A Brief Look at Electrical Scientists: Sir Humphry Davy
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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Experiments may take longer than expected when wanting results. Some experiments and inventions may even fail along the way. Though some people working on various experiments may get disheartened when results don’t come sooner rather than later, others do not.  As a continuation of a series of blog posts, we’ll be looking at a chemist and inventor who didn’t stop working, which allowed for their investigations and inventions to advance.

Sir Humphry Davy
A British chemist and inventor, Sir Humphry Davy is known for his contribution to the electrical world with his invention of the miners’ lamp. But before this lamp came to be, Davy worked in the chemistry field, where he discovered numerous alkali and alkaline earth metals. Before his death in 1829, Davy worked on the discovery of other elements and he was also considered the father of modern fly-fishing as he enjoyed the outdoors.

Before Davy accomplished any of this, he was educated at Truro Grammar School as a child. After his education there, Davy went on to apprentice to a surgeon as a teenager. During his apprenticeship, is where Davy began his work as a chemist; he began investigating in gases. Davy took investigation of laughing gas, or also known as nitrous oxide, to the next level by inhaling the gas himself and recording his results, that would later be published. His published results, “Researches, Chemical and Philosophical,” put Davy on the map, and in 1801, Davy was hired as an assistant lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Institution.

Between his apprenticeship and his lecturer position at the Royal Institution, Davy worked on other ventures. From 1798-1801, Sir Humphry Davy worked at the Pneumatic Institution, where he investigated gases in medical settings. During this time, he did a lot of examination about nitrous oxide. But it was during his time with the Royal Institution when Davy made most of his scientific strides.

In 1807, Davy discovered the then new element, potassium. A year later, he discovered calcium. Though he did not discover chlorine (it was discovered in 1774 by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swedish chemist), Davy gave the element is proper name and insisted it was in fact an element and not an acid as previously thought. After these discoveries and his time at the Royal Institution was when Davy made his invention the miners’ lamp, or Davy lamp.

The miners’ lamp began investigation in 1815 after there had been a series of mine explosions. These explosions seemed to have been caused by open flames getting in contact with methane. While other inventors were working on similar projects, Davy’s lamp differed from the rest because of using iron gauze in the lamp. Utilizing the iron gauze to enclose the lamp’s flame prevented any methane burning inside the lamp to pass from the lamp the mine’s atmosphere. Initially seeming like a solution to a problem, this lamp did lead to some problems as it emitted less light than before and the gauze quickly rusted, which was dangerous in mines.

So it was back to the drawing board for Davy. However, this chemist did not improve on his lamp’s design. Rather, Davy did not patent his lamp, which has paved the way for improvement on the lamp in more modern times. Because of his refusal to patent the invention, Davy was awarded the Rumford medal in 1816. Modern improvements of the Davy lamp can be seen in the Protector Garforth GR6S, a flame safety lamp that is used in parts of the United Kingdom for firedamp testing of coal mines.
During his lifetime, Sir Humphry Davy saw many successes with his investigations and a few failures with his inventions. The Davy lamp being a notable invention that didn’t necessarily fail, as later on, other people were able to improve on the design. Despite the Davy lamp not working as Davy initially planned it, this didn’t stop Davy in his other investigations.

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