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.


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:

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.


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.


                                                                             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.


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.


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!


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.


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.

“The Electrical Age”: Born At This Place and Fathered By This Great Man

I cannot resist saying to any young techies who might be reading this, “No, it is not Steve Jobs at Apple Computer in Cupertino, California!” There, I did it. Nor is it Thomas Edison, that well-known and prolific inventor working in New Jersey at the turn of the 19th century who can claim the title, “Father of the Electrical Age.”

Michael Faraday from London, England rightfully deserves that honor…and much more. Faraday was the greatest experimental physicist of all time, and a first-class chemist as well during a period when the sciences of chemistry and electricity were still in their infancy. His laboratory (and place of residence) for the years 1813 to 1862 was the unique Royal Institution of Great Britain, one of the first organizations dedicated to professional scientific research and to the dissemination and application of science – for the benefit of society.

21 Albemarle Street Then

Founded in 1799 at 21 Albemarle Street in the fashionable Mayfair District of London, it is still there today – in the very same building! It remains an important player in the international scientific scene.

21 Albemarle Street Today

As amazing as that may seem, the story of Michael Faraday is even more incredible.Coming from a childhood of poverty in London and a family background steeped in the trades and poorly educated, young Faraday was apprenticed at age twelve to a Mr. Ribeau, a London bookbinder. Seemingly headed down the same path of life as the generations in his family who came before him, young Michael learned the bookbinding trade and supported his widowed mother throughout his teen years. By taking the initiative to read portions of the many scientific tomes brought by wealthy Londoners to be fashionably bound for their libraries, young Faraday’s curiosity about the physical and natural world burgeoned, instilling a burning desire to eventually acquire a “position”  somehow connected with science – any position!

Michael Faraday

The Incredible Ascent of Michael Faraday: Fact IS Stranger Than Fiction!

 If true stories about people overcoming incredible odds and achieving great results fascinate you, I suggest that the story of  Faraday’s ascent to international scientific renown and his lasting influence on science – and our lives today – cannot be topped. Please read on.

In 1812, a wealthy, well-connected Londoner and an original life-time subscriber to the then-fledgling Royal Institution bestowed an act of kindness which would dramatically change Faraday’s life and the path of science itself. As a frequent patron of Mr. Ribeau’s bookbinding shop, George Dance developed a liking for the earnest, industrious young Faraday. He presented young Michael with tickets to a series of four scientific lectures at the prestigious Royal Institution, to be delivered by the premier young chemist of the time, Sir Humphry Davy, a member of the Institution’s small staff. Davy’s brilliant lectures always attracted a full-house – a mix of scientific types and the “nouveau learned” among London’s fashionable set, anxious to at least taste and rub elbows with the latest developments in science.

Young Faraday devoured the lectures making copious notes and diagrams of all the fine points. He proceeded to professionally bind these into a thick volume which he sent to Davy along with a letter introducing himself and declaring “My desire to escape from trade, which I thought vicious and selfish, and to enter into service of Science, which I imagined made its pursuers amiable and liberal…”  Davy, impressed by the young man’s initiative, wrote back, and, in Faraday’s own recounting, “He smiled at my notion of the superior moral feelings of scientific men and said he would leave me to the experience of a few years to set me right in the matter.” Davy had obviously come face-to-face with the less altruistic aspects of a career in science during his own recent, very rapid rise to fame. His warnings to young Faraday proved disappointingly appropriate as we shall see shortly.

Faraday Doc 006   Faraday’s Presentation Notes on the Davy Lectures

In January of 1813, the position of laboratory assistant at the RI became vacant, and Davy gave Faraday the job after interviewing him at the Royal Institution in February. Faraday was thrilled to be working with the great Sir Humphry Davy even though the title of “lab assistant” was much closer to “bottle/test-tube washer and general gofer” than true research assistant. After all, although bright and ambitious, Faraday had but several years of grade-level schooling, and no mathematics or scientific training whatsoever.

The Lowly Caterpillar Morphs Into a Scientific Butterfly


Faraday at Work in His Early RI Laboratory

Within several short years from his humble beginnings, Faraday was doing his own important, original research in chemistry and the relatively new science of electricity while building himself a growing scientific reputation for skill and ingenuity in the laboratory. In one of the great sorrows of science-history, his former superior and mentor, the great Davy, somehow felt personally threatened by Faraday’s absolutely unpredictable ascent into Davy’s scientific stratosphere. He tipped his hand by being the only voting member to register a blackball against Faraday’s proposed membership to The Royal Society of London, the most prestigious scientific body in the world – at one time presided over for many years by the great Isaac Newton, himself. Davy thoroughly respected Faraday and his hard-earned credentials; his only apparent reason for the blackball stemmed from his belief that Faraday had somewhat plagiarized a colleague’s work on “electromagnetic rotations” – the first working electric motor. The facts are fuzzy as often happens in cases of scientific priority, but as ambitious as Faraday was scientifically, he was scrupulously honest, maintaining his humble demeanor despite his escalating fame and reputation. For all his genius, Davy had his quirks.


The history of this sad event contrasts, in stark relief, the polar opposite personalities of the mercurial, proud, and ego-centric Davy as compared with the steady, humble and gracious Faraday – “the saint of science” if ever there was one. Sadly, Davy may have known himself all too well when he cautioned Faraday earlier about the notion of “superior moral feelings” where the practice of science is concerned. Faraday took the unwarranted blackball from Davy stoically, always preferring to remember Davy to others as the great scientist he was and the man who gave life to Faraday’s dreams and talent. Davy’s colorful life and story warrant a separate blog post of its own, and, because I have studied them both extensively, I will probably write one.

 Despite Davy’s numerous and important contributions to science, it has been said that his greatest discovery was Michael Faraday! Who could argue?

What Were Faraday’s Contributions to the Fledgling Science of Electricity?

Here is the succinct answer: He demonstrated in 1821 how to convert electrical energy into the mechanical energy of motion – the first working electric motor; in 1831, he showed how to convert the mechanical energy of motion into electrical energy – the electric generator! The experiment connected with the first practical electric generator (which he built) was conducted by Faraday in 1831, and is known as his discovery of electromagnetic induction – the principle of the ubiquitous electrical transformer. Basically, the transformer is a pair of physically separate, mutually-unconnected coils of wire wound on a common iron core. When electrical current changes in one of the coils, a voltage is generated in the second coil and an electrical current results if that coil is part of a closed electrical path. Note that I underlined current changes, above, for no voltage is induced in the second coil when the current in the first is held constant. It was Faraday’s insight and experimental genius that allowed him to make that critical observation after so many researchers, including himself, had failed by merely looking at the steady-state effects of an applied current. The reason we have AC (alternating voltages and currents) and not DC (direct, or constant voltages and currents) supplied to our homes is due to our ability to transform them up and down in level for efficient power transmission and distribution using transformers which operate on Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction.

 I have the actual 1831 printing of his scientific paper which appeared in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society. For the layman, Faraday’s findings sound mysterious, though rather simple, but their ramifications form one of the bedrock pillars not only of our electric power distribution systems, but also of the great technologies which have historically stemmed from the geniuses at Bell Labs, RCA, IBM, and countless high-tech companies domiciled here in Silicon Valley, California and elsewhere.

Faraday's Induction Ring

                        Faraday’s Transformer                           

Faraday Diary_Crop 2

Faraday’s Diary Entry of Aug. 29, 1831

The true measure of Faraday’s genius is the fact that he did not stop there. He wondered about the mysterious, non-physical coupling between the two coils of wire. How can a changing current in one create a voltage/current in the other when they are electrically isolated from one another? To answer that, Faraday postulated a conditioning of space, a vision of invisible electric and magnetic “fields” in “empty” space which serve to electrically couple the two coils together. This daring leap into unknown territory was the lead which prompted another great physicist, the Scotsman James Clerk Maxwell, to deduce Maxwell’s equations which today are four in number. These describe mathematically and quantitatively, the actual electric and magnetic field characteristics which are the basis of all electromagnetic propagation, including radio waves and that most ubiquitous of all electromagnetic propagation, visible light itself. The only fundamental difference between radio waves, X-rays, visible light, and the signals propagated to and from your cell phone is the frequency of  electromagnetic “vibration.”

All right, enough already! I can sense the glaze-over effect surfacing in some of you. I understand, but I did want to impart more than merely a handful of technological buzz-words to you, my faithful readers who have come this far.

Unlike Faraday who so keenly penetrated the natural world knowing essentially no mathematics whatsoever, Maxwell was a well-educated physicist/mathematician; his work on electromagnetics during the 1860’s was truly the foundation for ALL and I do mean ALL of our communications technology. His mathematical prediction of propagating transverse electromagnetic waves through space in 1865 (radio, in essence) predated the first experimental verification of such in 1887 by Heinrich Hertz.

Although Faraday could not possibly follow the vector calculus formulated by Maxwell to describe electromagnetic phenomena, it was Faraday who came up with the initial concept of “lines of electric and magnetic force” in space which Maxwell went on to describe and quantify mathematically.


Maxwell met Faraday when the great man was in his last years to show his great respect, graciously giving him credit as the ground-breaker for the magnificent edifice that Maxwell ultimately erected. Maxwell’s name, like Faraday’s  is little-known outside of science and engineering….but those two individuals have impacted society –indeed civilization – in profound ways, ways too numerous to list.

 I first saw them there in 1979 while attending a week-long engineering seminar, and I was thrilled. Along the upper carapaces of the imposing buildings of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Cambridge, Massachusetts, one sees the names of scientists chiseled in appropriately bold letters. EINSTEIN, NEWTON, DARWIN, MAXWELL, and, yes, FARADAY are prominently visible there. They, and the others emblazoned and honored there, were the truly great ones – the immortals.

 Perhaps the ultimate endorsement of Faraday’s place in science is the fact that, at one time, three scientific portraits hung in Albert Einstein’s study: Newton, Maxwell, and Faraday.

As prolific and  important as Thomas Edison’s inventions were to the harnessing of electricity and the development of the electrical age, he was an inventor/technologist, not a scientist.  It is absolutely certain that without the scientist’s grasp of nature’s laws, there can be no real technology. Great inventions are drawn from great discoveries in science.

As for hands-on ability in the laboratory: Despite his great abilities, Edison would surely take a back seat to Faraday, the world –class physicist who did it all without the aid of mathematics by relying on superb intuition and powers of observation. In tribute to his lab technique and experimental skill, I would wager that Faraday broke few test tubes and other pieces of apparatus during those many years in the laboratory. Stories abound of otherwise great scientists who were decidedly unwelcome in the laboratory because they broke everything they touched!

Finally and fittingly, Michael Faraday, who worked and lived with his wife in the house of the Royal Institution for fifty-one years, continued almost seamlessly the great public lecture tradition begun there by the brilliant Davy in 1802. Faraday’s lectures on a great myriad of scientific subjects are legend; his lecturing style in the great lecture hall was unique. The public and the intelligentsia of science flocked there to hear him speak …and to learn. I have an admission ticket to his May,1833 RI lectures on electricity, endorsed by Faraday himself and addressed to “Miss Miles or a friend.”

Faraday Ticket Cropped

One of his best-known lectures was among his last, part of the annual Christmas Lectures delivered by Faraday around Christmas time, 1860 when he was in his seventieth year, near retirement, and already suffering from loss of memory. Published in March, 1861, The Chemical History of a Candle has been continuously in print (in English) since that time. It has long been considered a classic in popular science exposition; in its pages, Faraday analyzes the physical and chemical combustion processes of a burning candle in terms that even the scientific neophyte can understand…and enjoy.

If I have piqued your interest and curiosity with this post, and you would like to better understand  how a scientific virtuoso such as Faraday views nature, expressed in terms suitable for his “popular” lectures, take a look at this little book. I just purchased a nicely printed new edition from the Oxford Press. There is a good reason for its longevity in print.