Humphry Davy and the Electrolysis

Sir Humphry Davy (1778 – 1829)
Painting by Thomas Phillips

On November 19, 1807, British chemist and inventor Humphry Davy reported to the Royal Society about the isolation of potassium and sodium from different salts by electrolysis. Davy was one of the pioneers in the field of electrolysis using the newly invented voltaic pile to split up common compounds and thus prepare many new elements.

Humphry Davy was born in 1778 in Great Britain as the son of a wood carver. His talents were soon detected, wherefore the young Davy was sent to adequate schools. He could perform several experiments, instructed by Robert Dunkin, founder of the science of electrochemistry, and was soon known to be a young and talented chemist, who frightened everyone with his experiments. But Humphry Davy not only spent his time in laboratories, he was also a gifted poet and wrote many pieces until finally abandoning poetry for science in sense of his career. Still he wrote many poems about his life and works as a scientists, like “On Breathing Nitrous Oxide”:

“Not in the ideal dreams of wild desire
Have I beheld a rapture-wakening form:
My bosom burns with no unhallow’d fire,
Yet is my cheek with rosy blushes warm;
Yet are my eyes with sparkling lustre fill’d;
Yet is my mouth replete with murmuring sound;
Yet are my limbs with inward transport fill’d;
And clad with new-born mightiness around.”

His first scientific achievements were made after Davy published his works on ‘Heat and Light’, which resulted in a post as an assistent to superintend the laboratory at the ‘Pneumatic Institution’ in Bristol, where the medical powers of factitious airs and gases were to be observed. He executed numerous experiments with different kinds of gases, often on his own body which caused him pain and persistent health issues. Davy published many articles on his discoveries and became a well known and liked scientist.
At around 1800, Humphry Davy moved to London and was from then on occupied at the Royal Institution to give chemical lectures, to take care of the laboratories and editor of the institution’s journals. The students very much enjoyed his lectures, due to his entertaining way of presenting the institution’s scientific discoveries. He performed many dangerous experiments in the lecture halls with a great portion of charm and humour, wherefore he was soon one of the most popular scientists in London.
Davy’s good reputation grew even bigger as soon as he was known to be the pioneer of electrolysis. Using the voltaic pile, he was able to establish new metals like magnesium, boron or barium. The voltaic pile itself was invented in 1799 by Alessandro Volta and depicted the very first voltage source able to initiate a long lasting current flow. Humphry Davy noticed Volta’s discovery through its publishing at the Royal Institution and performed his first experiment with litmus paper to discover a flow of ions during the electrolysis. He was then able to extract potassium and metallic sodium, which caused him a great attention in the scientific community and beyond.
His achievements in chemistry seemed to never end. Davy improved Carl Wilhelm Scheele’s discoveries with chlorine and continued his entertaining lectures on the newest efforts on his fields of research. Davy began giving lectures for the public, which were always overcrowded due to his enjoyable talks. It was also one of these public talks when the curious Michael Faraday, back then just an apprentice to a book binder, saw Davy Humphrey, which changed his whole life plan. Davy supported Michael Faraday (at least for some years) like no other, which made many discoveries in physics and chemistry by Faraday possible. Faraday was then to become an even more influential scientist, which caused several tensions between the two, but that is a whole different story…
At yovisto you can learn more about electrolysis in Prof. Alexander Pines lecture on chemistry.
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