Humphry Davy


Born: Dec 17, 1778 in Penzance, Cornwall, England
Died: May 29, 1829 (at age 50) in Geneva, Switzerland
Nationality: English
Famous For: Electrolysis, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, barium, boron, Davy lamp

Sir Humphry Davy was a great English chemist and inventor who is best remembered for his discoveries of many alkali and alkaline earth metals. He also helped to better understand the properties of iodine and chlorine. He also invented the Davy lamp, an instrument that allowed for miners to work even when flammable gases were present.

Early Life

Davy was born on December 17th, 1778 in Penzance, Cornwall, England. He received his education in Penzance and Truro. In 1794, he lost his father and in an effort to support his family, he became an apprentice to J.Binghan Borlase , a surgeon. Under Borlase, he began to investigate various gases. Davy prepared and inhaled nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and in 1800 he published the results of his work.

His publication made him popular and the following year he was hired to work as an assistant lecturer in chemistry at the Royal institution. He was very successful at the institution and his lectures soon became a draw for the fashionable London society. He later become a fellow of the Royal Society in 1803 and was awarded its Copley medal in 1805.


In 1807 Davy started performing his first electrochemical decompositions by isolation potassium, barium, calcium, magnesium and pure sodium. The sodium was first isolated by Davy through the process of electrolysis of caustic soda (NaOH).
In 1807 he accidentally discovered cool flames. These flames were discovered at extremely low temperatures when a fuel and air mixture reacted chemically to produce very weak flames. Humphry Davy also proved that chlorine was an element and gave it its name. He later proposed a system of proportions that can be used to calculate rations of different chemical combinations.

Acid-Base Studies

In 1815, Davy suggested that acids contained replaceable hydrogen. This hydrogen could be partially or even totally replaced by some metals. According to Davy, when acids reacted with metals, salts were formed. On the other hand, bases were substances that reacted with acids resulting in salt and water.

First Electric Light

In 1809, Humphry Davy invented the very first electric light. He did this by connecting two wires to a single battery and then attatching a charcoal strip between the other two ends of the wires. The charged carbon then glowed, making the very first arc lamp. He later invented the miner’s safety lamp in 1815. This lamp made it possible for the mining even with the presence of methane and other flammable gases.

Later Years and Death

By 1812, Davy was considered one of Britain’s leading scientists and was subsequently knighted. The following year, he set off on a two year trip to Europe. In Europe, he visited Paris where he collected a medal awarded to him by Napoleon. He also identified the element iodine for the very first time. Humphry Davy was later made a baronet in 1818 and he was also made the president of the Royal Society from 1820 and 1827. Davy died on May 28th, 1829 in Switzerland. Michael Faraday, his assistant, continued with his great work.