Heroes of Science Part 14

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The older view of acid and alkali was based, for the most part, on a qualitative study of the reactions of chemical substances: bodies were placed in the same cla.s.s because they were all sour, or all turned vegetable blues to red, etc. This was followed by a closer study of the composition of substances, and by attempts to connect the properties of these substances with their composition; but when this attempt resulted in the promulgation of the dictum that "oxygen is the acidifying principle,"

it began to be perceived that a larger basis of fact must be laid before just conclusions could be drawn as to the connections between properties and composition of substances. This larger basis was laid by the two chemists whose work we have now reviewed. Of the life of one of these men I have already given such a sketch as I can from the materials available to me; of the life of the other we happily possess ample knowledge. Let us now consider the main features of this life.

HUMPHRY DAVY, the eldest son of Robert and Grace Davy, was born at Penzance, in Cornwall, on December 17, 1778, eight months that is before the birth of Berzelius. His parents resided on a small property which had belonged to their ancestors for several generations. Surrounded by many kind friends by whom he was much thought of, the boy appears to have pa.s.sed a very happy childhood. Even at the age of five his quickness and penetration were marked by those around him, and at school these continued to be his predominant characteristics. Nurtured from his infancy in the midst of beautiful and romantic scenery, and endowed with great observing power and a lively imagination, young Davy seemed destined to be one of those from whose lips is "poured the deathless singing;" all through life he was characterized by a strongly marked poetic temperament.

Humphry Davy was held in much esteem by his school friends as a composer of valentines and love letters, as a daring and entertaining teller of stories, and as a successful fireworks manufacturer. Such a combination of qualities would much endear him to his boy-companions. We are told that at the age of eight he used to mount on an empty cart, around which a circle of boys would collect to be entertained by the wonderful tales of the youthful narrator.

Finishing his school education at the age of fifteen, he now began his own education of himself. In 1795 he was apprenticed to a surgeon and apothecary (afterwards a physician), in Penzance, with whom he learned the elements of medical science; but his time during the years which he spent under Mr. Borlase was much occupied in shooting, fishing, searching for minerals and geological specimens, composing poetry, and pursuing metaphysical speculations. He was now, as through life, an enthusiastic lover of Nature; his mind was extremely active, ranging over the most diverse subjects; he was full of imagination, and seemed certain to distinguish himself in any pursuit to which he should turn his attention.

During the next three or four years Davy indulged freely in speculations in all manner of subjects; he started, as people generally do when young, from general principles and followed these out to many conclusions. Even in his study of physiology and other branches of science, he appears at this time to have adopted the speculative rather than the experimental method; but unlike most youthful metaphysicians he was ready to give up an opinion whenever it appeared to him incorrect. By the time he reached the age of twenty he had discarded this method of seeking for truth, and was ever afterwards distinguished by his careful working out of facts as the foundation for all his brilliant theories.

Davy appears to have begun the study of chemistry about 1798 by reading Lavoisier's "Elements of Chemistry," the teachings of which he freely criticized. About this time Mr. Gregory Watt came to live at Penzance as a lodger with Davy's mother, and with him the young philosopher had much talk on chemical and other scientific subjects. He also became acquainted with Mr. Davies Gilbert--who was destined to succeed Davy as President of the Royal Society--and from him he borrowed books and received a.s.sistance of various kinds in his studies.

It was during these years that Davy made experiments on heat, which were published some years later, and which are now regarded as laying the foundations of the modern theory according to which heat is due to the motions of the small parts of bodies. He arranged two bra.s.s plates so that one should carry a block of ice which might be caused to revolve in contact with the other plate; the plates were covered by a gla.s.s jar, from which he exhausted the air by means of a simple syringe of his own contrivance; the machine being placed on blocks of ice the plates were caused to revolve.

The ice inside the jar soon melted; Davy concluded that the heat required to melt this ice could only be produced by the friction of the ice and bra.s.s, and that therefore heat could not be any form of ponderable matter.

In the year 1798 Davy was asked to go to Bristol as superintendent of the laboratory of a new Pneumatic Inst.i.tution started by Dr. Beddoes for the application of gases to the treatment of diseases. Davy had corresponded with Beddoes before this time regarding his experiments on heat, and the latter seems to have been struck with his great abilities and to have been anxious to secure him as experimenter for his inst.i.tution. Davy was released from his engagements with Mr. Borlase, and, now about twenty years of age, set out for his new home, having made as he says all the experiments he could at Penzance, and eagerly looking forward to the better appliances and incitements to research which he hoped to find at Bristol.

The Pneumatic Inst.i.tution was supported by subscriptions, for the most part from scientific men. It was started on a scientific basis. Researches were to be made on gases of various kinds with the view of applying these as remedies in the alleviation of disease. An hospital for patients, a laboratory for experimental research, and a lecture theatre were provided.

At this time many men of literary and intellectual eminence resided in Bristol; among these were Coleridge and Southey. Most of these men were visitors at the house of Dr. Beddoes, and many distinguished men came from various parts of the county to visit the inst.i.tution. Davy thus entered on a sphere of labour eminently suited for the development of his genius. With ample mechanical appliances for research, with plenty of time at his disposal, surrounded by an atmosphere of inquiry and by men who would welcome any additions he could make to the knowledge of Nature, and being at the same time not without poetic and imaginative surroundings, by which he was ever spurred onwards in the pursuit of truth--placed in these circ.u.mstances, such an enthusiastic and diligent student of science as Davy could not but obtain results of value to his fellows. The state of chemical science at this time was evidently such as to incite the youthful worker.

The chains with which Stahl and his successors had so long bound the limbs of the young science had been broken by Lavoisier; and although the French school of chemistry was at this time dominant, and not disinclined to treat as ignorant any persons who might differ from its teaching, yet there was plenty of life in the cultivators of chemistry. The controversy between Berthollet and Proust was about to begin; the Lavoisierian views regarding acids and salts were not altogether accepted by Gay-Lussac, Thenard and others; and from the laboratory of Berzelius there was soon to issue the first of those numerous researches which drew the attention of every chemist to the capital of Sweden. The voltaic battery had been discovered, and had opened up a region of possibilities in chemistry.

Davy began his researches at the inst.i.tution by experiments with nitrous oxide, a gas supposed by some people at that time to be capable of producing most harmful effects on the animal system. He had to make many experiments before he found a method for preparing the pure gas, and in the course of these experiments he added much to the stock of chemical knowledge regarding the compounds of nitrogen and oxygen. Having obtained fairly pure nitrous oxide, he breathed it from a silk bag; he experienced a "sensation a.n.a.logous to gentle pressure on all the muscles;... the objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute;... at last an irresistible propensity to action was indulged in.... I recollect but indistinctly what followed; I know that my motions were various and violent." Southey and Coleridge breathed the gas; the poets only laughed a little. Encouraged by the results of these experiments, Davy proceeded to prepare and breathe nitric oxide--whereby he was rendered very ill--and then carburetted hydrogen--which nearly killed him.

In his chemical note-book about this time, Davy says, "The perfection of chemical philosophy, or the laws of corpuscular motion, must depend on the knowledge of all the simple substances, their mutual attractions, and the ratio in which the attractions increase or diminish with increase or diminution of temperature.... The first step towards these laws will be the decomposition of those bodies which are at present undecompounded." And in the same note-book he suggests methods which he thinks might effect the decomposition of muriatic and boric acids, the alkalis and earths. Here are the germs of his future work.

After about eight months' work at Bristol he published a volume of "Researches," which contained a great many new facts, and was characterized by vigour and novelty of conception. These researches had been carried out with intense application; each was struck off at a red heat. His mind during this time was filled with vast scientific conceptions, and he began also to think of fame. "An active mind, a deep ideal feeling of good, and a look towards future greatness," he tells us, sustained him.

Count Rumford, the founder of the Royal Inst.i.tution in London, was anxious to obtain a lecturer on chemistry for the Inst.i.tution. Davy was strongly recommended, and after a little arrangement--concerning which Davy says in a letter, "I will accept of no appointment except on the sacred terms of independence"--he was appointed a.s.sistant Lecturer on Chemistry and Director of the Laboratory. About a year later his official designation was changed to Professor of Chemistry. This appointment opened up a great sphere of research; "the sole and uncontrolled use of the apparatus of the inst.i.tution for private experiments" was to be granted him, and he was promised "any apparatus he might need for new experiments."

He had now the command of a good laboratory; he had not to undergo the drudgery of systematic teaching, but was only required to give lectures to a general audience. Before leaving Bristol he had commenced experiments on the chemical applications of the voltaic battery; these he at once followed up with the better apparatus now at his command. The results of this research, and his subsequent work on the alkalis and on muriatic acid and chlorine, have been already described. The circ.u.mstances of Davy's life had hitherto been most favourable; how n.o.bly he had availed himself of these circ.u.mstances was testified by the work done by him.

His first lecture was delivered in the spring of 1801, and at once he became famous. A friend of Davy says, "The sensation created by his first course of lectures at the Inst.i.tution, and the enthusiastic admiration which they obtained, is scarcely to be imagined. Men of the first rank and talent, the literary and the scientific, the practical and the theoretical, blue-stockings and women of fashion, the old and the young--all crowded, eagerly crowded the lecture-room. His youth, his simplicity, his natural eloquence, his chemical knowledge, his happy ill.u.s.trations and well-conducted experiments, excited universal attention and unbounded applause. Compliments, invitations and presents were showered upon him in abundance from all quarters; his society was courted by all, and all appeared proud of his acquaintance." One of his biographers says of these lectures, "He was always in earnest, and when he amused most, amus.e.m.e.nt appeared most foreign to his object. His great and first object was to instruct, and in conjunction with this, maintain the importance and dignity of science; indeed, the latter, and the kindling a taste for scientific pursuits, might rather be considered his main object, and the conveying instruction a secondary one."

The greatest pains were taken by Davy in the composition and rehearsal of his lectures, and in the arrangement of experiments, that everything should tend towards the enlightenment of his audience. Surrounded by a brilliant society, invited to every fashionable entertainment, flattered by admirers, tempted by hopes of making money, Davy remained a faithful and enthusiastic student of Nature. "I am a lover of Nature," he writes at this time to a friend, "with an ungratified imagination. I shall continue to search for untasted charms, for hidden beauties. My _real_, my _waking_ existence, is amongst the objects of scientific research. Common amus.e.m.e.nts and enjoyments are necessary to me only as dreams to interrupt the flow of thoughts too nearly a.n.a.logous to enlighten and vivify."

During these years (_i.e._ from 1802 to 1812) he worked for the greater part of each day in the laboratory. Every week, almost every day, saw some fresh discovery of importance. He advanced from discovery to discovery. His work was characterized by that vast industry and extreme rapidity which belong only to the efforts of genius. Never, before or since, has chemical science made such strides in this country.

In 1803 Davy was elected a Fellow, and in 1807 one of the secretaries of the Royal Society. In 1812 he retired from the professorship of chemistry at the Royal Inst.i.tution; in the same year he was made a knight.

The next two or three years were mostly spent in travelling abroad with his wife--he had married a widow lady, Mrs. Apreece, in 1812. During his visit to Paris he made several experiments on the then recently discovered iodine, and proved this substance to be an element.

The work which Davy had accomplished in the seventeen years that had now elapsed since he began the study of chemistry, whether we consider it simply as a contribution to chemical science, or in the light of the influence it exerted on the researches of others, was of first-rate importance; but a fresh field now began to open before him, from which he was destined to reap the richest fruits. In the autumn of 1815 his attention was drawn to the subject of fire-damp in coal-mines. As he pa.s.sed through Newcastle, on his return from a holiday spent in the Scottish Highlands, he examined various coal-mines and collected samples of fire-damp; in December of the same year his _safety-lamp_ was perfected, and soon after this it was in the hands of the miner.

The steps in the discovery of this valuable instrument were briefly these.

Davy established the fact that fire-damp is a compound of carbon and hydrogen; he found that this gas must be mixed with a large quant.i.ty of ordinary air before the mixture becomes explosive, that the temperature at which this explosion occurs is a high one, and that but little heat is produced during the explosion; he found that the explosive mixture could not be fired in narrow metallic tubes, and also that it was rendered non-explosive by addition of carbonic acid or nitrogen. He reasoned on these facts thus: "It occurred to me, as a _considerable_ heat was required for the inflammation of the fire-damp, and as it produced in burning a comparatively _small degree_ of heat, that the effect of carbonic acid and azote, and of the surfaces of small tubes, in preventing its explosion, depended on their cooling powers--upon their lowering the temperature of the exploding mixture so much that it was no longer sufficient for its continuous inflammation." He at once set about constructing a lamp in which it should be impossible for the temperature of ignition of a mixture of fire-damp and air to be attained, and which therefore, while burning, might be filled with this mixture without any danger of an explosion. He surrounded the flame of an oil-lamp with a cylinder of fine wire-gauze; this lamp when brought into an atmosphere containing fire-damp and air could not cause an explosion, because although small explosions might occur in the interior of the wire cylinder, so much heat was conducted away by the large metallic surface that the temperature of the explosive atmosphere outside the lamp could not attain that point at which explosion would occur.

In 1818 Sir Humphry Davy was made a baronet, in recognition of his great services as the inventor of the safety-lamp; and in 1820 he was elected to the most honourable position which can be held by a man of science in this country, he became the President of the Royal Society.

For seven years he was annually re-elected president, and during that time he was the central figure in the scientific society of England. During these years he continued his investigations chiefly on electro-chemical subjects and on various branches of applied science. In 1826 his health began to fail. An attack of paralysis in that year obliged him to relinquish most of his work. He went abroad and travelled in Italy and the Tyrol, sometimes strong enough to shoot or fish a little, or even to carry on electrical experiments; sometimes confined to his room, or to gentle exercise only. He resigned the presidentship of the Royal Society in 1827.

In 1828 he visited Rome, where he was again attacked by paralysis, and thought himself dying, but he recovered sufficiently to attempt the journey homeward. At Geneva he became very ill, and expired in that city on the 29th of May 1829.

During these later years of illness and suffering, his intense love of and delight in Nature were very apparent; he returned again to the simple tastes and pleasures of his early days. His intimate knowledge of natural appearances and of the sights and sounds of country life is conspicuous in the "Salmonia, or Days of Fly-fishing," written during his later years.

Sir Humphry Davy was emphatically a genius. He was full of eager desire to know the secrets of the world in which he lived; he looked around him with wonder and delight, ever conscious of the vastness of the appearances which met his gaze; an exuberance of life and energy marked his actions; difficulties were encountered by him only to be overcome; he was depressed by no misfortunes, deterred by no obstacles, led aside from his object by no temptations, and held in bondage by no false a.n.a.logies.

His work must ever remain as a model to the student of science. A thorough and careful foundation of fact is laid; on this, hypotheses are raised, to be tested first by reasoning and argument, then by the tests of the laboratory, which alone are final. a.n.a.logies are seized; hints are eagerly taken up, examined, and acted on or dismissed. As he works in the laboratory, we see his mind ranging over the whole field of chemical knowledge, finding a solution of a difficulty here, or guessing at a solution there; combining apparently most diverse facts; examining phenomena which appear to have no connection; never dwelling too long on an hypothesis which cannot yield some clue to the object of research, but quickly discovering the road which will lead to the wished-for solution.

Like so many great experimenters Davy accomplished wonders with little apparatus. When he went abroad for the first time he took with him two small boxes, one twenty, and the other twelve inches long, by about seven inches wide and four deep. With the apparatus contained in these boxes he established the elementary nature of iodine, and made a rough estimation of its atomic weight; he determined many of its a.n.a.logies with chlorine, proving that, like chlorine, it is markedly electro-negative, and that its compounds are decomposed by chlorine; he accomplished the synthesis of hydriodic acid, and approximately determined the composition of iodide of nitrogen. But when it was necessary to employ delicate or powerful apparatus, he was able by the use of that also to obtain results of primary importance. The decomposition of potash, soda, baryta, lime and strontia could not have been effected had he not had at his command the resources of a well-furnished laboratory.

Davy has had no successor in England. Much useful and some brilliant work has been done by English chemists since his day, but we still look back to the first quarter of the century as the golden age of chemistry in this country. On the roll wherein are written the names of England's greatest sons, there is inscribed but a single chemist--Humphry Davy.

I carried on the account of the work of Davy's great contemporary, Berzelius, to the time when he had fairly established dualistic views of the structure of chemical compounds, and when, by the application of a few simple rules regarding the combinations of elementary atoms, he had largely extended the bounds of the atomic theory of Dalton.

Berzelius also did important work in the domain of organic chemistry. By numerous a.n.a.lyses of compounds of animal and vegetable origin, he clearly established the fact that the same laws of combination, the same fixity of composition, and the same general features of atomic structure prevail among the so-called organic as among the inorganic compounds. In doing this he broke down the artificial barrier which had been raised between the two branches of the science, and so prepared the way for modern chemistry, which has won its chief triumphs in the examination of organic compounds.

By the many and great improvements which he introduced into a.n.a.lytical chemistry, and by the publication of his "Textbook of Chemistry," which went through several editions in French and German, and also of his yearly report on the advance of chemistry, Berzelius exerted a great influence on the progress of his favourite science. Wohler tells us that when the spring of the year came, at which time his annual report had to be prepared, Berzelius shut himself up in his study, surrounded himself with books, and did not stir from the writing-table until the work was done.

In his later days Berzelius was much engaged in controversy with the leaders of the new school, the rise and progress of which will be traced in the next chapter, but throughout this controversy he found time to add many fresh facts to those already known. He continued his researches until his death in 1848.

The work of the great Swedish chemist is characterized by thoroughness in all its parts: to him every fact appeared to be of importance; although now perhaps only an isolated fact, he saw that some day it would find a place in a general scheme of cla.s.sification. He worked in great measure on the lines laid down by Dalton and Davy; the enormous number and accuracy of his a.n.a.lyses established the law of multiple proportions on a sure basis, and his attempts to determine the const.i.tution of compound atoms, while advancing the atomic theory of Dalton, drew attention to the all-important distinction between atom and molecule, and so prepared chemists for the acceptance of the generalization of Avogadro. The electro-chemical conceptions of Davy were modified by Berzelius; they were shorn of something of their elasticity, but were rendered more suited to be the basis of a rigid theory.

At the close of this transition period from the Lavoisierian to the modern chemistry, we find a.n.a.lytical chemistry established as an art; we find the atomic theory generally accepted, but we notice the existence of much confusion which has arisen from the non-acceptance of the distinction made by Avogadro between atom and molecule; we find the a.n.a.logies between chemical affinity and electrical energy made the basis of a system of cla.s.sification which regards every compound atom (or molecule) as built up of two parts, in one of which positive, and in the other negative electricity predominates; and accompanying this system of cla.s.sification we find that an acid is no longer regarded as necessarily an oxygen compound, but rather as a compound possessed of certain properties which are probably due to the arrangement of the elementary atoms, among which hydrogen appears generally to find a place; we find that salts are for the most part regarded as metallic derivatives of acids; and we find that by the decomposition of the supposed elementary substances, potash, soda, lime, etc., the number of the elements has been extended, the application of a new instrument of research has been brilliantly rewarded, and the Lavoisierian description of "element" as the "attained, not the attainable, limit of research" has been emphasized.


[9] The history and meaning of these terms is considered on p. 171, _et seq._

[10] For an explanation of this expression, "chemical affinity," see p.

206, _et seq._

[11] These views have been already explained on pp. 182, 183.



_Thomas Graham_, 1805-1869.

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Heroes of Science Part 14 summary

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