tiny salary of twenty-five shillings a week. Davy described him as ‘active and cheerful, and his manner intelligent’.44

His new employer immediately departed on a recuperative fishing expedition, writing to Jane from Launceston in Devon on 9 March 1813: ‘The weather my dear love has been delightful. We have traced one of the Devonshire streams to its rocky source (the Dart). It is a river clear, blue and bright.’45 If he used this expedition to make a swift visit to his mother at Penzance, he did not mention it.

The following month Davy went off on another fishing trip, this time to Hampshire, where the sight of flies dancing above the river in the evening light, and fish sporting on the surface of the water, was simply ‘irresistible’. Writing to Jane from Whitechurch on 14 April, he tried to construct a humorous mythology of his escapes: ‘I flirt with the water nymphs, but you are my constant goddess. I make you the personification of the spirit of the woods, and the waters, and the hills, and the clouds…This is the earliest form of religion.’ He slightly jeopardised this sylvan vision, by then competitively informing his wife in a postscript that he had caught five trout, while his friends had only caught one between them all.46 He wrote again more reassuringly the following day. T breathe a sigh upon my paper from the thought of being apart from you for only two days. My dear, dear Love creates a void which no interest or amusement can fill…The longer I live, the more I shall love you, my dearest Jane.’47

For all his protestations, a pattern in Davy’s flights to the riverbank was becoming clearer. Jane was often ‘indisposed’ in London, or else embarked on a vigorous round of tea parties and receptions. Davy, exhausted by laboratory work, became ‘irritable’ and sought the open air. As he wrote from the banks of the Avon near Fordingbridge, he was soothed by the simple fact of ‘the moving water and changing sky’.

Sometimes he hoped Jane would join him. On the riverbank ‘one learns as it were to become a part of nature; the world and its cares & business are forgotten, all passions are laid asleep…We live a life of simplicity and innocence according to the primary laws of nature, losing all trifling and uneasy thoughts, keeping only what constitutes the vitality of our being, the noble affections. Of mine, you know the highest and constant object.’48 But, understandably, Jane may have had her reservations about the ‘primary laws of nature’, for they could also mean the sporty masculine life of competitive fly-fishing, interminable tall stories and riverside taverns.

That spring of 1813 in London, Jane in turn tried introducing Davy to a new sport of fashionable lionising. Young Lord Byron had recently returned from the Near East and published the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) and The Bride of Abydos (1813). He was taking the literary salons and ladies by storm, and proved an early capture. Jane wrote airily to a friend back in Edinburgh: ‘Lord Byron is still here, but talking of Greece with the feelings of a poet and the intentions of a Wanderer. He is to have a quiet breakfast here with the intention of an Introduction to Miss Edgeworth…I expect the sense of one, the imagination of the other, with the genius of my own Treasure [Davy] to afford a high intellectual banquet.’49 Unexpectedly, Byron and Davy hit it off rather well, and later when His Lordship was self-exiled in Italy, Davy remained one of the few Englishmen that he could stand to meet. He would even put him in his poem Don Juan (1819-24).

Davy continued to compensate for London socialising with solitary fishing, sometimes slipping as far away as his beloved Cornwall. On 15 April 1813 he wrote Jane a long, tender letter from Bodmin, describing himself alone beside a remote river at sunset: ‘About the time you were sitting down to dinner I was standing in the midst of a secluded valley upon a bridge above the fork of the [river] Allan, watching the last purple of the sky dying away upon the rapid water, and by its decay making visible a bright star.’ There is perhaps an undertone of reproach in this, yet also a kind of romantic understanding. As often as he could, Davy sent her propitiatory fish wrapped in ice on the overnight mail coach to London: gleaming trout and tender young grayling.50


In the north of England, far from the London salons, quite other events were unfolding. On 24 May 1812 the great Felling colliery mining disaster had shaken the population of Sunderland. Every miner in the coalpit, all ninety-two of them, was killed under horrific circumstances: some mutilated, some ‘scorched dry like mummies’, and some blown headless out of the mineshaft ‘like bird-shot’. An underground fire raged for many days, and it took more than six weeks before the bodies could be recovered.51 Hitherto Felling had been a model pit, with a clean accident record. The disaster shook the whole mining community of the North-East. Ever deeper mineshafts were bringing increasing fatalities, and it was calculated that over 300 miners had been killed in the past five years, almost all by explosion of ‘fire-damp’. This was a lethal gas released by newly opened coal seams. It was believed to be some form of hydrogen, which when mixed with air could be ignited by a single miner’s candle flame.

A Safety Committee led by the Duke of Northumberland and the Bishop of Durham was formed to find a practical solution. Campaigns were launched by the vicar of Jarrow, the Rev. John Hodgson, and by Dr Robert Gray, a future Bishop of Bristol. Mining experts put forward various ideas, including ventilation schemes and several prototype safety lamps, one manufactured by Dr William Clanny, a Sunderland physician, and another by a local mining engineer, George Stephenson. But none was considered sufficiently effective or reliable, and the Committee dithered. A second explosion shook the Felling colliery in December 1813, and a further twenty-two men died. Matters now became urgent. After several meetings it was decided that a professional scientific opinion should be sought at a national level, and an official approach by Dr Gray to Sir Humphry Davy in London was decided upon. But by the time a letter was sent to the Royal Institution in the winter of 1813, Davy and Jane were already on the Continent.52

On 13 October 1813 Sir Humphry and Lady Davy (very conscious of both their rank and their nationality) embarked in their own carriage on an eighteen-month Continental tour. With them went the young Michael Faraday as their travelling companion: awkward, socially naïve, but very anxious to please. He belonged to a rare sect of Biblical fundamentalists, the Sandemanians, puritan and unworldly in outlook, though with a strong sense of public duty and service. Davy treated him easily, as he had done in the laboratory: as a scientific assistant and promising young protégé. Jane, with her happy memories of travelling with John Davy in Scotland, was less patient. Faraday had never travelled outside London, spoke no French or Italian, was shy and uncouth, and probably embarrassed by Jane’s high style and evident sexuality.

She in turn may also have found Faraday physically awkward, and even irritating. He was small and stocky-not more than five foot four-with a large head that always seemed slightly too big for his body. His broad, open face was surrounded by an unruly mass of curling hair parted rather punctiliously in the middle (a style he never abandoned). His large, dark, wide-apart eyes gave him a curious air of animal innocence. He spoke all his life with a flat London accent (no match for Jane’s elegant Morningside), and had difficulty in pronouncing his ‘r’s, so that as he himself said, he was always destined to introduce himself as ‘Michael Fawaday’. In fact none of this prevented him from eventually becoming one of the greatest public lecturers of his generation. But it evidently did not appeal to Jane.53

There was no meeting of minds, and Jane simply started to treat Faraday as a valet. She insisted that he travel on the outside of the coach with the luggage and her husband’s chemical equipment. A difficult trip followed, despite Davy’s pleasing lionisation by French and Italian scientists. Perhaps as a technique of personal survival, Faraday immediately started to keep a daily journal of his adventures (which has survived), and began an extensive and surprisingly humorous correspondence with his friend Benjamin Abbott of the City Philosophical Society back in London.54

On 2 November Davy received the Prix Napoléon (worth 6,000 livres) from the Institut de France in Paris. He knew that accepting the award might be unpopular in wartime England, but followed Banks’s line at the Royal Society that science should be above national conflicts. He told Tom Poole: ‘Some people say I ought not to accept this prize; and there have been foolish paragraphs in the papers to that effect; but if the two countries or governments are at war, the men of science are not. That would, indeed, be a civil war of the worst description: we should rather, through the instrumentality of men of science, soften the asperities of national hostility.’55

This attitude was unpopular at home, and The Times attacked Davy’s journey as unpatriotic in a time of war. Even the liberal-minded Leigh Hunt wrote a long editorial in the Examiner for 24 October 1813, defending the international dignity of science, but also criticising Davy for indulging in ‘paltry vanity’ among French admirers in Paris. Hunt wittily imagined his triumphal progress down the Parisian boulevards: ‘Ah, there is the grande philosophe, Davie!’-‘See here the interesting Chevalier Humphrey!56

In fact Davy carefully avoided an audience with Napoleon himself, and referred to him contemptuously as ‘the Corsican robber’.57 Jane refused to adopt Parisian fashions, and was once jeered at by a crowd in the Tuileries for her small English hat. They were both appalled by all the looted works of art in the Louvre (then renamed the Musée Napoléon), and pretended to admire only ‘the splendid picture-frames’. But Davy was deeply impressed by the Jardin des Plantes and the Bibliothèque Nationale, fully aware that there was still no equivalent in London.

He was warmly received by Cuvier, Ampère and Berthollet, but got into an awkward priority dispute with the gifted young chemist Joseph Gay-Lussac. Gay-Lussac, Davy’s exact contemporary, had made a popular name in France with his intrepid ballooning exploits, and had been hard on Davy’s heels with potassium and sodium experiments. Both were now given by the Académie des Sciences a newly isolated substance to analyse: a strange violet crystal recently found as a byproduct of gunpowder manufacture. The competitive nature of this gesture was unmistakeable. Davy had only his small trunk of portable chemical apparatus to work with, but accepted the challenge with alacrity. He delayed his departure from Paris for a month, closeting himself with Faraday, filling his hotel rooms with acrid fumes and ‘very bright greenest yellow’ gas, much to Faraday’s delight, Jane’s irritation and the management’s alarm.58

The rival analytic papers were submitted to the Académie almost simultaneously in December. Both identified the crystals as a new element, which could also be extracted from seaweed. Gay-Lussac’s short paper was actually presented and published first, on 12 December. Davy, taken by surprise, presented his to the Académie on 13 December, but unblushingly antedated it to 11 December, and had it published as such in the Journal de Physique. He claimed, perhaps justly, that he had previously shared his key ideas with Gay-Lussac.59 He also wrote to Banks claiming the entire discovery for himself, and had a full account swiftly published by the Royal Society. In consequence his analysis and naming of the unknown substance as ‘iodine’ was generally accepted, although the priority remains disputed by the French to this day.

Davy’s surprising sharpness in such a ‘priority’ controversy was noticed by Faraday, but writing to Abbott he loyally dismissed it as patriotism rather than ambition: ‘Sir H has not been idle in experimental chemistry…his example did great things in urging the Parisian chemists to exertion…He first showed that [iodine] was a simple body. He combined it with chlorine and hydrogen, and latterly with oxygen, and thus has added three acids of a new species to the science…It confirms all Sir H’s former opinions and statements, and shows the inaccuracy of the labours of the French chemists on the same subject.’60

In early spring 1814 Davy’s party travelled south to the Pyrenees, examining extinct volcanoes on the way, and making a leisurely cultural detour to visit Avignon, the Pont du Gard, Nîmes and Montpellier, with its strong tradition of Vitalist thought. Here Davy was an honoured guest of the ancient university for a month, continued his experiments on iodine, and wrote a number of descriptive poems about the South: the foaming rivers of Vaucluse, the shifting lights on Mont Canigou in the Pyrenees, the classic ‘Mediterranean Pine’ at Montpellier, and the ghosts of the Roman engineers at the massive stone aqueduct of the Pont du Gard.

Work of a mighty people, of a race

Whose monuments, with those of Nature, last.

The Roman mind in all its projects grasped

Eternal Empire, looked to no decay,

And worked for generations yet unborn,

Hence was its power so lasting.61 

The party then doubled back along the coast, through what would soon become the English ‘Riviera’, and slipped over the Alps into Italy for the summer and autumn. Taking an open boat from Genoa, they were nearly swamped in a violent squall off Lerici: just eight years later Shelley would drown there. Faraday noted mischievously that Lady Davy fell blessedly silent as she gazed at the waves. In Milan they interviewed the ageing Volta, and discussed the expanding mystery of electricity: ‘his view rather limited’, thought Davy, ‘but marking great ingenuity’.

In Florence, while the guest of the Grand Duke, Davy performed an impressive carbon-based experiment which proved that the most apparently precious of objects-the diamond-could also be the product of nature’s simplest processes. With the Duke’s permission, he commandeered the huge solar magnifying lens at the Florentine Cabinet of Natural History, and subjected an uncut diamond to intense and continuous heat. The diamond eventually burst into flame, leaving a fine crust of black carbon, thereby proving, against all the commonsense evidence, that the clear, hard, glittering crystal was really little more than a lump of coal. Both were varieties of carbon, laid down by nature over millennia.

In was perhaps reflections on this kind of mystery that led Davy to write a long, self-questioning passage in his journal about the limits of contemporary scientific research. Significantly, he picked out three leading disciplines-astronomy, chemistry, and geology. This entry of March 1814 is surrounded by sketches of birds diving into water.

Our artificial Science has relation to the forms of Nature; but yet that which is most important in Nature-Life-is above our Science. The Astronomer vainly asserts the perfection of his Science because he is capable of determining the motions of 7 planets and 22 satellites; but comets & meteors which even move in our system are above his reach, & even this solar system is a speck in the immensity of space & suns and worlds are beyond our reach.

Our Science [chemistry] refers to the globe only, & in this there is an endless field for investigation: the interior is unknown; the causes of Volcanoes. We have just learnt some truths with respect to the surface: but there is an immensity beneath us.-Geology in every sense of the word is a superficial science.62

This expressed in private, perhaps as a result of conversations with young Faraday, a scepticism about scientific knowledge that was very different from the confident assertions of Davy’s Chemical Philosophy. But it also prophesied the very developments being pioneered by Herschel in sidereal astronomy, and by Hutton in deep-time geology.

They visited Rome, where Davy was enchanted by the Coliseum by moonlight, and Naples, where they climbed a sinister and smoking Vesuvius. In Venice they gingerly sampled the gondolas. All these places would eventually reappear, strangely transformed, in Davy’s last book, Consolations in Travel. During the summer heat they pushed back over the Alps into Switzerland, Bavaria and the Austrian mountains, where Davy found remote, fast-flowing rivers for trout-and salmon-fishing, to which he vowed to return. His most favoured region, in the Balkan peninsula, rejoiced in the magical name of Illyria. All the time Davy and Faraday were working on chemical experiments: iodine, chlorine, dyes, gases, and the electricity produced by the ‘torpedo’ or conger eel. Was the eel nature’s voltaic battery, and did it hold a clue to Vitalism?-a question which would come to haunt Davy.

In autumn 1814 they travelled slowly south again into Italy, planning to winter in Rome. Riding through Florence in October, they heard of some strange natural gases escaping from rock formations in the Apennines at Pietra Mala, near Lucca. They rode over to investigate just as the autumn storms (later to be celebrated by Shelley in ‘Ode to the West Wind’) broke. Faraday wrote an exuberant account of this field expedition, undertaken for several hours in the pouring rain, while Lady Davy sat back patiently in the carriage. Davy forgot about everything when they discovered that the mysterious gas could be stirred up from mud with a stick, and could be ignited even in the heavy rain, burning beautifully with a ‘very pale’ blue flame, like methylated spirits or ‘the flame of spirits of wine’.

They stood in the downpour, gazing at the weird blue pool of fire shimmering at their feet. Faraday watched Davy’s quick investigative mind observing, eliminating, racing ahead: an unusually cool flame (not like burning oxygen); almost no smell (unlike hydrogen); not at all like volcanic gas (as everyone assumed it was); possibly not from a local source, but percolating from ‘a great distance’ beneath the earth; possibly therefore ‘originating from a mine of fossil charcoal’. And then the careful inductive caveat:‘but everything is conjecture & it still remains a source of investigation’.63

They succeeded in bottling it, and took it to Florence, where they were again the guests of the Grand Duke. After dining with the Duke (much to Lady Davy’s satisfaction), Davy precipitately left the table and commandeered the Duke’s laboratories. Here he succeeded in identifying the gas as fire-damp (or methane), very similar to the gas that endangered British coalmines-a prophetic discovery. The investigation was a model of the three-part inductive method he had expounded in Elements of Chemical Philosophy: observation, experiment, analogy.

Davy’s notebooks for this period also suggest a new pattern of philosophical speculation, almost approaching German Naturphilosophie. Some of his observations would have been recognised by Coleridge: ‘The aspirations for immortality are movements of the mind similar to those which a bird makes with its wings before they are furnished with feathers.’64 Others were more closely tied to his laboratory work. On the subject of scientific ‘analogy’, for instance, he wondered if there was a wider principle at work. ‘Probably there is an analogy in all existence: the divided tail of the fish is linked in a long succession of like objects with the biped man. In the planetary system it is probable man will be found connected with a higher intellectual nature; and it is possible that the monad, or soul, is constantly undergoing a series of progressions.’65

Davy would later come back to the question of man’s progressing towards extraterrestrial intelligences in the future. He reflected too on the past: on the way it was continuously redrawn by a partial present. ‘Our histories of past events are somewhat like the wrecks upon the sea-beach: things are often thrown up because they happen to be light, or because they have been entangled in sea-weed: i.e. facts are preserved which suit the temper or party of a particular historian.’66

Throughout, Faraday continued his series of long letters to his friend Benjamin Abbott in London, extolling the ‘glorious opportunities’ of the trip. ‘The constant presence of Sir HD is a mine of inexhaustible knowledge.’ Yet after a lively account of his adventures with ‘Sir H’, including climbing Vesuvius in the dark and gathering coal gas in the rain, he began to admit that the months of travelling with Lady Davy were less than happy. In January 1815 he wrote: ‘I should have but little to complain of were I travelling with Sir Humphry alone, or were Lady Davy like him, but her temper makes it often times go wrong with me, with herself & with Sir H. She is haughty & proud to an excessive degree and delights in making her inferiors feel her power.’ It is not known what Jane herself made of the young Faraday, a tongue-tied companion, hating the foreign food, uninterested in politics or architecture and still unable to speak French or Italian (though learning). He admitted himself that he was gauche and needed to become ‘more acquainted with the manners of the world’, and learn to ‘laugh at her whims’. But perhaps it did not occur to him that Lady Davy might be jealous of his relationship with her husband.67

Another letter in late February threw slightly different light on the situation. Much of the difficulty arose from the fact that Sir H had refused to employ a valet throughout the trip, ‘being accustomed from early years to do for himself’. Lady Davy had taken advantage of this (although she had her own maid). She liked to ‘show her authority’, and was ‘extremely earnest in mortifying’ Faraday with humiliating requests. Perhaps Jane might have described this more as ‘teasing’ the extremely earnest Faraday. However, after occasional confrontations and even ‘quarrels’ with her (which Faraday felt he consistently won) she now behaved ‘in a milder manner’.68 By the end of the trip they seem to have rubbed along reasonably well, and Faraday had given up a secret threat (made to Abbott) to abandon chemistry altogether, ‘and return to my old Profession of Bookseller’. Davy seemed largely unaware of these domestic difficulties, trying to ‘remain neuter’, as Faraday put it in a curious phrase. Perhaps this was not a good sign for the future.

In March 1815, news of Napoleon’s escape from Elba cut short a Grand Tour that had already lasted for seventeen months. Davy had originally planned to take his party as far as Greece and Turkey, but perhaps it was a relief to hurry home. On 23 April 1815 he was back in London, making sure that Faraday (now twenty-three) was promoted to a permanent post as Assistant to the Laboratory at the Royal Institution on £75 per annum, and encouraging him to start giving his own chemical lectures at the City Philosophical Society. He also urged him to publish his first scientific papers. All this marked a distinct advance under Davy’s patronage. Davy himself was appointed Vice-President of the Institution, which gave him access to the laboratory, and allowed him to continue acting as Faraday’s unofficial tutor.

But as he established one protégé, he lost another. Davy’s beloved brother John, now twenty-five, had decided to give up medical research and join the army as a military doctor. He would be stationed abroad, largely in the Mediterranean, for the next twenty years. Davy would spend much time trying to entice him back so they could work together again, but would only achieve this under dismaying circumstances. John had been Davy’s closest confidant, and his link with Penzance and his happy past. Now that was increasingly lost.

With Jane, Davy bought a beautiful new house at 23 Lower Grosvenor Street, in the heart of Mayfair, and began dining regularly with Banks and other members of the Royal Society. The couple were much in demand socially. A visiting American scholar from Cambridge, Massachusetts, breakfasted with Davy at Lower Grosvenor Street in June, just after they had moved in. George Ticknor knew of the Bakerian Lectures, and Davy received him in his most expansive mood.

London 8 June 1815. I breakfasted this morning with Sir Humphry Davy, of whom we have all heard so much in America. He is now about thirty-three, but with all the freshness and bloom of five and twenty, and one of the handsomest men I have seen in England. He has a great deal of vivacity, talks rapidly, though with great precision, and is so much interested in conversation that his excitement amounts to nervous impatience and keeps him in constant motion. He has just returned from Italy and delights to talk of it.

This almost aggressive youthfulness and animation (in fact Davy was thirty-six) was not at all what Ticknor had expected from the distinguished chemist, let alone his fascination with Italian art and culture. ‘It seemed singular that his taste in this should be so acute, when his professional eminence is in a province so different and so remote.’

But perhaps George Ticknor was a rather earnest academic, for there are signs that Davy began to tease him over the teacups. ‘I was much more surprised when I found that the first Chemist of his time was a professed angler; and that he thinks, if he were obliged to renounce fishing or philosophy, that he would find the struggle of his choice pretty severe.’ Jane avoided this interview altogether, tactfully sending a message down that she was ‘unwell’. When Ticknor did eventually catch up with her, he was impressed by her dark good looks, and what he called ‘the choice and variety of her phraseology’.69

In a thoughtful mood Davy wrote a new kind of metaphysical poem, ‘The Massy Pillars of the Earth’. It reflects on the human condition, and suggests that since nothing is ever destroyed in the physical universe, only transformed (the First Law of Thermodynamics), then man himself must be immortal in some spiritual sense. It also returns in a new way to Davy’s early Cornish beliefs about starlight as the source of all energy in the universe:

Nothing is lost; the ethereal fire,

Which from the farthest star descends,

Through the immensity of space

Its course by worlds attracted bends,

To reach the earth; the eternal laws

Preserve one glorious wise design;

Order amidst confusion flows

And all the system is divine.

If matter cannot be destroyed,

Then living mind can never die;

If e’en creative when alloy’d,

How sure is immortality!70

Intriguingly, the first stanza appears to anticipate Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (1915), in which light is ‘bent’ by gravity; and then Eddington’s observations of a solar eclipse in 1919, when he recorded starlight actually being bent by the sun. But apparent anticipations of this kind can be deceptive in science, often hiding a more significant contemporary meaning. Here Davy was really expressing a more traditional belief: the sudden confidence that ‘eternal laws’ govern the universe in a benign and ordered way. In fact this view was largely at odds with the scepticism of his private journals. Instead, it proposes that nothing in the world is lost, or wasted or destroyed. There is ‘one glorious wise design’ throughout the universe, and ultimately ‘all the system is divine’; a belief somewhere between Romantic pantheism and the old Enlightenment deism.

In truth Davy was never ‘sure’ of individual immortality, which he constantly questions in his laboratory notebooks. Nor was the idea of man’s being ‘creative’ normally any kind of guarantee of it, especially when ‘alloy’d’ in flesh. What is striking about this poem is its sudden tone of Evangelical self-confidence and its unusually hymn-like form. It could have been written by John Wesley or Isaac Watts, though Davy carefully avoids the words ‘God’ or ‘soul’. It is quite unlike his more private speculative poems, and seems like a deliberate performance. Perhaps he wanted to settle down theologically, as well as socially. But science would never quite allow him to do either.


In July 1815 Davy took Jane on another fishing holiday in the Highlands, perhaps in an attempt to revive the happy memories of their honeymoon. But in early August, while at Melrose in the Yarrow valley, they were interrupted by a series of increasingly urgent letters from Dr Robert Gray of the Coal Mines Safety Committee, begging for his assistance. The situation in the mines was becoming critical (another fifty-seven men had died at Success colliery, Newbottles, in June), and ‘of all men of science’ in England, Sir Humphry was the one who could best bring ‘his extensive stores of chemical knowledge to a practical bearing’.

Replying on 18 August, Davy immediately proposed to visit Walls End colliery outside Newcastle, so he could observe the problem of lethal fire-damp on the spot. He determined to apply his pure scientific method: observation, experiment, analogy. He cancelled a visit to Banks at his country house in Lincolnshire, and sent Jane back to London. ‘Travelling as a bachelor’, he rode down to Walls End, and on 24 August had a long discussion with John Buddle, the Chief Mining Engineer.71

Buddle (1773-1843) was a hard and experienced Yorkshireman, a Unitarian and a teetotaller. Neither a miner himself, nor a proprietor, he stood between capital and labour, proud of his professional independence as ‘viewer’ or engineer. He said that he had once been chaired in triumph by the miners, and another time burnt in effigy. In fact he was dedicated to them. He never married, never drank, lived with his sister, and played the cello in the evenings. In his way, he was a man not unlike Tom Poole. But initially he had grave suspicions of ‘Sir Humphry’, the man of science from the South.

Davy was immediately put on his mettle. He knew that the Royal Institution was committed to helping science serve British industry, and this was an important part of Banks’s conception of humane progress: the appliance of science. But at Walls End he saw a peculiarly personal challenge, requiring all his experience and skill. In his youth he had explored Cornish tin mines with his lost friend Gregory Watt, and he had a feeling for mining communities and their intense local loyalties. He had never lacked physical courage in his experiments, and had been confidently handling dangerous gases since the Bristol days. He had already had a first encounter with fire-damp in the Apennines with Faraday. Above all, here was a chance for Davy to fulfil his greatest ambition: to show that a man of science could serve humanity-and be a genius.

What an outsider like Davy had to encounter in the Northumberland mines was described by a local journalist: ‘It would require all the fortitude of nature to refrain from fear, and to examine everything with calmness and precision. The immense depth [sometimes 600 feet], the innumerable windings and the dark solitary wastes of a coalmine are truly astonishing, and create a sensation of horror in the imagination.’72 

Buddle later recalled: ‘After a great deal of conversation with Sir Humphry Davy, and he making himself perfectly acquainted with the nature of our mines, and what was wanted, just as we were parting he looked at me and said, “I think I can do something for you.” Thinking it was too much ever to be achieved, I gave him a look of incredulity; at that moment it was beyond my comprehension. However, smiling, he said, “Do not despair, I think I can do something for you in a very short time.” ’73

From the start, Davy approached each stage of his solution with great originality, and also hectic speed. The Accidents Committee had considered that the prevention of explosions was essentially a problem of designing better ventilation for the mineshafts, rather as Davy had already done in Newgate Prison. Buddle wondered if a different kind of gas could be pumped down to neutralise the fire-damp. But Davy quickly grasped that something far more fundamental was required: safe light.

All miners needed to carry lights (candles or oil lamps) to every part of a mine. How could this be done without exploding the lethal firedamp gas, and moreover without living in permanent fear of such an explosion? The solution must be simple, inexpensive, robust and absolutely reliable: a miner’s ‘safe lamp’. Here Davy took his first original step. Instead of starting with the lamp, as every other inventor had done, he started with the gas. The first step was not the technology of the lamp, but a complete scientific analysis of the gas and all its properties. Buddle undertook to send samples of the fire-damp to London as soon as it could be safely gathered and bottled.

Davy went to ground in Durham for over three weeks, and neither Jane nor any friend in London (except Faraday) knew where he was. He visited numerous mines, talked to miners and overseers, silently observing, analysing and reflecting. He borrowed Dr Clanny’s bellows lamp for a day, but was not impressed. Then he suddenly seems to have made up his mind. He hurried back to London, and precipitately took over the Royal Institution laboratory on 9 October 1815, which he was not really authorised to do. He ordered glass and metal apparatus, capable of ‘withstanding an explosion’, from the Institution’s instrument-maker, John Newman, and summoned Michael Faraday to his assistance.74

They remained closeted in the basement laboratory almost without interruption for three months, pursuing a feverish series of experiments and issuing ongoing reports to the Royal Society. Faraday said he was only let out to attend the weekly meetings of the City Philosophical Society. He later modestly recalled: ‘I was a witness in our laboratory to the gradual and beautiful development of the train of thought and experiments which produced the Safety Lamp.’75

Davy first began a minute analysis of the properties of fire-damp, quickly confirming that it was ‘light carburetted hydrogen’ (methane), with unusual combustion characteristics. He discovered that explosions would only occur when methane reached a critical ratio of gas to air (approximately one to eight parts). It then became true explosive firedamp. Once ignited-a mere lick of a candle flame would do this-it produced an accelerated reaction, spreading with an intense flame that rapidly reached a critical temperature and then exploded with extreme violence. He noted that this critical temperature at which the explosion occurred was surprisingly high: much higher, for example, than for that of the hydrogen used in Charlier balloons.

Paradoxically, fire-damp was also capable, under certain conditions, of burning with a cool flame which did not explode. Accordingly, Davy next tried igniting it in various closed containers. If a glass tube was used, it instantly exploded. But when confined to a narrow metal tube, it would only burn with the cool, slow blue flame he had observed in the Apennines. He established that the reason for this was that the surface of the metal tube, if sufficiently narrow (’less than an eighth of an inch’), had the peculiar property of conducting away the heat and continuously cooling the methane flame, thus keeping it below the critical explosion temperature.

With his analysis of the gas complete, Davy turned his attention to the lamp. He began designing the first model of an enclosed, airtight safety lamp, using a sealed glass chimney round the wick, with a system of narrow metal tubes to let in the air at its base. Methane mixed with air would not explode in these tubes. Davy’s hasty sketches were transformed into neat technical drawings by Faraday. The prototypes were then constructed overnight by the Institution’s temperamental engineer, John Newman, at nearby Lisle Street, so that Davy could immediately try them out the next morning in large glass containers filled with fire-damp. ‘After many disappointments from the instrument-maker’, and some spectacular rows, several possible models began to emerge. This trial-and-error process was a new type of teamwork for Davy, which caused some friction. But crucially it allowed him and Faraday to work very rapidly, and on several concepts at once.76

Despite some fearful explosions, Davy already had at least three working prototypes of a ‘Safe Lantern’ ready by the end of October. All of these were sealed lamps, using various forms of metal tubes or ‘fire sieves’ as air inlets. He summarised his researches in a letter to Banks on 27 October, and a week later sent the lamps to the Royal Society, with a detailed scientific paper which was officially read on 9 November. He also copied his summary in a ‘private communication’, not to be released, to Dr Gray at the Safety Committee.77 Not surprisingly, news of at least one prototype was soon leaked to the Newcastle newspapers, which would later lead to confusion about the exact mechanism Davy had discovered, and a bitter priority dispute.

Banks was triumphant. On 30 October he wrote one of his most flamboyant missives to Davy, bubbling with emphatic capital letters, from Revesby Abbey in Lincolnshire. Davy’s ‘brilliant’ discoveries had given him ‘unspeakable Pleasure’, and would exalt the reputation of the Royal Society throughout the ‘Scientific world’. His personal achievement was nothing less than heroic: ‘To have come forward when called upon, because no one else could discover the means of defending Society from a Tremendous Scourge of Humanity; and to have by the application of Enlightened Philosophy found a means of providing a Certain Precautionary Measure [the lamp] effectual to guard Mankind for the future against this alarming & increasing Evil, cannot fail to recommend the Discoverer to much Public Gratitude, & to place the Royal Society in a more Popular Point of View than all the abstruse discoveries beyond the understanding of unlearned People could do. I shall most certainly direct your paper to be read at the very first day of our meeting.’78

But Banks’s congratulations were premature. The lamps with tubes were only relatively safe, as Davy discovered after further trials. Here his true genius as a man of science-his impetuosity, his imagination, his ambition and his seething energy-were demonstrated. Davy would not rest, nor would he let Faraday rest. Obsessively pursuing his researches into December, and largely ignoring Christmas, to Jane’s evident dismay, he remained closeted with his assistant. In late December or early January he made a further technical breakthrough, which he reported to the Royal Society in a hurried but triumphant paper of 11 January 1816.79

What he had discovered was this. Fine-gauge iron mesh would work even better than thin metal tubes in preventing an explosion. Indeed, it replaced the need for an airtight glass chimney (easily broken) entirely. The fine apertures in the mesh or ‘gauze’ provided the equivalent of hundreds of tiny metal cooling tubes (‘784 apertures to the inch’). The function of tubes and gauze was ‘analogous’. This application of metal gauze or ‘tissue’ was the key discovery that no other researcher had hit upon.

The methane passed freely through the iron gauze to the naked flame inside the lamp, ignited there and burnt vividly. ‘The lower part of the flame is green, the middle purple, and the upper part blue.’ But it could not pass back at sufficient temperature to ignite and explode the firedamp outside in the mine. Even when the gauze became red hot, the flame would not pass through it. Moreover, provided the lamp was entirely enclosed in the iron gauze, it did not have to have an airtight glass chimney. It was much less vulnerable, and could be redesigned as a much cheaper and more robust instrument. Davy wrote dramatically of confining ‘this destructive element flame like a bird in a cage’.80 Holding an iron gauze over a Bunsen burner, and observing that, against all expectation, the flame does not pass through it, is now one of the elementary experiments performed in school chemistry classrooms. It is easy to forget how startling this effect is on seeing it for the first time.

The final version of the lamp was wonderfully simple and surprisingly small. It was a standard uninsulated oil lamp, approximately sixteen inches high, with an adjustable cotton wick, enclosed in a tall column or ‘chimney’ of fine iron mesh. Astonishingly, the lamp required no other protection. In later models Davy added various improvements, largely designed to withstand rough use in the mine.

Yet the fundamental notion that flame would not pass through gauze appeared so unlikely, so completely counter-intuitive, that Davy had to lay out the stages of his discovery with absolute clarity, step by step. The result was a new kind of scientific narrative. The uncertainty and false starts of the experimental laboratory disappeared. Faraday’s sketches showed that trial models had originally included a piston-bellows lamp, a spring-valve lamp and a hinged lamp, none of which was subsequently mentioned.81 Instead the account was transformed into a gripping, single-track narrative of progressive, seemingly inevitable, discovery.

In trying my first tube-lamp in an explosive mixture I found that it was safe; but unless the tubes were very short and numerous, the flame could not well be supported…I arrived at the conclusion that a metallic tissue, however thin and fine, of which the apertures filled more space than the cooling surface, so as to be permeable to air and light, offered a perfect barrier to explosion…In plunging a light surrounded by a cylinder of fine wire gauze into an explosive mixture I saw the whole cylinder become quietly and gradually filled with flame, the upper part of it soon appeared red hot; yet no explosion was produced…I immediately made a number of experiments to perfect this invention, which was evidently the one to be adopted…I placed my lighted lamps in a large glass receiver, and by means of a gasometer filled with coal gas, I made the current of air which passed into the lamp more or less explosive, and caused it to change rapidly or slowly at pleasure, so as to produce all possible varieties of inflammable and explosive mixtures: and I found that iron wire-gauze…was safe under all circumstances…and I consequently adopted this material in guarding lamps for the coal mines, where in January 1816, they were immediately adopted, and have long been in general use.82

When he republished the papers, Davy remarked: ‘Every step was furnished by experiment and induction, in which nothing can be said to be owing to accident, and in which the most simple and useful combination arose out of the most complicated circumstances.’83 In this way he insisted on the Baconian method of stage-by-stage, logical scientific induction, while tacitly admitting the existence of ‘complicated’ versions of the lamp which he had tried and rejected.

This refusal to allow anything to chance, ‘accident’ or good fortune was exactly the same as Herschel’s insistence that chance played no part in his discovery of Uranus. Coleridge had taken this up as one of the key philosophical problems associated with science, in an essay provokingly entitled ‘Does Fortune Favour Fools?’, which he republished in The Friend in 1818. Here he described Davy, perhaps mischievously, as ‘the illustrious Father and Founder of Philosophic Alchemy’. But he praised his great discoveries without reservation, and denied that his scientific research could ever have depended on ‘accident’ or ‘luck’. Yet this left him in a philosophical quandary: did that imply that ‘genius’ and ‘inspiration’ had no place in Davy’s science?84

The essay was originally written in 1809, in response to Davy’s work with the voltaic battery. Coleridge argued that Davy’s discoveries always depended on ‘preconcerted mediation…evolved out of his own intellect’, never on external accident. Davy’s scientific method was always conscious, skilful and deliberate, the fruit of deep knowledge and experience. But the essay raised other issues about scientific research. Coleridge’s way of describing the experimental process betrayed a certain uneasiness. Chemical experiments-using fire or electricity-contained a kind of violence. Davy’s aim was ‘to bind down material Nature under the Inquisition of Reason, and force from her, as by torture, unequivocal answers to prepared and preconceived questions’. Coleridge also wondered if scientific laws could ever truly ‘bind down’ all the phenomena of nature. Newtonian laws could define the phases of the moon, for instance, but could they ever define the movements and appearance of clouds? ‘The number and variety of their effects baffle our powers of calculation: and that the sky is clear or obscured at any particular time, we speak of, in common language, as a matter of accident’.85


The Davy Safety Lamp, the greatest public achievement of his career, would soon be in use all over Britain and Europe. The prototype gauzeenclosed lamp (’the Davy’) was presented to the Royal Society on 25 January 1816, after being successfully tested at Walls End, Hebburn and several other collieries that month.86

John Buddle, who had witnessed the full horror of several earlier explosions at Walls End, and understood the deep, suppressed fears of miners working in shafts 600 or 1,000 feet beneath the surface, never forgot his first trial with the new Davy Lamp. He later gave a verbatim account to a Parliamentary Committee: ‘On the strength of [Davy’s] authority I took this lamp, without hesitation, into an explosive mixture. I first tried it in an explosive mixture on the surface, and then took it into a mine; and to my astonishment and delight, it is impossible for me to express my feelings at the time when I first suspended the lamp in the mine, and saw it red hot; if it had been a monster destroyed, I could not have felt more exultation than I did. I said to those around me, “We have at last subdued this monster!” ’87

Davy went up to Northumberland in March to observe the lamps in action in the mines, and to work on refinements. These would include a platinum coil which relit the wick when it was extinguished by pure methane (’one of the most beautiful and magical experiments in the science of chemistry experiment’, remarked Faraday), tin draught shields, double gauze at the top of the chimney, and a reinforced open iron frame to protect the gauze if the lamp was struck or dropped.

He went down ‘G’ pit at Walls End, spent some two hours beneath the surface, and according to Buddle delivered an impromptu fifteen-minute lecture on using the lamp safely, stressing the need to avoid strong air currents or clouds of coal dust, which could still risk freak explosions. He also pointed out that the state of the flame indicated the presence, and even the strength, of fire-damp in a shaft. His lamp not only caged the flame, it transformed it into a canary.88

During this visit Davy received a deputation from the mine-owners, with a public letter of thanks describing his lamp as ‘a discovery unparalleled in the history of mining’. It was hoped that ‘this great and unrivalled discovery for preserving the lives of our fellow creatures, will be rewarded by some mark of national distinction’.89 Many individual miners also signed tributes or letters of thanks. In September 1816 ‘we, the undersigned miners at the Whitehaven Collieries’ thanked Davy for his ‘invaluable discovery of the safe lamps, which are to us life preservers’. They humbly wished it was in their power to offer more than this ‘tribute of gratitude’. The wording of the letter was obviously drawn up by an overseer, but the signatures were genuine, and must have moved Davy. The crumpled paper was laboriously signed by eighty-two miners, forty-seven of whom were illiterate, and put ‘x’ against their names.90

John Buddle, now entirely won over by Davy, was also concerned about a reward. By August there were 144 safety lamps ‘in daily use’ at Walls End, and they were rapidly spreading to all the other collieries in the North-East.91 Buddle urged Davy to take out a patent, pointing out that he could not only make his fortune but control the quality of the lamps issued to miners. Davy consistently refused, although he knew his colleague William Wollaston had made a fortune with a patent on processing platinum. Yet Davy was hugely proud of his achievement, and was never modest about it. On Banks’s recommendation he received the Rumford Medal from the Royal Society in 1817, and the following year was made a baronet by the Prince Regent. Davy designed his own coat of arms, showing the safety lamp encircled with a Latin motto which announced: ‘I Built the Light which brings Safety’.92

His reputation was now international. He received acknowledgements from miners in Alsace, Flanders, Austria and Poland. Some years later the Tsar of Russia, Alexander I, sent him a large silver goblet. At home the Edinburgh Review ran an enormous article in praise of his work, written by none other than the brilliant geologist who had once paid court to Jane Apreece, Professor John Playfair. ‘It may fairly be said that there is hardly in the whole compass of art or science a single invention of which one would rather wish to be the author.’ Playfair described the discovery as the result of pure inductive science, ‘in no degree the effect of accident’, and ‘as wonderful as it is important’. Its historic significance was unmistakeable. ‘This is exactly such a case as we should choose to place before Bacon, were he to revisit the earth, in order to give him, in a small compass, an idea of the advancement which philosophy has made, since the time when he pointed out to her the route which she ought to pursue.’ Here the word ‘philosophy’ was used exclusively to mean ‘science’ in the modern sense: what Playfair defined as ‘the immediate and constant appeal to experiment’.93

Davy published in 1818 a beautiful account of his discovery, On the Safety Lamp for Coal Miners, with Some Researches into Flame. Edited from the series of papers he had sent so hurriedly to the Royal Society, this has some claims to be one of the prose masterpieces of English Romanticism. Davy transformed his feverish, often chaotic work at the Royal Institution laboratory in the winter of 1815-16 into a classic piece of scientific storytelling. The prose is clear, pointed, and sometimes of poetical intensity.

The treatise begins with a dispassionate account of the terrible series of explosion accidents in the mines, the human suffering they had caused over decades, and the way they had terrorised the mining communities in the north of England: ‘The phenomena are always of the same kind. The miners are either immediately destroyed by the explosion, and thrown with the horses and machinery through the shaft into the air, the mine becoming as it were an enormous piece of artillery, from which they are projected; or they are gradually suffocated, and undergo a more painful death, from the carbonic acid and azote [nitrogen] remaining in the mine, after the inflammation of the firedamp; or what, though it appears the mildest, is perhaps the most severe fate, they are burnt or maimed, and often rendered incapable of labour, and of healthy enjoyment of life.’94

Davy then moves to the sequence of experiments he performed in the laboratory in London, producing a narrative as logical and thrilling as a detective story. He describes the previous work of Clanny and Humboldt, his experiences with Faraday in the Apennines,95 his assembling of his laboratory equipment, the meticulous process of chemical analysis (often highly dangerous), the varied appearances of slow flame and violent explosions, and the final triumphant sight of the prototype gauze lamp burning brightly and safely within the huge glass flask of lethal methane.

By relating the human predicament to the scientific solution, Davy produced one of the great demonstrations of scientific ‘Hope’. He showed that applied science could be a force for good previously unparalleled in human society, and might gradually liberate mankind from untold misery and suffering. Deliberately echoing Bacon-as Lavoisier had once done-he claimed that scientific knowledge was a disinterested power for good: ‘The results of these labours will, I trust, be useful to the cause of science, by proving that even the most apparently abstract philosophical truths may be connected with applications to the common wants and purposes of life. The gratification of the love of knowledge is delightful to every refined mind; but a much higher motive is offered in indulging it, when that knowledge is felt to be practical power, and when that power may be applied to lessen the miseries or increase the comforts of our fellow-creatures.’96 This would become the central credo of the next generation of young Victorian scientists, and notably of Michael Faraday.97

But the story of the invention was exemplary of future science in another way. Davy’s high-minded claims produced a bitter priority dispute. In the spring of 1816 the engineer at the Killingworth mine, just north of Newcastle, George Stephenson, challenged Davy’s precedence, and accused him of plagiarising his own ‘Geordie Lamp’. This was a solid glass and metal lamp, conical in shape, using tubes and perforations, of which he had made many practical trials. He had finally tested a working version in the Killingworth colliery on 21 October 1815. When he saw the first premature model of Davy’s ‘tube lamp’, published in the Newcastle papers in November, he naturally suspected plagiarism.

They did indeed look very similar, since Davy’s gauze lamp had not yet been published-or indeed invented. At a meeting of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society on 5 December 1815, at which both Clanny’s bellows lamp and Stephenson’s conical lamp were examined (’it resembles a wine decanter’, remarked the Newcastle Chronicle jovially), the questions of priority and pirating were first raised.

The Newcastle Society showed its admirable objectivity by presenting examples of the true gauze lamp, as used by Buddle at Walls End, at its meeting of 6 February 1816. It was immediately clear to unbiased observers that the Stephenson and the Davy were very different instruments. But nothing could prevent the major public row now brewing, with letters to the newspapers, polemical pamphlets, and wide controversial comment in the journals. Not all of this was favourable to Davy, and there was a clear evidence of a North-South split as sides were taken.

Furious pamphlets were written against him by a Sunderland lawyer and journalist, J.H. Holmes, who had been writing about mining accidents to the Morning Chronicle since July 1815. The Director of Mines at Seaton colliery, James Heaton, gave a demonstration to the Society of Arts at which he made a ‘Davy’ explode by repeatedly throwing handfuls of coal dust at its gauze.98 There was also a good deal of general mockery of rival ‘inventors’, and anonymous letters to the papers signed with provocative pseudonyms like ‘Aladdin Lamp’ and ‘Simple Wire Gauze’.99

In 1817 Stephenson published two pamphlets calmly setting out his claims, and showing detailed illustrations of both lamps. He said that his was the result of ‘mechanical principles’, while Davy’s depended on ‘chemical’ ones-a fair distinction. He also pointed out that he did not have the expensive facilities or ‘beautiful instruments’ of Sir Humphry’s London laboratory, perhaps a further sign of North-South rivalry and class bitterness. Stephenson signed himself defiantly ‘Inventor of the Capillary Tube Lamp’.100

George Stephenson (1781-1848) was a gifted, self-educated engineer, and later the designer of the early railway steam engine, the famous ‘Stephenson Rocket’ which brought him international fame. He was an inventor of genius, an honest man and no fraud. He was to be the hero of one of Samuel Smiles’s outstanding industrial biographies in 1859. It is clear that he was genuinely misled by the premature November announcements of Davy’s prototype lamp. He admitted later that he never understood the scientific analysis of methane, or the principles behind the final iron gauze Davy Safety Lamp. He merely maintained that his tube lamps were the result of practical (’mechanical’) trial and error, had been introduced before Davy’s, worked safely, were cheap and robust, and had been loyally adopted by many Newcastle miners who fondly referred to them as home-grown ‘Geordies’.

In private, Davy reacted very bitterly to these claims. In February 1817 he wrote to Buddle complaining of Stephenson’s ‘miserable pilfering lying & equivocating pamphlet’.101 After he had seen one of Stephenson’s lamps, he dismissed it contemptuously: ‘there is no analogy between his glass exploding machine, and my metallic tissue, permeable to light and air, and impermeable to flame’.102 He had several rival lamps sent to the Royal Institution in 1816, and stored as evidence in the basement (where they still remain).103 But he made no attempt to get in touch with Stephenson himself, and he never acknowledged that the over-hasty publication of his early prototypes had caused much of the problem.

Davy’s intense anxiety to establish scientific priority, already witnessed in France over the iodine débâcle, fuelled much of this debate. He showed no professional generosity towards Stephenson. Above all he demonstrated his driving desire to be seen as the miners’ sole saviour. As he proclaimed publicly in Newcastle in September 1817: ‘the highest ambition of my life has been to deserve the name of friend to humanity’.104

The dispute also became politicised. Lord Lambton, the Whig mineowner who had been a pupil of Dr Beddoes and had known Davy in Bristol, enthusiastically supported him. But local Tory mine-owners decided to back Stephenson, and presented him with £1,000 in cash and an engraved silver tankard. Many local Newcastle miners also supported Stephenson as ‘one of them’.

Faraday, who knew more about the actual sequence of Davy’s discoveries than anyone else, always remained staunchly loyal to his patron’s priority and originality. If he disguised anything, it may have been his own role in writing up the experiments, and creating Davy’s dedicated team at the Royal Institution.105 But this can never be known, as, almost uniquely for a major piece of research, Davy left no original laboratory notes.106 However, he did acknowledge Faraday’s contribution in the Introduction to his published account of 1818. ‘I am myself indebted to Mr. Michael Faraday for much able assistance in the prosecution of my experiments.’ This was the first, historic, mention of Faraday in print, and it effectively launched his scientific career.107

In October 1817, at the height of this drama, Davy received a triumphant reception at the Queen’s Head Hotel, Newcastle. He was given a banquet, a presentation of silver plate worth over £2,500, and a commemorative portrait. In an effusive speech Lambton praised his ‘brilliant genius’ and the ‘immortal fame’ of his discovery. Carefully balancing his words, he said that science had secured both ‘the property of the coal owner’ and the ‘safety of the intrepid miner’. For two years Davy’s lamps had protected ‘hundreds of miners in the most dangerous recesses of the earth’ without a single fatality. (Except, it appeared, one ‘foolhardy’ miner who had tried to light his pipe through the gauze.108)

Davy gave a heartfelt speech in reply, trying-not altogether successfully-to appear the soul of modesty. ‘I am overwhelmed by these reiterated proofs of your approbation. You have overrated my merits. My success in your cause must be attributed to my having followed the path of experiment and induction discovered by philosophers who have preceded me…It was in pursuing those methods of analogy and experiment, by which mystery had become science, that I was-fortunately-led to the invention of the Safety Lamp.’109

Yet he could not help also referring to his bitterness about Stephenson and his supporters, and here his feelings rang completely true. ‘It was a new circumstance to me that attempts to preserve human life, and to prevent human misery, should create hostile feelings in persons who professed to have similar objects in view.’110 It was also perhaps an ill omen of a different kind that Jane did not travel with him to Newcastle at this controversial time, but retreated with her own friends to Bath, and read about events in the newspapers.

Banks now intervened on Davy’s behalf, and wrote a thunderous public letter to The Times and other papers, dating it from Soho Square, 20 November 1817. The letter was countersigned by the three leading chemists of the Royal Society, William Wollaston, Charles Hatchett and Thomas Brande. It stated that they had examined all Stephenson’s published claims, and his lamps, followed the entire course of Davy’s experimental work, and his lamps, and concluded that there could be no doubt whatever that Davy was the sole inventor, ‘independent of all others’, of the safety lamp. This authoritative judgement of his peers, clearly intended to silence all further debate ex cathedra, gave huge satisfaction to Davy. He described it as ‘heavy artillery used to destroy bats and owls’.111 But it would have been no surprise to the ageing Banks, now a past master of scientific diplomacy, that after a brief respectful pause the controversy grumbled on, and has never really ended.112

The Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, true to its impressive standards of objectivity, refused simply to back their local man, but in a noble attempt to smooth the waters, unanimously elected both Davy and Stephenson as Honorary Members, simultaneously, on 2 December 1817.113

The tough, sceptical Yorkshireman John Buddle remained Davy’s fiercest supporter, and became a lifelong friend. Whenever he came to London from Newcastle he stayed at Grosvenor Street. Twenty years after his first meeting with Davy he was the star witness at the historic Parliamentary Select Committee on Mining Accidents of 1835.114 George Stephenson was also there, and gave strong and moving evidence, though no longer accusing Davy of plagiarism. In fact the Committee refused to rule on absolute priority, but suggested various new and positive perspectives. In their view, it was undoubtedly the gauze Davy Lamp, unrestricted by patent, which had become the model for all later improvements, such as the big Upton Roberts Lamp (which combined a glass chamber with a gauze chimney).115 It was also the genius of Davy which had first championed a wholly new way of applying pure science to industry. But the safety lamp itself they regarded as, in some senses, a joint discovery. They framed this opinion with great diplomacy, if not entirely scientifically: ‘The principle of its construction appears to have been practically known to the witnesses, Clanny and Stevenson [sic], previously to the period when Davy brought his powerful mind to bear upon the subject, and produced an instrument which will hand down his name to the latest ages.’116

There were other surprises in this Parliamentary Report. Not the least was the revelation that small ‘Davy boys’ were now put in charge of the lamps, to save them from harsher physical labour in the coal seams. The Committee were appalled to learn that these labouring children were often under eight years old. So Davy’s lamps were now saving children in a different way. They began to cast a new and wholly unexpected kind of light, and the Victorian movement to ban child labour in the mines began with this Committee.117


Exhausted by this mixture of triumph and controversy, Davy decided to embark on a two-year European tour with Jane. In part this was a last-ditch attempt to save their marriage. Success and celebrity had put a new kind of strain on their increasingly tempestuous relationship, which had degenerated into a series of well-publicised dinner-party feuds and jealous scenes. Sydney Smith wrote cattily of the chemical ‘decomposition’ of their marriage despite plentiful ‘crucible money’ provided by Lady Davy, and her evident ‘disappointment and fury’ at Davy’s lack of personal ‘powers of chemistry’. Even Walter Scott shook his head over their behaviour. ‘She has a temper and Davy has a temper, and these two tempers are not one temper, and they quarrel like cat and dog, which may be good for stirring up the stagnation of domestic life, but they let the world see it, and that is not well.’ Then he added: ‘But then, pour soul, she is not happy.’118

Davy’s loyal brother John was no longer on hand to help them, now being based in Corfu. Yet even he came to feel that their marriage had been based on a delusion: ‘it might have been better for both if they had never met’. Neither had domestic virtues or easy temperaments. At home Jane was irritable, highly strung and demanding: ‘her ample fortune made her perhaps too independent and self-willed’. In society she was vivacious, generous with friends, and savagely witty. But she would never be, thought John, the ‘placens uxor’-the soothing wife.

John said less about his brother’s evident shortcomings: that Davy was difficult, short-tempered, obsessed with his scientific work, and overfond of aristocratic parties and endless field sports. He had also become dangerously hungry for praise and recognition. John did however remark on their childlessness, as something sad for them both. He thought wistfully (but perhaps wrongly) that the marriage would have been happier with children, ‘For he was of a loving disposition, and fond of children, and required the return of love-required (who does not?) to be beloved, to be happy.’ This wistful remark may also have relevance to certain events towards the end of Davy’s life.119

It is clear that Davy hoped that being away from London, and distracted by a mixture of travel, sight-seeing and social engagements, he and Jane might regain their marital equilibrium. He also had a number of scientific projects up his sleeve, including the commission to find a chemical method of unrolling and deciphering a number of calcinated papyri from Herculaneum. He intended to give this period of reconciliation a proper trial. The Sun Fire Office (Guildhall) holds a special insurance policy taken out to cover their house at 23 Grosvenor Street during a prolonged absence, dated 4 June 1818.120

Davy and Jane left on 26 May 1818, again in their own carriage but now without Michael Faraday in attendance. Instead, Jane firmly took her own maid, who had no scientific ambitions. This time they took the easterly route into Italy, travelling by easy stages along the Rhine and down through the Austrian Alps. They were the honoured guests at several mines in Flanders and Germany, where Davy’s lamp and fame had preceded him. Davy was also testing a theory about water temperature, and why mists form over river waters, which allowed him to spend much time alone on every available riverbank.

Jane persuaded Davy to remain for several weeks in Vienna. But eventually they pushed further south into the Austrian Tyrol, and Davy was able to continue his exploration of the Austro-Italian border country called Illyria and Styria. The magical names, half-remembered from Shakespearian romances, were strangely enchanting to him. He found a remote and beautiful land of alpine meadows, deep wooded valleys and fine wild rivers like the Traun, where he could ride and shoot and fish to his heart’s content. Yet his fame had reached even here, for on passing through Aussee (in Styria) he was called to a local salt works where several miners had recently been killed by an underground explosion. Davy summoned the local engineer, and personally supervised the construction of several gauze safety lamps for immediate use. They were received ‘with gratitude and surprise’, and no further explosions occurred.121

This remote region of the Balkans, lost between Austria, Italy and Slovenia, was to become Davy’s favourite retreat. Its little provincial capital, Laibach (the modern Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia) on the river Sava, was surrounded by deep forests and mountains. It also had an excellent sportsman’s inn run by the Dettela family, and few English visitors to bother Davy. For Jane there was the society centred on a small baroque opera house, and an elegant concert hall built in 1701. They remained here for several weeks, happily enough it would seem, until Davy was gradually overcome by a mysterious and curiously haunting fixation.

He found he was strangely struck by Herr Dettela’s fifteen-year-old daughter Josephine, a cheerful and sweet-natured girl with bright blue eyes, a high rosy complexion and ‘long nut-brown hair’ who waited at table and helped with the housekeeping.122 Davy felt that she constantly reminded him of some woman he had once met long ago, though he could not say whom or where. This erotic echo was strangely upsetting to him, but he finally explained it to himself as relating to the sort of hallucination or feverish ‘vision’ he had had when very ill during his second series of Bakerian Lectures in 1808. Initially he dismissed it as insignificant, and probably did not mention it to Jane. ‘Ten years after I had recovered from the fever, and when I had almost lost the recollection of the vision, it was recalled to my memory by a very blooming and graceful maiden fourteen or fifteen years old, that I accidentally met during my travels in Illyria; but I cannot say that the impression made upon my mind by this female was very strong.’123 Jane may have noticed it all the same, and perhaps she was used to such things. At all events Lady Davy was relieved when autumn came and they moved south to visit Lord Byron in Ravenna, and then to settle in Naples for the winter. They arrived there at approximately the same time as Percy Bysshe Shelley and his family.

Unrolling the papyri from Herculaneum was not a success. But they made expeditions to Vesuvius and Paestum, and Davy theorised about volcanoes and eruptions. He would later write about these wild landscapes, and other odd encounters, in lightly disguised fictional form in Consolations in Travel. In spring 1819 they rode restlessly north again into the Apennines, where Davy wrote a striking series of poems, under the general heading ‘Fireflies’, at the Bagni di Lucca. Officially he was testing the mineral waters for their peroxide and iron-oxide content, but the setting of most of these pieces is night-time and moonlight, suggesting perhaps the long and probably solitary after-dinner walks he was taking along the banks of the river Serchio.

Not all is melancholy in these meditations. Indeed the fireflies dancing over the dark water, though ephemeral, filled him with delight and even perhaps reminded him of his own safety lamps.

Ye moving stars that flit along the glade!

Ye animated lamps that ‘midst the shade

Of ancient chestnut, and the lofty hills

Of Lusignana, by the foaming rills

That clothe the Serchio in the evening play!

So bright your light, that in the unbroken ray

Of the meridian moon it lovely shines!

How gaily do you pass beneath the vines

Which clothe the nearest slopes! How through the groves

Of Lucca do ye dance!…

This thrilling ‘animation’ of the fireflies he describes, like Erasmus Darwin, as commanded by ‘the voice of Love’, to which he can still respond. He presents his own heart as lonely, ‘by sickness weakened and by sorrow chilled’, but not yet ‘broken or subdued’. Most of all he confides in the moon herself, and longs for her to prolong his sense of youth and hope, and hasten the birth of ‘new creative faculties and powers’.

Davy was now forty, and like every man of science and every poet, he hoped against hope that original work and ‘powers of inspiration’ still lay ahead in his maturity. His description of these longings was nakedly Romantic, and surely recalled his moonlit walks along the banks of the Avon some twenty years before.

Though many chequered years have passed away

Since first the sense of Beauty thrilled my nerves,

Yet still my heart is sensible to Thee,

As when it first received the flood of life

In youth’s full spring-tide; and to me it seems

As if thou wert a sister to my soul,

An animated Being, carrying on

An intercourse of sweet and lofty thoughts,

Wakening the slumbering powers of inspiration

In their most sacred founts of feeling high.124

It is intriguing to compare these clumsy but curiously expressive poems with those written by Shelley at almost exactly the same period at Naples, Pisa and the Bagni di Lucca. Shelley was a permanent exile, without anything like the public recognition that Davy had achieved, and his moods were much more extreme, yet he responded to the same Italian landscapes and the same inner tides of hope and despair. These writings include some of his most beautiful short lyrics, such as the ‘Stanzas Written in Dejection in the Bay of Naples’, ‘To the Moon’ and ‘The Aziola’. There are also striking similarities of phrase between Davy’s poems and Shelley’s confessional outpourings about love, beauty and sexual longing in ‘Epipsychidion’:

There was a Being whom my spirit oft

Met on its visioned wanderings, far aloft,

In the clear golden prime of my youth’s dawn…

Then, from the caverns of my dreamy youth

I sprang, as one sandalled with plumes of fire,

And towards the lodestone of my one desire,

I flitted, like a dizzy moth, whose flight

Is as a dead leaf’s in the owlet light…125

But as far as is known, Davy and Shelley never met. It was a pity, perhaps.

Back in Venice, the Davys again called on Lord Byron, this time in his rented palazzo on the Grand Canal. They were introduced to his new Venetian mistress, the beautiful, bosomy Teresa Guiccioli. Byron later gave an amusing account of trying to explain to Teresa the exact nature of Davy’s experimental genius. ‘I explained as well as an oracle his skill in gases, safety lamps, and in ungluing the Pompeian MSS. “But what do you call him?” said she. “A great chemist” quoth I. “What can he do?” repeated the lady. “Almost anything” said I. “Oh, then, mio caro, do pray beg him to give me something to dye my eyebrows black.”’ Byron added that this was at least better than the reaction of the average ‘English blue-stocking’.126

Byron was fascinated by Davy’s enthusiastic conversation, and his unrestrained boasting about the safety lamp. He put him-with Mungo Park and the polar explorer William Parry-into the first canto of his satirical new poem, Don Juan, as one of the signs of the times:

This is the patent Age of new inventions

For killing bodies, and for saving souls,

All propagated with the best intentions:

Sir Humphry Davy’s lantern, by which coals

Are safely mined for (in the mode he mentions);

Timbuctoo travels; voyages to the Poles;

Are always to benefit mankind:-as true,

Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.127

Davy, in turn, began reading all Byron’s poetry, and found its elegance and worldly irony now rather more to his taste than the Coleridge and Wordsworth of his youth. But his poetical reflections were cut short when Jane announced that she was ill and exhausted after so much travelling. She insisted that she would have to convalesce in Paris. Davy accompanied her there, but then heard of another illness, that of Sir Joseph Banks.

 Detailed accounts of the Felling colliery disaster of 1812 can be found in the remarkable archives of the Durham Mining Museum, Northumberland, and on its website. These include the names and ages of every one of the ninety-two mine-workers killed, of whom it emerges that more than twenty were fourteen or younger-the youngest being eight years old. The names are collected under the heading ‘IN MEMORIAM’, and their places of burial are also given where known: a tribute to the lasting loyalties and strength of feeling among the mining communities to this day.

 Not the least fact that may have impressed Davy was the amazing scientific accuracy of the Roman engineering. In carrying the water by canal and six main aqueducts from Uzès to Nîmes, a distance of over fifty kilometres, they exploited the very small fall in land levels-required to make the water flow smoothly southwards-by consistently achieving gradients of between ten and twenty centimetres over one kilometre: a fantastic feat of both measurement and construction. The canal successfully delivered 50,000 cubic metres of fresh water to Nîmes every day for 300 years. Though the canal was built in less than a generation under the Emperor Augustus, and renowned throughout Europe, the names of the individual Roman engineers were by Davy’s time unknown. This too must have struck him in his reflective mood.

 Some impression of what early-nineteenth-century mines were like can still be gained from a visit to the National Coal Mining Museum, near Wakefield in Yorkshire, which offers access to 400 metres of restored underground mineshaft (not to be undertaken by those with claustrophobia). The harshness of the conditions, the crude simplicity of the available mining equipment, and the lethal effect on the general health and life expectation of miners-who would often begin work as children-are sobering. More than this, Sir Humphry Davy’s visit to such a mining community as Walls End (now a peaceful suburb of Newcastle) would have produced an extraordinary clash of social cultures, behaviour and even language (all potentially hostile), so that the trust he established there-and particularly the friendship he achieved with John Buddle-must count as one of the most remarkable achievements of his career.

 ‘Thus was set up, from the beginning,’ observes Frank James in his detailed study of the controversy, ‘the dynamic for a priority dispute between knight and worker, chemist and engineer, savant and artisan, theory and practice, metropolis and province.’ See Frank A.J.L. James, ‘How Big is a Hole?’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society (2005). Something similar had arisen during the controversy over the John Harrison chronometers. The whole question of ‘scientific priority’ has become a major preoccupation in modern science. See for example the race over the structure of DNA between Crick and Watson at Cambridge, and Rosalind Franklin at Imperial College, as described in James Watson’s classic The Double Helix (1968) and Brenda Maddox’s biography Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA (2002). Carl Djerassi’s play Oxygen (2001) beautifully dramatises an earlier eighteenth-century priority dispute between Priestley, Scheele and Lavoisier.

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