Chapter 16: Men of Science
As the first Industrial Revolution was beginning to turn the world upside down, the Age of Enlightenment produced scientists whose breakthroughs helped shape that upside-down world.
Today, we discuss three of them:
Dr. Edward Jenner
Sir Humphrey Davy
Sources for the episode include:
Bell, Madison S. Lavoisier in the Year One: The Birth of a New Science in an Age of Revolution. W.W. Norton & Company. 2005.
Eberle, Irmengarde. Edward Jenner and Smallpox Vaccination, Immortals of Science. Watts. 1962.
Paris, John A. The Life of Sir Humphrey Davy. Volumes 1 & 2. Henrey Colburn and Richard Bentley. 1831.
Purver, Margery. The Royal Society: Concept and Creation. M.I.T. Press. 1967.
The Royal Society, Supplemental Charter. (Report of a Committee of the Privy Council) 2012.
There are plenty of topics that frustrate historians, but among them is the founding of the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.
Who was involved? What were they trying to accomplish? Was this supposed to be part of Gresham College? Was the supposed to be the Invisible College made visible?
Despite the fact that a history of the Royal Society was published just five years after its foundation, questions remain. In fact, that history – by the clergyman and intellectual, Thomas Sprat – ended up creating more questions than it answered.
Whatever happened, King Charles II “constituted a body corporate by the name of ‘The Royal Society’” on July 15th, 1662. The charter was subsequently updated in 1663 and 1669.
In the years since then, the Royal Society has advanced scientific pursuits and, really, science itself. It was an important catalyst for the Industrial Revolutions, but also for simply expanding our minds. Boyle, Hooke, Papin, Newton, Leibniz, and so many others served the Royal Society as the Royal Society served their endeavors. And as the Royal Society entered the second half of the 18th Century, it stood at the center of a new age: An age of enlightenment.
This was an age when everything was on the table. Politics, art, moral philosophy, religion, and (of course), the natural sciences – everything could be discussed. Everything could be debated. Everything could be evaluated.
It was the age of the Renaissance Man. The age of Montesquieu, La Mettrie, Hume, Lomonosov, d'Alembert, Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Franklin, Johnson, Orfelin, d'Holbach, Smith, Price, Condorcet, Gouges, Galvani, Herder, Burke, Kant, Priestley, Maréchal, Jefferson, Goethe.
To get through all of them (and all their contributions to the Enlightenment) is outside the scope of this podcast. Anyway, I’ve already touched on some of them and I’ll be touching on others in future episodes – including how their works influenced breakthroughs still to come in the 19th Century and beyond.
Today, I want to talk about three specific Enlightenment thinkers and the ways they influenced the natural sciences at a point in time when the world was about to get turned upside down.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 16: Men of Science
One quick administrative note first. I usually record these episodes during the week when everybody is at work. But I am recording this episode on Memorial Day here in the U.S, when most folks have off work. As a result, there may be more noise outside than usual – more cars going by or neighbors talking. I apologize in advance if this interrupts your listening experience.
Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier was born in Paris in 1743. His family had steadily risen into the ranks of the professional class over the previous three generations as lawyers. That was supposed to be Antoine’s career path as well.
He was a quiet child who preferred studying to playing, and his father hoped this would benefit his legal pursuits. Like his father, Antoine was sent to the College Mazarin at age 11. During his time there, Lavoisier became interested in the natural sciences, especially chemistry. As he approached his 18th birthday, he needed to figure out his career.
His father didn’t discourage the natural sciences outright, but he believed his son should set them aside as a leisure activity. And in fairness, that was what a lot of Enlightenment thinkers did. His career was to be the law.
And so, at age 18, he went to the Paris Law School. While studying the law, he would spend his free time studying minerology, botany, and chemistry with some of the leading minds in Paris. His father was beginning to worry this was going to be more than a leisure activity.
After a few years, Lavoisier earned his law degree and became admitted to practice in the Paris court. But he never would. He knew full well at this point that he wanted to devote his life to scientific pursuits. His dad came to terms with it.
Over the next four years, he worked to get admitted to the Academy of Sciences, knowing that would be step one for a successful scientific career. At first, he presented them a paper he wrote on gypsum, then a proposal for a street-lighting project in Paris. Neither were enough, although he did get a reward from the king for his street-lighting essay. Finally, he presented two papers he authored on measuring liquids and he was accepted.
The work he was most famous for began in 1772. During an experiment that year, he was burning some phosphorous and producing phosphoric acid. Soon after, he calcined sulfur and produced sulfuric acid. In both experiments, he noted that the weight of the acids was greater than the phosphorous or sulfur that was burned. What was creating that extra weight?
He realized he had discovered something, though it would take several more years before he could figure out what it was.
He struggled in his experiments, constantly hitting roadblocks. Then, one day, a group of fellows from the Academy of Sciences stopped by his lab. They tinkered with his experiments and took measurements. I’ll remind you, here, that my understanding of science is extremely limited, and I’ll go ahead and skip straight to the result that day.
Lavoisier’s suspicions were confirmed: That the air around us has many components. By this point, Joseph Black up in Scotland had already discovered what he called “fixed air” – that is, carbon dioxide. But there was also another kind of air. An air of respiration, as they called it. Fixed air would put out a flame. But air of respiration kept it going.
Lavoisier wrote up their findings and sent them to the Royal Society in London, hoping it would be noticed by Joseph Black and another British scientist: Joseph Priestly. In 1774, Priestly conducted his own experiments and was able to isolate this air of respiration. Word of that experiment made it to Sweden, where the famed Carl Wilhelm Scheele figured out how to do it too. And he wrote up his findings to send back to Lavoisier.
Lavoisier continued to pursue it. By 1775, he was confident enough to publish his theory: That this component of the air wasn’t just important for keeping flames lit – which alone threw a good century of scientific beliefs about fire out the window – but also for animals to breathe. He called it “le principe _____” – he wasn’t sure what to call it.
It took him another two years to settle on a name. Since the experiments that helped him figure it out were to produce acids, he created the name from the Greek expression to beget acid – “le principe oxygine.”
He was hardly the first person to isolate it and realize it was something special, but he was the one who understood it well enough to give it a name. And his discoveries also led to a new concept that was going to have incredible consequences for the future – combustion.
The discovery of oxygen took a lot of time and a lot of money for the resources he experimented with. So, how did he do it?
In 1768, the same year he was admitted into the academy, Lavoisier made the most monumental decision of his life. He invested 68,000 livres for a one-third share of a partnership in the Ferme Générale – the General Farm.
Formed in 1726, the General Farm was a private company of tax farmers for the French treasury. So long as they brought in the amount they were expected to for the treasury, they could keep everything else they raised as profit.
As a partial partner in the Farm, Lavoisier was made an inspector of tobacco imports. To this end, he developed a way of testing whether the tobacco had been adulterated with additives like ash. In his work, he reported to one Jacques Paulze, a senior partner.
It was through that relationship that, in 1770, the 27-year-old Lavoisier met Paulze’s 13-year-old daughter, Marie-Anne. They were married the next year. An outgoing girl, Marie-Anne was well suited to break Lavoisier from his introvert shell. She also had a strong mind and Lavoisier was determined to help her excel intellectually. He taught her chemistry and she became his lab assistant. Her drawing skills were especially handy for scientific illustrations and her understanding of English helped as she translated scientific publications.
His investment in and work for the General Farm paid a high dividend. Like, a very high dividend. Within 18 years of his down-payment, he had profited to the tune of 1.2 million livres – which would be a good $50 million or more in today’s money.
And in 1775 he got another job. He was appointed to the French Gunpowder Commission. In the previous decade, France had run out of gunpowder, leading to their defeat in the Seven Years War. Not wanting to make that mistake for the inevitable next war, the government decided to take over production from its gunpowder contractors.
Lavoisier decided to approach the situation like a scientist, and he found several inefficiencies with the manufacture on gunpowder in France. By the end of 1776, France was producing so much high-quality gunpowder that they were able to start sending some to the rebels in North America. When the war ended, Lavoisier credited his gunpowder for American independence.
His work on the Gunpowder Commission also introduced him to a new colleague: Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours. Antoine and Pierre soon became friends, and Antoine helped find a place for Pierre’s son – Éleuthère Irénée – at the Essonne Gunpowder Works. Although, it seems Antoine was a better friend than Pierre, who had a secret affair with Marie-Anne for years and years.
Despite her infidelity, Marie-Anne was a major supporter of her husband. In addition to handling his schedule, correspondences, and assisting in the lab, she effectively became his publicist, promoting his work to the public. She also took him out in public to be seen in high society. Her drawing had led her to a fascination with the arts, and she brought her husband to painting exhibitions and operas.
With his role in the Gunpowder Commission, Lavoisier was able to build a new, state-of-the-art laboratory at the Hotel des Poudres et Saltpetres – the Royal Arsenal – in Paris. He also moved into an apartment at the arsenal, where he and Marie-Anne would live for the next 13 years. During that time, he spent something like 96 hours per week at work – with about half that time devoted to his personal scientific pursuits.
Among other things, Lavoisier wanted to make the study of chemistry simpler. Back when he was first learning the subject, he complained about the dictionary of the science – it was too messy, too confusing – and that the subject was, “composed of absolutely incoherent ideas and unproven superstitions.” Lavoisier was ready to tear apart the foundation of chemistry and rebuild.
Among other things, Lavoisier was sick and tired of hearing about “reason” – that beloved word of the Enlightenment. The way he saw it, too many part-time scientists were using their powers of reasoning to come to a lot of false conclusions. He wanted them to instead experiment, observe, measure, and test their theories.
To those ends: In 1787 he published a 55-element “Table of Chemical Nomenclature” – the precursor to our modern Periodic Table of Elements. In 1789, he published his Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, essentially a standardized textbook of the subject. He also pushed for the adoption of a metric system, where everything measured would be based on units of ten.
Nowadays, of course, a metric system exists for mass, for distances, and for volume. Lavoisier also wanted a metric system for time. And he wasn’t the only one. In the coming French Revolution, they would adopt a system of decimal time. Each day would consist of 10 hours that were 100 minutes long, and each minute would be 100 seconds. And if that sounds confusing, how about this? They remade the calendar with 10 days per week, three weeks per month. Now, they still had 12 months, but they renamed them all, reorganized them according to French weather patterns, with Year One beginning the day France became a Republic.
Okay, this might start to sound like a redundant theme in this podcast, but guess how the French Revolution goes for Lavoisier.
He first got in hot water in 1789, where he was instructed to move the munitions at the Royal Arsenal to the Bastille for safekeeping on July 13th. The revolutionaries overtook the Bastille the very next day. Though he was confronted for his actions, Lavoisier managed to slip away.
But by 1792, the situation had turned from Enlightened Revolution to Jacobin madness. And among Lavoisier’s problems was the radical journalist Jean-Paul Marat.
Before becoming so political, Marat had been a physician and scientist. Way back in 1779, he had conducted some optical experiments with Benjamin Franklin and members of the Academy in attendance.
He was trying to show them the “matter of fire”, which he believed was an igneous fluid. This was a common belief at the time, that fire was some kind of physical matter – a belief that Lavoisier had accepted as fact earlier in his career. But by this point, Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen led him to his new theory of combustion. Fire wasn’t matter, it was a reaction. With Lavoisier serving on it, a team from the Academy decided there was insufficient evidence to support Marat’s theory. He was relying too much on “reason.”
Now, this didn’t stop Marat from publicizing his experiments. And when he did, he gave the newspapers the impression that the Academy approved his theory. And for that, Lavoisier called him out for it, describing Marat as a scientific charlatan.
Well, in 1792, that came back to bite Lavoisier in the ass. As the Jacobins were getting more and more use out of the Guillotine, Marat published all kinds of denunciations of his enemies, to the tune of “Why isn’t Lavoisier dead yet?”
And to many Jacobins it was a fair question. Lavoisier had been part of the hated General Farm, enriching themselves as they helped the royals live lavishly while France starved. His work inspecting tobacco had made him unpopular with the black market tobacconists. They blamed all the adulterated tobacco problems on Lavoisier, seized his papers, and found him guilty of – well, is it really important? He got rich off taxes. He was working for the ancien regime. He’s guilty.
On May 8th, 1794 – the same day his father-and-law was executed – they put his head in the Guillotine and cut it off.
His friend, Pierre-Samuel du Pont de Nemours survived though. It was something of a miracle, really. After the terror ended, he and his family got the hell out of France. They moved to the new United States, where Éleuthère Irénée took his experience manufacturing gunpowder and set up a new firm, E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Company. Later in the 19th Century, his descendants would turn it into one of the largest chemical manufacturers in the world – the firm we know as, simply, DuPont.
But that’s for another time.
Lavoisier’s work was so influential for the modern world that he is often considered the Father of Modern Chemistry. Consider what he made possible. He delivered a theory of combustion, which could be used to develop the internal combustion engine – critical to the cars we drive and other forms of transportation, as well as power plants for the generation of electricity. The role of oxygen in combustion led to many breakthroughs to help coal mining – including the Davy safety lamp and the technique of clearing fumes by having fires outside mine shafts.
His work on a table of elements led us toward new chemical discoveries, advances in chemical manufacturing, nuclear physics and – in time – nuclear energy.
If you consider his efforts to modernize chemistry broadly, you can credit him with most of our modern lives. From the LCD screens on our phones, to the pesticides and herbicides that keep us fed, to the modern pharmaceuticals that keep us alive.
But, of course, for modern pharmaceuticals, there would also need to be advances in medicine. And not long after Lavoisier died, a big medical advancement would be made up in England.
Edward Jenner was born in the small town of Berkeley in Gloucestershire in 1749. His father, the local vicar, died when Edward was 5 years old. As a result, his mother developed severe depression that made her unable to look after Edward. And so, he was taken in by his much older brother, Stephen, and his wife. Stephen became the new vicar in Berkeley, and thought it was a good career path for Edward too. Ministry was the family business, after all.
As a child, Edward was inoculated for smallpox, and it would be a life-defining moment.
Back then, nearly everyone got smallpox at some point in their life, and about 10% of people would die from it. Others were scarred or paralyzed by it. And so, when a smallpox epidemic broke out, those who had not yet been exposed to it would be inoculated.
Inoculation – the practice of exposing someone to a disease so they would grow immune to it – had been around for centuries by this point. It developed in China during the Song Dynasty and had made its way to India, the Middle East, and Turkey, before spreading to Europe in the early 1700s.
Basically, you would take a little amount of pus from someone suffering from the disease, and you would rub it into scratches you’d make in the patient you were inoculating. They would subsequently get sick with the disease, but (hopefully) not so sick that they’d die. Once the sickness passed, they would be immune from smallpox for the rest of their life.
Now, this was risky. People did occasionally die from inoculation, and others were left in a weakened condition. France even went so far as to ban inoculation in the 1760s.
Among those who would never fully recover from inoculation was Edward Jenner. After getting the smallpox pus, he wound up in the hospital, where the screams of other children terrified him in his delirious state. He was described as a “sickly boy” for the rest of his youth and would always have a ringing in his ear. But he did survive.
He was put in school where he frequently got in trouble for asking too many questions. His teacher, a certain Dr. Washbourn, did not appreciate the young boy questioning prevailing wisdoms. Washbourn also didn’t care for the natural sciences, whereas Edward loved observing nature and reading about scientific discoveries.
There’s a story about Washbourn and Jenner at this time – it may be apocryphal – in which Washbourn was teaching his class how many questions can never be answered, and that is why the Bible teaches us to trust in God. Nobody knows where the locusts, in one Bible story, came from. Therefore, we trust they were part of God’s plan. Jenner stood up and clarified that, recent research he’d seen, demonstrated that locusts spread by laying eggs.
Washbourn screamed at him, and Jenner had to run out of the classroom to avoid a beating. To Washbourn, such scientific discoveries posed a direct threat to his worldview, that some questions were unanswerable. It seemed that knowing the mysteries of the universe was no longer for God alone.
When Stephen Jenner met with Dr. Washbourn to discuss the incident, he was alarmed by Washbourn’s narrow-minded outlook. (Like, who’s the vicar here, buddy?)
Edward, meanwhile, would remain a lifelong Christian – and a spiritual one at that. But his experience with Washbourn showed him that ministry was not his calling. His calling was science and medicine.
Now, this was an interesting period of history for the medical profession. As late as the early 18th Century, pretty much anyone could set up shop as a physician. But now, it was becoming a discipline that required an education and license to practice. Stephen supported his brother’s decision, and he helped Edward on a path to study medicine.
He made arrangements with a local surgeon to take in Edward as an apprentice. After seven years in training, Edward went to London to study further with his master’s old master: the legendary John Hunter.
Hunter was something of an eccentric in the London scientific community. He was notorious for dissecting human cadavers to learn about the body – a practice that was largely forbidden at the time. To do it, he had to pay graverobbers who would regularly show up at his doorstep with a fresh body they dug up. He also had a huge collection of animal carcasses he dissected, and kept preserved, for a natural sciences museum he hoped to build.
Jenner was similarly interested in these pursuits, and made a good fit for Hunter, who pressed this idea on his student: Whenever Jenner said something about how he thought this or that about biology, Hunter would interrupt, “Don’t think, investigate!”
Like Lavoisier, Hunter was convinced that people were getting way too theoretical (and wrong) with their scientific reasoning. This was a lesson that would serve Jenner well in the future.
As he turned 22, Jenner had to make a decision. He got some job offers to be a zoologist or scientific researcher, but ultimately, he decided those were to be his hobbies. He wanted to become a surgeon. And, more strikingly, he didn’t want to stay in London where he could potentially become a rich or famous surgeon. He was going to return home to Gloucestershire and set up shop in Berkeley.
There, he slowly grew his practice, gaining the trust of a community that still remembered him as a boy.
In addition to his medical practice, he became obsessed with studying a bird – the cuckoo. He sketched the cuckoo, dissected it, and wrote a paper on it for the Royal Society.
But more importantly, he began a project that would take more than 20 years of research on his part – a project to discover a link between cowpox – a disease that cows suffered – and smallpox.
Ever since he was a boy, he had heard stories from local milkmaids and farmers that they were immune to smallpox because they had contracted cowpox at some point. The medical community considered this an old wives’ tale among the dairy farmers of England’s West Country. But Jenner wasn’t so sure.
Over the years, he interviewed dozens of people who had been exposed to cowpox. When cowpox broke out on the farm of one Samuel Ruse, he went to observe the cows and the workers. Comparing the blisters on the cows’ udders to the blisters on the workers’ hands, he determined that – yes – humans could become infected with cowpox. None of the humans got seriously ill from it – a small fever perhaps – so if cowpox really did make them immune to smallpox, it would have a world-changing impact. Millions of lives would be saved.
He asked if he could inoculate them with smallpox, to see if it would have any effect on them. Usually this would be irresponsible for a doctor to suggest, since the smallpox inoculation was dangerous. But the workers were confident they wouldn’t get sick from it. They didn’t. The old wives’ tale was true.
Years went by before he could experiment again. At one point, he inoculated his own baby boy with swinepox – similar to cowpox, but on pigs – and subsequently with smallpox. The smallpox had no impact on his son’s condition. All of this was incredibly controversial, and it nearly got him kicked out of his local medical association.
The big breakthrough came in 1796, when an outbreak of cowpox gave him the opportunity to test the theory once again. This time, a woman asked him to inoculate her son, Jamie, with cowpox so that he would be safe from smallpox. A milkmaid named Sarah Nelmes, who had contracted cowpox during the outbreak, volunteered to let Jenner take some of the pus from her hands. It was then given to the young Jamie Phipps.
It transferred as Jenner expected. Jamie got as sick as a person normally does from cowpox, not too bad. Each day, Jamie and his mother returned to Jenner’s office for an examination.
Word about the trial got out, and people were not cool about it. Protesters showed up everyday outside his house and published pamphlets attacking him. “How can a doctor be giving human beings an animal disease?!”
Undeterred, Jenner collected as much cowpox pus as possible while the outbreak lasted, storing it in tightly sealed jars. It could then be applied to quills to dole out for inoculations.
Now, up until this point, nobody had bothered to give cowpox a scientific name. And since it was going to be his medicine, Jenner decided to give it a name. He translated the phrase “smallpox of the cow” into Latin. “Variolae” for smallpox, “vacca” for cows. “Variolae vaccinae” – the smallpox vaccine.
Now, Jenner was not the only person to realize there was a link between cowpox and smallpox. The West Country dairy farmers had known it for years. In fact, Jenner wasn’t even the only scientist to figure it out and to challenge the medical establishment.
But what Jenner did that was so genius was he decided to compile all his research and turn it into a book: An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolæ Vaccinæ.
He traveled with his manuscript to London to deliver to the printers himself. While in London, he went around to other notable physicians to spread the word and gauge their interest in trying it themselves. Nearly all refused.
But back in the West Country, it became clear that the vaccine worked, and demand for it grew. Jenner decided he would not charge people for it. It was not meant to make him rich, it was meant to save lives.
The book was published, and it spread across the country. Many of the doctors who had previously brushed Jenner off when he pitched the vaccine to them now read the book and were convinced by the thorough documentation of his research. Soon, Jenner was asked to present his findings to the King, Queen, and Prince of Wales. Parliament decided that, even though he wasn’t seeking profit from the vaccine, they’d show him some appreciation anyway with two grants totaling £30,000. Scientists, religious leaders, and even Napoleon sang Jenner’s praises.
Requests for his vaccine came as far as Vienna and Boston – requests Jenner fulfilled. Within a decade of his book, it became clear that the vaccine worked. And suddenly, the world had one less thing to worry about.
Not only would the smallpox vaccine make millions of lives possible – likely billions, by this point in history –it also served as the foundation for new advancements in medicine: Immunization. Vaccines for tuberculosis, polio, diphtheria, tetanus, and measles save roughly 2.5 million lives every year. This has had an extraordinary impact on the growth of the world’s population.
Now, whereas Jenner was a simple country doctor, our last scientist today was anything but. And to meet him, we’re going to take a trip west of the West Country – to the westernmost tip of Cornwall.
Humphry Davy was born in the small, coastal town of Penzance in 1778. I promised I’d come back to Davy. You will remember him from Chapter 6 – his safety lamp helped make coal mining much more practical in the age before electric lighting. Although, electric lighting is another thing Davy would have a lot to do with.
Penzance was not a particularly learned town, nor all that interested in learning. It seems the locals preferred hunting, wrestling, cockfighting, and drunkenness to the sciences or literature. As a boy, Davy appreciated hunting and fishing himself, and fishing would be a lifelong passion of his. He was educated in two local grammar schools in Cornwall, where he doubted the intelligence of his educators. While in school, he also developed an appreciation for poetry and wrote his own.
When he was 16, he was apprenticed to a local surgeon and pharmacist. It was during his time working in the pharmacy he would conduct chemical experiments with his sister assisting him. He also spent some of his free time learning French, which is how he came to read a book that would shape his later career – the Elementary Treatise on Chemistry by Antoine Lavoisier.
As time went on, it became clear that he was more interested in the natural sciences for their own sake than he was in the health outcomes of his master’s patients. On more than one occasion he created an explosion in the pharmacy while carrying out his experiments.
At some point during these years, Davy’s mother decided to take in a sick young man who was trying to recover in the warmer, more tranquil environment of Cornwall. His name was Gregory Watt, son of the famous James Watt. Davy struck up a friendship with him. He may have also met Josiah Wedgwood and his family during these years.
It was also during these years he met Davies Gilbert. Remember Davies Gilbert from Chapter 7? He gave Richard Trevithick the insights needed to create a high-pressure steam engine. Davy and Gilbert would enjoy a longtime friendship. Through Gilbert, Davy met a Dr. Edwards, a chemistry professor who agreed to let Davy use his laboratory from time to time.
More importantly, Gilbert introduced Davy to a pair of geologists, Thomas Beddoes and John Hailstone. They had competing theories about how rocks formed and were visiting Cornwall together to study the rocks of the coastline. Beddoes had set up a laboratory in nearby Bristol – the Pneumatic Institution – and needed a lab assistant. Gilbert recommended Davy for the job. Davy jumped at the opportunity, although it took some great effort to get him out of his apprenticeship.
His time at the Pneumatic Institution was bizarre, to say the least. During his time there he met poets, aristocrats, and other scientists. He would also occasionally travel to visit the Watts and their acquaintances. And, apparently, they all heavily used laughing gas.
First synthesized by Joseph Priestly some years earlier, nitrous oxide held a lot of potential for medicinal uses, and Davy wanted to test those uses. So, he’d gather his group of friends around with a silk bag full of laughing gas for his “experiments” – which (for some reason) usually led to a party. Among his experiments, he tested nitrous oxide one morning to see if it was a good cure for his hangover, and he logged that trial as a smashing success.
His 1831 biographer tells us that Davy’s lab notes during these years are pretty humorous. They describe the scientist as he’d huff laughing gas out of a bag and run around his laboratory, giddy about life, feeling no pain.
For what it’s worth, Davy had produced evidence that nitrous oxide could be useful in surgical and dental operations – a conclusion he came to at a time when there was no anesthesiology.
He also experimented with carbon monoxide, to see if it would have a similar effect. As you can guess, it nearly killed him. He took his own pulse as he stumbled out of the lab into the garden, where he faintly said, “I do not think I shall die,” before throwing himself into the grass. Another scientist came out with a bag full of pure oxygen, which he breathed in for about a minute, and then recovered.
Now, all of this drug use led to some pretty absurd scientific theories coming out of the Pneumatic Institution, including Davy’s ideas about the nature of light particles, which were heavily criticized when they were published. It would be a wake-up call for Davy, who then became more serious about his work.
In 1801, Davy interviewed for a position at the new Royal Institution with famed scientists Joseph Banks, Benjamin Thompson, and Henry Cavendish. They hired him as a lecturer for £100 per year. His lectures would make him famous. Hundreds of people would attend to watch the handsome young scientist demonstrate wild experiments – including some with laughing gas – with the showmanship of a great entertainer.
He threw poetry and religious and social commentary into his lectures, believing these would appeal to the ladies, who were soon making up about half of the attendance. Sure enough, he soon became a common invitee to the soirees of London socialites. To his credit, it seems like Davy was genuinely interested in getting more women involved in the natural sciences – a field that was totally dominated by men. And for it, he got a lot of flack from his fellow men.
But while his lectures made him popular, his experiments made him stand the test of time. Among other things, Davy was obsessed with batteries. During the first decade of the 19th Century, he developed a way to use electrolysis to split metallic compounds and discover new elements, including sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, strontium and barium. He also discovered iodine and figured out that Scheele’s chlorine was an element.
While playing around with these batteries, he also tried attaching a piece a platinum filament. It lit up for several minutes – the first known example of electric, incandescent light; the first step toward the lightbulb.
During these years, Davy also made a major contribution to another invention we take for granted today. Years earlier, he had befriended Thomas Wedgwood, one of Josiah’s sons. The younger Wedgwood had showed Davy something he was working on: A process of using light-sensitive chemicals to capture silhouette images on paper.
In 1802, Davy wrote it up for the Journal of the Royal Institution, “An Account of a Method of Copying Paintings upon Glass, and of Making Profiles, by the Agency of Light upon Nitrate of Silver, with observations by Humphrey Davy. Invented by T. Wedgwood, Esquire.” At the time it was published, almost nobody read it. But over the next 40 years it came across the eyes of a few men who followed in Thomas Wedgwood’s tracks. These, of course, were the first steps toward the invention of photography.
But it was in 1812 that Davy made, what he claimed to be, his greatest discovery. He was working in the lab with nitrogen trichloride, a dangerous compound which exploded, leading to some serious injuries. Unable to write, Davy hired a young Michael Faraday to be his lab assistant and take notes. Faraday was his greatest discovery.
Michael Faraday’s achievements are too significant to go into in this episode, but let’s just put it this way – he’s the reason we have electricity in our homes.
Over the course of the next 15 years, Davy turned his attention to more practical matters of science. First, he was working on ways to use chemistry to improve agricultural output. Then, he invented the safety lamp in 1815. Around the same time, he made breakthroughs with the study of acids and alkalies, and his works would become the standards on the subject before the development of the pH scale in the early 20th Century. Finally, in 1822, he was approached by the Navy Board to help them preserve the copper bottoms of their new ships, which were corroding in the salt water of the oceans.
To do it, Davy and Faraday headed down to Portsmouth, where they set up operations at the dockyard, not far from the block mills. Using an electrochemical process, they tried attaching protective pieces of zinc and iron. But that only ended up making the problem worse, and their efforts are generally regarded as a failure.
But before the failure, Davy’s eventful and otherwise successful scientific career had culminated in some major honors. He was elevated to a baronetcy in 1819, an unusually high distinction for a scientist at this point in history. He became Sir Humphrey Davy, 1st Baronet. Then, in 1820, he was elected President of the Royal Society, which he served for the next several years, juggling the ridiculous politics of the organization before being succeed by his old friend, Davies Gilbert.
The developments in science and medicine discussed today were not a direct result of the Industrial Revolution. But the works of all of these scientists – and their contributions to the development of the Scientific Method – would, in time, lead to major breakthroughs that the Industrial Revolutions could bring to market.
But this period of history would not only be marked by a Scientific Enlightenment. It would also see the ground shift on a very different topic: Religion. Because Great Britain was about to undergo its first Great Awakening. Next week, on the Industrial Revolutions.
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