By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

13. The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes, pp. 361-405

The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (Vintage)Davy and the Lamp, 4-6; Sorcerer and Apprentice, 1-5
After yet another mine explosion that killed fifty-seven men in June 1815, the Coal Mines Safety Committee put out an urgent call for Humphry Davy's help. So on August 24, Davy went to Newcastle to see what he could do. The working theory was that fire-damp needed to be somehow neutralized directly, perhaps with better ventilation or some other kind of gas pumped into the mine. But Davy turned the problem around: He looked at what was touching off the explosions -- the candles and oil lamps that the miners carried into the darkness.

First, however, he needed to analyze the gas and its properties, so he took bottled samples to the Royal Institution laboratory and, working with Faraday, began to study the properties of methane. He discovered that it would explode only when it reached a critical proportion of one part gas to eight parts air, and that the temperature at which the explosion occurred was quite high. With this information he could proceed to designing a lamp that would not set off an explosion. He learned that a lamp with a glass chimney sealed around the wick and with narrow metal tubes to let in air would not set off an explosion. It was a trial-and-error process that led to several explosions but he had three working prototypes ready at the end of October. He wrote to Banks about his success and sent the lamps to the Royal Society along with a scientific paper to be read on November 9.

But Davy continued to refine his invention. He and Faraday continued to work through Christmas and by January 11 he was ready to report his results to the Royal Society. He had discovered that the lamp worked even better when the wick was surrounded by a fine-gauge wire mesh instead of a sealed glass chimney. The apertures in the mesh fed air to the flame and at the same time contained and cooled it below the temperature needed to ignite the methane. Without the need for a glass chimney, the lamp was cheaper and sturdier. Davy also used the process by which the lamp was designed as an example of the scientific inductive method, writing: "Every step was furnished by experiment and induction, in which nothing can be said to be owing to accident, and in which the most simple and useful combination arose out of the most complicated circumstances." Holmes comments, "This refusal to allow anything to chance, 'accident' or good fortune was exactly the same as Herschel's insistence that chance played no part in the discovery of Uranus."

The Davy Safety Lamp was swiftly adopted all over Britain and Europe. Davy himself went down the mine at Walls End in Northumberland and demonstrated its use to the miners, pointing out that the flame itself could indicate the presence of methane: "His lamp not only caged the flame, it transformed it into a canary." He received the Rumford Medal from the Royal Society in 1817 and was made a baronet the following year, but he refused to take out a patent on the lamp. He published an account of the research, On the Safety Lamp for Miners, With Some Researches Into Flame in 1818, setting forth his belief that science could be a force for human betterment.
The gratification of the love of knowledge is delightful to every refined mind; but a much higher motive is offered in indulging it, when that knowledge is felt to be practical power, and when that power may be applied to lessen the miseries or increase the comforts of our fellow-creatures. 
But in spring 1816, he was charged with plagiarizing his design from George Stephenson, an engineer, who had tested his own safety lamp in October 1815 and presented his invention to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society in December. Stephenson had suspected plagiarism when he saw reports of Davy's first lamp, the one with metal tubes instead of wire gauze, in the Newcastle papers. Stephenson's lamp also used tubes and perforations. When the Newcastle Society demonstrated Davy's gauze lamp side-by-side with Stephenson's in February 1816, it was obvious that the two lamps were different, but the controversy couldn't be stopped. There was something of a battle of North versus South involved as well. Stephenson would go on to his own fame as an inventor with the "Stephenson Rocket," an early steam-powered railway engine. He admitted that he hadn't studied the properties of methane and that his lamp was the result of trial and error. But Davy got his back up over Stephenson's claims and "never acknowledged that the over-hasty publication of his early prototypes had caused much of the problem." But even though Banks issued a firm statement in November 1817 that the Royal Society had investigated the claims and tested both lamps and concluded that Davy was the sole inventor, the controversy never died.

In May  1818, the Davys left on another European tour, planning to travel for two years. It was partly an attempt to patch up their marriage, which had been put to the test by celebrity. It was in the Balkans, in what is now the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, that Davy had his second sighting of the "dream girl" of his feverish vision in 1808. This time she was fifteen-year-old Josephine Dettela, the daughter of an innkeeper. He dismissed it as an insignificant coincidence, though he would later write about it. They moved on to visit Lord Byron at Ravenna and then settled in Naples for the winter, about the same time as Shelley and his family, though there is no record that Davy and Shelley ever met. In spring 1819, they started north again, but Jane announced that she was ill and tired of traveling and wanted to stay in Paris. There Davy heard that Joseph Banks was also ill.

Banks had been increasingly immobilized by gout, but he continued to single out young protégés, including John Herschel, who had distinguished himself at Cambridge as a mathematician and had published a paper on mathematical formulae before his twenty-first birthday. Banks had John Herschel elected to the Royal Society in 1813. Another protégé was the zoologist Charles Waterton, who had made several journeys to South America. Banks urged Waterton, who was thirty-seven, to settle down and write the account of his journeys, something that Banks himself had failed to do. Waterton complied, and produced "a popular masterpiece," Wanderings in South America, in 1825.

In his old age, Banks had become more conservative. Although he honored women such as Caroline Herschel, he was opposed to letting women be elected to the Royal Society. And he was shocked at Byron's "Lascivious" Don Juan, which began appearing in 1819. Despite his own early distaste for slavery, he would not commit the Royal Society to abolishing it. His attitude toward slavery was not that it was a moral evil but that it was an inefficient way to manage labor: "Slavery must be abolished not on moral principles, which are in my opinion incapable of being maintained in argument, but on Commercial ones which weigh equally in moral & immoral minds." On the other hand, he hailed the revolution in Haiti: "To see a sort of Human Beings emerging from Slavery & making the most rapid Strides towards the perfection of Civilization, must I think be the most delightful of all Food for Contemplation."

Despite his early success, John Herschel was still undecided about what direction his life should take. His aunt, Caroline, was his confidante, and met his brilliant Cambridge friends, the mathematician Charles Babbage and the geologist William Whewell. But John was undecided whether to remain as a fellow at Cambridge and do pure mathematics, or to practice law in London, a career that he thought would allow him to doscientific research in chemistry and geology in his spare time. But his father discouraged him from both courses, considering law beneath him and university life too self-indulgent. He suggested that John become a clergyman. And William brushed off John's reaction that he didn't believe in the doctrine of the Anglican church, arguing, "The most conscientious clergyman may preach a sermon full of sound morality, and no one will enquire into theological subtleties."

The argument between the young man and his seventy-five-year-old father became heated, but finally William gave in and agreed that John should try out the law at Lincoln's Inn and go to regular meetings at the Royal Society. He was proved right about the law: John didn't like it, and went back to Cambridge first as a mathematics tutor and then as a fellow. But by the summer of 1816 he had decided that science was his real career. William gave his son a generous income to pursue whatever research he chose, and he joined his father and his aunt at Slough in running the observatory. In 1819 he presented his first paper, correcting Newton's ideas on polarized light, to the Royal Society. 

William Herschel's discoveries had caught the imagination of Shelley, who used them to bolster his own arguments against religion. If the cosmos was as unimaginably vast as Herschel suggested, it only showed the narrowness of the biblical account of fall and redemption. He wrote in "On the Plurality of Worlds," a note to Queen Mab:
The indefinite immensity of the universe, is the most aweful subject of contemplation.... It is impossible to believe that the Spirit that pervades this infinite machine begat a son upon the body of a Jewish woman.... The works of His fingers have borne witness against him.
He continued in this vein in other prose works, and Prometheus Unbound "revels in Herschel's new cosmology and Davy's chemistry." In it, the moon sings a song to Earth that "elegantly includes scientific notions of gravitational orbit, tidal attractions and magnetic fields."

In his last years at the Royal Society, Banks began to see the growth of science challenge his ability to keep it all under the aegis of one body. He fought against such spinoffs as the Geological Society and the Astronomical Society. It was John Herschel and Charles Babbage who were leading the formation of the latter, a step toward the compartmentalism and professionalizing of the scientific disciplines that had already begun at the universities. Banks himself was somewhat to blame for this reaction against the Royal Society's attempt to unify all the sciences in one body. Under his leadership, the membership had come to consist of such non-scientists or at best amateur scientists as clergymen (10 percent of the membership) and landed aristocrats (nearly 20 percent).  Younger members chafed against what they felt as the "stifling consensus, cautious propriety and snobbish exclusion" of the society, which had yet to recognize the achievements of chemists like John Dalton and Michael Faraday.

Banks did, however, continue to encourage his protégés, such as William Edward Parry's polar expedition through Baffin Bay, in an attempt to discover the Northwest Passage. He was also interested in setting up an observatory in South Africa, at the Cape. But in the spring of 1820 he became seriously ill with jaundice and submitted his resignation. The Society rejected it, but Banks died on June 19, 1820, having served more than forty years as president.

Davy returned to London only three days before Banks's death. He was widely regarded as the logical successor to Banks, and he wanted the job. But his marriage was still troubled, and taking on the responsibility of leading the Royal Society was not likely to please Jane. They agreed to stay together but to lead separate lives except when official events made it necessary for them to make an appearance together. They moved into a larger house that would allow them independence from each other.

The choice of Davy was not unanimous: "Aristocratic members were uneasy at Davy's Cornish background (so different from Banks's Eton and Oxford), while younger members, on the contrary, wondered if his social ambitions had overtaken his scientific ones." There was an alternative: the chemist William Hyde Wollaston, who became acting president on Banks's death. John Herschel supported this choice, writing to Babbage that Davy was "said to be arrogant in the extreme, and impatient of opposition to his scientific views, and likely, if power were placed in his hand to oppose rising merit in his own line." Davy's dispute with Gay-Lussac was also cited as evidence against him.

Nevertheless, Davy was elected without opposition in November 1820. In his opening addresses he singled out the fields where he thought the most promising new work lay: "astronomy, polar exploration, the physics of heat and light, electricity and magnetism, geology, and the physiology of plants and animals." He praised Wollaston, Dalton, and John Herschel, and voted to fund Charles Babbage's "difference engine," the precursor of the calculator. John was also awarded the Copley Medal for his work on polarized light. But Davy also offended some by publishing some remarks about Banks that seemed to characterize his predecessor as "a dilettante and a patriarch."

And his treatment of Michael Faraday, his former star pupil, was surprising: He blackballed Faraday's election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1823, even though Faraday had already been elected to the Accademia in Florence and the Académie des Sciences in Paris. The reason Davy presented was that Faraday had plagiarized some of Wollaston's experiments in electromagnetic rotation and claimed that he had achieved the results first. But Faraday was already a recognized authority in the field and the plagiarism seems to have been unintentional -- even Wollaston was unconcerned about it, and later supported Faraday's election. Faraday's name was resubmitted eleven times until he was finally elected in 1824, with one vote against him -- presumably Davy's. Gossip even got out that Davy had intentionally suggested an experiment that had almost blinded Faraday. 

But Davy's work in encouraging the government's support of science was significant. He became a trustee of the British Museum, helping develop its collections and bringing more scientific exhibitions to it, making it more accessible to the public. He supported the formation of the Royal Zoological Society and the creation of a zoo in Regent's Park. He was also a founder of the Athenaeum Club, though he once again used it to commit an apparent snub of Faraday, having him appointed Club Secretary. When Faraday discovered it was essentially a clerical job, he quit. But finally he was forced to give his approval to Faraday's appointment as director of the Royal Institution, which would make Faraday world-famous.

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