(December 17, 1778 – May 29, 1829)

Humphry Davy was a prolific experimenter who nurtured the greatest of all experimentalists, Michael Faraday. His works would influence William Thompson Kelvin and several up-and-coming scientists who later gained prominence. Like Faraday, he was born into poverty, and had to overcome difficulties before becoming one of 19th century’s top researchers. His interest in chemistry began in 1795, during his apprenticeship to a surgeon who also maintained a pharmacy. He would later take advantage of the voltaic piles (i.e. electric batteries) which Alessandro Volta invented. With them he conducted numerous electrochemical experiments which enabled him to extract alkali metal samples (potassium and sodium), alkaline earth metals (calcium, barium, magnesium and strontium), halogens (chlorine and iodine), as well as aluminium and boron. Meanwhile, his experiments with nitrous oxide (N2O) are well-documented. And the first essay which detailed the application of chemistry to agriculture is attributed to him. In 1802, he publicly showcased how incandescent light could be produced: by connecting a platinum filament to a high capacity battery. This display, alongside Ebenezer Kinnersley’s demonstrations in 1761, became the forerunners of what Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison later developed as electric bulbs. Davy is also remembered for inventing the safety lamp which improved British coal mines. Like Claude Bernard who initially aspired to be a playwright, Humphry Davy cherished literature, and composed countless poems. For his scientific contributions, various items including the London Royal Society’s Davy Medal, are named after him. He is also the eponym of the 34-kilometer-wide Davy lunar impact crater.

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  1. At the age of six, Davy was sent to the grammar school at Penzance. Three years later, his family moved to Varfell, near Ludgvan , and subsequently, in term-time Davy boarded with John Tonkin, his godfather and later his guardian.

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