Sir Humphry Davy: Pioneer Chemist and His Invention of the Coal Miner’s “Safe Lamp” at London’s Royal Institution – 1815

humphry-davy-51Among the many examples to be cited of science serving the cause of humanity, one story stands out as exemplary. That narrative profiles a young, pioneering “professional” chemist and his invention which saved the lives of thousands of coal miners while enabling the industrial revolution in nineteenth-century England. The young man was Humphry Davy, who quickly rose to become the most famous chemist/scientist in all of England and Europe by the year 1813. His personal history and the effects of his invention on the growth of “professionalism” in science are a fascinating story.

The year was 1799, and a significant event had occurred. The place: London, England. The setting: The dawning of the industrial revolution, shortly to engulf England and most of Europe. The significant event of which I speak: The chartering of a new, pioneering entity located in the fashionable Mayfair district of London. In 1800, the Royal Institution of Great Britain began operation in a large building at 21 Albemarle Street. Its pioneering mission: To further the cause of scientific research/discovery, particularly as it serves commerce and humanity.

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The original staff of the Royal Institution was tiny, headed by its founder, the notable scientist and bon-vivant, Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford. Quickly, by 1802, a few key members of the founding staff, including Rumford, were gone and the fledgling organization found itself in dis-array and close to closing its doors. Just one year earlier, in 1801, two staff additions had materialized, men who were destined to make their scientific marks in physics and chemistry while righting the floundering ship of the R.I. by virtue of their brilliance – Thomas Young and the object of this post, a young, relatively unknown, pioneering chemist from Penzance/Cornwall, Humphry Davy.

By the year 1800, the industrial revolution was gaining momentum in England and Europe. Science and commerce had already begun to harness the forces of nature required to drive industrial progress rapidly forward. James Watt had invented the steam engine whose motive horsepower was now bridled and serving the cause by the year 1800. The looming industrial electrical age was to dawn two decades later, spearheaded by Michael Faraday, the most illustrious staff member of the Royal Institution, ever, and one of the greatest physicists in the history of science.

In the most unlikely of scenarios at the Royal Institution, Humphry Davy interviewed and hired the very young Faraday as a lab assistant (essentially lab “gofer”) in 1813. By that time, Davy’s star had risen as the premier chemist in England and Europe; little did he know that the young Faraday, who had less than a grade-school education and who worked previously as a bookbinder, would, in twenty short years, ascend to the pinnacle of physics and chemistry and proceed to father the industrial electrical age. The brightness of Faraday’s scientific star soon eclipsed even that of Davy’s, his illustrious benefactor and supervisor.

For more on that story click on this link to my previous post on Michael Faraday: https://reasonandreflection.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/the-electrical-age-born-at-this-place-and-fathered-by-this-great-man/

Wanted: Ever More Coal from England’s Mines 
at the Expense of Thousands Lost in Mine Explosions

Within two short years of obtaining his position at the Royal Institution in 1813, young Faraday found himself working with his idol/mentor Davy on an urgent research project – a chemical examination of the properties of methane gas, or “fire damp,” as it was known by the “colliers,” or coal miners.

The need for increasing amounts of coal to fuel the burgeoning boilers and machinery of the industrial revolution had forced miners deeper and deeper underground in search of rich coal veins. Along with the coal they sought far below the surface, the miners encountered larger pockets of methane gas which, when exposed to the open flame of their miner’s lamp, resulted in a growing series of larger and more deadly mine explosions. The situation escalated to a national crisis in England and resulted in numerous appeals for help from the colliers and from national figures.

By 1815, Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution had received several petitions for help, one of which came from a Reverend Dr. Gray from Sunderland, England, who served as a spokesman/activist for the colliers of that region.

Davy and the Miner’s Safe Lamp:
Science Serving the “Cause of Humanity”

Working feverishly from August and into October, 1815, Davy and Faraday produced what was to become known as the “miner’s safe lamp,” an open flame lamp designed not to explode the pockets of methane gas found deep underground. The first announcement of Davy’s progress and success in his work came in this historic letter to the Reverend Gray dated October 30, 1815.

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The announcement heralds one of the earliest, concrete examples of chemistry (and science) put to work to provide a better life for humanity.

Royal Institution
Albermarle St.
Oct 30

 My Dear Sir

                               As it was in consequence of your invitation that I endeavored to investigate the nature of the fire damp I owe to you the first notice of the progress of my experiments.

 My results have been successful far beyond my expectations. I shall inclose a little sketch of my views on the subject & I hope in a few days to be able to send a paper with the apparatus for the Committee.

 I trust the safe lamp will answer all the objects of the collier.

 I consider this at present as a private communication. I wish you to examine the lamps I had constructed before you give any account of my labours to the committee. I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it. I beg of you to present my best respects to Mrs. Gray & to remember me to your son.

 I am my dear Sir with many thanks for your hospitality & kindness when I was at Sunderland.

                                                              Your….

                                                                             H. Davy

This letter is clearly Davy’s initial announcement of a scientifically-based invention which ultimately had a pronounced real and symbolic effect on the nascent idea of “better living through chemistry” – a phrase I recall from early television ads run by a large industrial company like Dupont or Monsanto.

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In 1818, Davy published his book on the urgent, but thorough scientific researches he and Faraday conducted in 1815 on the nature of the fire damp (methane gas) and its flammability.

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Davy’s coal miner’s safety lamp was the subject of papers presented by Davy before the Royal Society of London in 1816. The Royal Society was, for centuries since its founding by King Charles II in 1662, the foremost scientific body in the world. Sir Isaac Newton, the greatest scientific mind in history, presided as its president from 1703 until his death in 1727. The Society’s presence and considerable influence is still felt today, long afterward.

davy41Davy’s safe lamp had an immediate effect on mine explosions and miner safety, although there were problems which required refinements to the design. The first models featured a wire gauze cylinder surrounding the flame chamber which affected the temperature of the air/methane mixture in the vicinity of the flame. This approach took advantage of the flammability characteristics of methane gas which had been studied so carefully by Davy and his recently hired assistant, Michael Faraday. Ultimately, the principles of the Davy lamp were refined sufficiently to allow the deep-shaft mining of coal to continue in relative safety, literally fueling the industrial revolution.

Humphry Davy was a most unusual individual, as much poet and philosopher in addition to his considerable talents as a scientist. He was close friends with and a kindred spirit to the poets Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth. He relished rhetorical flourish and exhibited a personal idealism in his earlier years, a trait on open display in the letter to the Reverend Gray, shown above, regarding his initial success with the miner’s safe lamp.

“I have never received so much pleasure from the results of my chemical labours, for I trust the cause of humanity will gain something by it.”

As proof of the sincerity of this sentiment, Davy refused to patent his valuable contribution to the safety of thousands of coal miners!

Davy has many scientific “firsts” to his credit:

-Experimented with the physiological effects of the gas nitrous oxide (commonly known as “laughing gas”) and first proposed it as a possible medical/dental anesthetic – which it indeed became years later, in 1829.

-Pioneered the new science of electrochemistry using the largest voltaic pile (battery) in the world, constructed for Davy in the basement of the R.I. Alessandro Volta first demonstrated the principles of the electric pile in 1800, and within two years, Davy was using his pile to perfect electrolysis techniques for separating and identifying “new” fundamental elements from common chemical compounds.

-Separated/identified the elements potassium and sodium in 1807, soon followed by others such as calcium and magnesium.

-In his famous, award-winning Bakerian Lecture of 1806, On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity, Davy shed light on the entire question concerning the constituents of matter and their chemical properties.

-Demonstrated the “first electric light” in the form of an electric arc-lamp which gave off brilliant light.

-Wrote several books including Elements of Chemical Philosophy in 1812.

In addition to his pioneering scientific work, Davy’s heritage still resonates today for other, more general reasons:

-He pioneered the notion of “professional scientist,” working, as he did, as paid staff in one of the world’s first organized/chartered bodies for the promulgation of science and technology, the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

-As previously noted, Davy is properly regarded as the savior of the Royal Institution. Without him, its doors surely would have closed after only two years. His public lectures in the Institution’s lecture theatre quickly became THE rage of established society in and around London. Davy’s charismatic and informative presentations brought the excitement of the “new sciences” like chemistry and electricity front and center to both ladies and gentlemen. Ladies were notably and fashionably present at his lectures, swept up by Davy’s personal charisma and seduced by the thrill of their newly acquired knowledge… and enlightenment!

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The famous 1802 engraving/cartoon by satirist/cartoonist James Gillray
Scientific Researches!….New Discoveries on Pneumaticks!…or…An
Experimental Lecture on the Power of Air!

This very famous hand-colored engraving from 1802 satirically portrays an early public demonstration in the lecture hall of the Royal Institution of the powers of the gas, nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Humphry Davy is shown manning the gas-filled bellows! Note the well-heeled gentry in the audience including many ladies of London. Davy’s scientific reputation led to his eventual English title of Baronet and the honor of Knighthood, thus making him Sir Humphry Davy.

The lecture tradition at the R.I. was begun by Davy in 1801 and continued on for many years thereafter by the young, uneducated man hired by Davy himself in 1813 as lab assistant. Michael Faraday was to become, in only eight short years, the long-tenured shining star of the Royal Institution and a physicist whose contributions to science surpassed those of Davy and were but one rank below the legacies of Galileo, Newton, Einstein, and Maxwell. Faraday’s lectures at the R.I. were brilliantly conceived and presented – a must for young scientific minds, both professional and public – and the Royal Institution in London remained a focal point of science for more than three decades under Faraday’s reign, there.

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The charter and by-laws of the R.I. published in 1800 and an admission ticket to Michael Faraday’s R.I. lecture on electricity written and signed by him: “Miss Miles or a friend / May 1833”

Although once again facing economic hard times, the Royal Institution exists today – in the same original quarters at 21 Albemarle Street. Its fabulous legacy of promulgating science for over 217 years would not exist were it not for Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday. It was Davy himself who ultimately offered that the greatest of all his discoveries was …Michael Faraday.

Reason and Reflection Is Back!

Alan KubitzTo all the readers of my blog, Reason and Reflection: I am pleased to announce that my blog site is emerging from a quasi-hibernation that has been in effect these past several months. After more than two-and-a-half years of posting weekly pretty much without fail beginning in February of 2013, some 136 posts in all, the need arose to spend considerable time for the past several months on personal/family matters, hence only three posts were offered so far in 2016. At this time, I am ready to resume doing what I enjoy doing, and that means writing about things that interest and excite me or about relevant happenings in this world of ours. My future intent is to post at least every two to three weeks without a fixed time-table.

This new phase will begin with a brand new post tomorrow, June 14. It features Charles Darwin – his personal story and his contributions to natural science. Look for it tomorrow: I think it will be worth your time.  

Those of you who have not become listed “followers” of my blog might wish to become one by clicking the grey “FOLLOW” button at the top right column of my home page. Like many have done, providing your E-mail address will insure that you receive a brief notice each time a new post appears, and you can un-FOLLOW at any time (but I hope not!). There is no other obligation than that involved in following my blog.

I REALLY LIKE TO RECEIVE COMMENTS (GOOD OR BAD) ON MY POSTS

Please let me know what you think. You do not need to be a listed follower in order to comment. Don’t try spamming because WordPress will filter it out automatically. I always respond to legitimate comments, so at the end of each post, either look for a “comment box” or a small “Leave a reply” to click on for commenting.

Just one more thing: On my home page, you have access via my archives to every one of my 136 posts. Go ahead and look, and if you like what you see and read in my posts, let your friends know about this site which resides at :                                                   http://www.reasonandreflection.wordpress.com

Bernie Sanders for President? Tackling America’s Big Problem

The Money

These are fascinating times in this United States of America! Who will be elected president in 2016 to lead this country across the troubled waters which lie ahead? The story of this election campaign is materializing as I write these very words. Chapter two of the narrative begins after the election results from New Hampshire’s primaries this week which saw Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders emerge as clear winners.

There is much to be said about this election campaign and the amazing, atypical roster of candidates who have emerged, but I focus on three salient points:

Point one: That the current front-runners (yes, it is early), Trump and Sanders are most improbable/unusual candidates. On the one hand, Donald Trump is an outspoken, high-profile, multi-billionaire capitalist with a show-biz flair but no political experience, whatsoever. On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders characterizes himself as a Democratic Socialist – hardly the historical caricature of your viable presidential candidate!

Point two: The American electorate is desperately disgusted with Washington politics and politicians who perpetuate the “art” of procrastination and indecisiveness. It is clear that Trump and Sanders are where they are because they present voters with radical departures from the status-quo.

Point three: Both of these candidates have taken the plunge into the deep, treacherous waters of America’s most serious problem – especially Sanders.

What is the greatest threat to the United States of America?

Answer: The fact that Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” has been hijacked by wealthy, special interests from industry and Wall Street. I have long been convinced that the situation poses a dangerous threat to the viability of our American democracy. It would seem that Senator Sanders has reached a similar conclusion along with many of our citizens who look askance at the gross wealth inequality which reigns supreme in America.

I recall a trip to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland when I was a young man: My family was listening to a speech by Abraham Lincoln realistically delivered by Disney’s “Lincoln automaton” (programmed robot). In the speech, Lincoln declared that, should the United States ever fail, its demise will come from forces within, not from outside the country. It was abundantly clear to me that Lincoln was warning about both citizen apathy/polarization, and the corrosiveness of internal corruption.

Donald Trump’s willingness to “damn the torpedoes” and say whatever is really on his mind was on full display in the first Republican debate when he wagged his finger disapprovingly at the influence special interests have on the decisions and functioning of our government. He insisted that he should know as well as anyone how the system works for the wealthy, because he, as a developer/capitalist, has taken advantage of the opportunities that the law allows! How refreshing was that honest admission and his subsequent stand that special interests have too much sway on our government by way of campaign contributions?

The Bernie Sanders Solution: Rein-in the Special Interests

 For anyone like me who is well aware of Wall Street’s recklessness, Sanders’ contention that our government is being steered by special interests is a resonating bell-tone. Few serious people will forget the near collapse of this country’s entire financial system back in 2007/2008 (yes, it almost happened!) and the role played by the greed and influence of Wall Street banks and investment houses. Hundreds of billions of dollars were lost, much of that by middle-class Americans, during the recovery process and the bail-out of Wall Street. Countless lives were changed forever thanks to the reckless, greedy actions of Wall Street and the banks as they parlayed their securitized and scrubbed, sub-prime home mortgage con game into huge profits…and, yet, not one of the well-documented protagonists ever spent a day in jail for it.

For anyone who needs to be convinced just how close this country came to financial/global Armageddon, I recommend the Frontline documentary, Inside the Meltdown. Michael Lewis, in his book (and the current popular movie) titled The Big Short reveals just how corrupt and/or ignorant were the people in both government and the private sector who allowed all this to happen. And make no mistake: Nothing has changed enough since that narrow escape to prevent a worse, future financial calamity from happening again.

When asked how he intends to change the ways of Congress and Wall Street should he gain the White House, Sanders cites his “popular revolution” as the vehicle. Indeed, he has touched a sensitive nerve in the populace as evidenced by the response received by his message about wealth inequality and the people’s government being increasingly controlled by wealthy special interests. Is Sanders a head-in-the-clouds liberal who does not know what he is tackling? After listening carefully to him, I think not!

 Just How Will This Work, Senator Sanders?

 A media political pundit (there are a lot of them) asked Sanders just the other day, “How will you possibly get an often self-serving Congress to wean themselves from the campaign contributions which fuel their constant drive for re-election? Who, in a position to matter, would shun the money? Do you think YOU can change their minds and enact laws which eliminate campaign contributions?”

At that point, Sanders proved to me his mettle with his quiet but firm answer (paraphrased): “No, the public will change their minds.” He reiterated and emphasized that his strategy involves a “popular revolution.” He did not have the opportunity to elaborate further, but I can imagine what his strategy might be. I envision a successful attempt to ban outside money and influence from our government process proceeding in two steps:

Step 1: Establish a generous election campaign fund (including network time) paid for by taxpayers and equally divided among all “qualified” candidates for major office. I am certain that an acceptable winnowing process can be established to narrow the field, initially.

Step 2: The executive branch (the president) drafts a written oath of office whereby major Washington office-holders and seekers can choose to swear to abstain from all moneys collected from special interests – under penalty of perjury. Any incumbent or candidate who does not sign the oath will be listed in the “nay” column of a listing which is readily available for all the public to see. Given the current mood of the electorate, I would hope that those who resisted signing the pledge to forego private campaign finance would see future voter support at the polls seriously dinged. That approach would, indeed, represent the public changing the minds of Congress – as Sanders intimated! Sanders must surely have something similar in mind in order to give his popular revolution some teeth!.

 Have You Ever Wondered Why Our Tax Code Is So Complicated?

 Here is the answer to the question. The intricate loop-holes and deductions in today’s huge tax code are symbolic footprints left behind by special-interest lobbyists and their lawyers who have, over many decades, chiseled away at tax code simplicity, creating special exceptions (loop-holes) in order to benefit their wealthy clients. Such clients are heavily represented in the top 0.1% of the population who now owns more wealth than the bottom 90% of Americans. Funny how that happens, isn’t it? By the way, I am in favor of raising marginal tax brackets up to at least 50% (with no loop-holes) for those making over ten million dollars a year, rising to 80% for incomes over fifty million – not to exact revenge on successful people, but to discourage the rampant greed and speculation which today’s 39% bracket (complete with loop-holes) encourages. I wonder how the rich ever got the marginal rate reduced from the 90% level it had reached during the Eisenhower administration….I wonder.

One of the worst Decisions Washington Ever Made!

 I agree with Bernie Sanders that the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act was a terrible move. Glass-Steagall was enacted in 1932/33 to separate savings and loan banks from Wall Street investment banks. The great depression made clear the need for such legislation. Most people with their precious savings held by a bank do not want that bank making risky Wall Street investments with their hard-earned money – never mind what the FDIC says it guarantees. Greed-induced gambling with the money of America nearly resulted in Washington’s inability to contain the financial chain-reaction which began in 2007. Back in 2008, other than Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers which did go under, it was clear that without a taxpayer bail-out, systemic failure of the system could destroy this country’s entire economy. Call it “taking one” by the taxpayer for the greedy and incompetent.

Why was Glass-Steagall repealed in 1999 during the Clinton administration? I do not know the answer to that one, but I would wager that lobbyist’s footprints were prevalent along the paths leading to Congressional offices – wouldn’t you?

 Where Does Hillary Clinton Stand?

 Hillary Clinton insists that she is serious about the lobbyist problem, yet I have not heard her call for the reinstatement of Glass-Steagall. I wonder specifically what her plan would be (beyond invoking the reactionary legislation of Dodd-Frank) to proactively restore the full attention of Congress to the business of the people?

At one point in last night’s democratic debate between Sanders and Clinton, she took personal umbrage at Sanders’ insinuation that her $600,000 speaker’s fee received from Goldman Sachs over the past year is unacceptable. Clinton said she would never be swayed in her vote by campaign favors. Sanders missed his chance by not retorting that not everyone in government might possess such high personal standards – a safe bet, I will wager.

Sanders did groan, “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people” (my paraphrase) – a remark surely made not to refute her personal integrity in the matter, but to demonstrate the absurdity of blithely dismissing the corrosive power of lobbying on our over-all system of governance. In many crumbling parts of the world, they call it bribery – the need to pay money for a favor…or even for a fair shake. Sanders sarcastically asked (paraphrased), “Why would the wealthy do that with their money? Do they enjoy throwing their money around?”

Lincoln_1I hardly believe that Abraham Lincoln, politically savvy as he was, could countenance the form of bribery present in America today. At the time, Lincoln was correct when he ventured that America had more to fear from within than from without. In all fairness, he could little imagine that other immense threat to us all that has since materialized – an unstable nuclear world. May divine providence provide “we the people” with the leadership we so desperately need along with the popular will and good sense to vigilantly guard our democracy and our freedoms.

Happy New Year!

WordPress has issued its 2015 summary for Reason and Reflection, and I am pleased to have had some 14,000 views of my posts from 123 countries around the world. Thanks to all my readers and blog followers for that gratifying response to my work.

I would like to receive more comments on my posts, so I encourage you to use the “Leave a Reply” or “Leave a Comment” links provided after every post. I answer all legitimate responses which WordPress passes along! To receive an E-mail notification every time a new post appears, click the grey “Follow” button on my blog page.

I will continue to strive to post on entertaining and enlightening topics throughout 2016 – Happy New Year! 

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 14,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 5 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.