Archives Biographies: Sir Humphry Davy 1778-1829

Humphry Davy was one of the most brilliant scientists of the 19th century. As an apprentice to an apothecary, he developed an interest in chemistry, and his first post was at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, where he studied the effects of nitrous oxide, 'laughing gas'.

In 1801 he was appointed to the Royal Institution as Director of the Laboratory and Assistant Chemistry Lecturer and between 1802-1812 he was Professor of Chemistry. Here his work established the science of electrochemistry, and he isolated potassium, sodium, magnesium, barium, strontium and calcium by electrolysis. He also carried out research into the tanning industry and agricultural chemistry, as well as observing the electric arc. He was knighted in 1812, and in 1813 he appointed a bookbinder's apprentice, Michael Faraday, as his scientific assistant.

He toured the Continent between 1813 and 1815 with Faraday. The IET Archives holds some of Faraday's notebooks from this period and these describe his travels in Europe. 

Davy's later successes included the isolation of iodine, the development of his famous miners' safety lamp and appointment as President of the Royal Society. In the 1820s he advised the Admiralty on how to protect the bottom of their ships and he worked on improving optical glass.

Davy returned to touring the Continent but died in Geneva in 1829.