Sidor som bilder

him immediately after his first introductory lecture, Dr. P. remarks:

“ It is admitted that his vanity was excited, and his ambition raised, by such extraordinary demonstrations of devotion; that the bloom of his simplicity was dulled by the breath of adulation; and that, losing much of the native frankness which constituted the great charm of his character, he assumed the garb and airs of a man of fashion ; let us not wonder if, under such circumstances, the inappropriate robe should not always have fallen in graceful draperies."...“On the 5th* of February, 1802, he dined with Sir Harry Englefield at his house at Blackheath; and eighteen years afterward, the worthy baronet alluded to his interesting demeanor on that occasion, in terms sufficiently expressive of his feelings— It was the last flash of expiring nature." Vol. i, pp. 137 and 172.

When the character of an individual once begins to suffer from the effects of adulation, it is not, as a general thing, to be expected that he will afterward be able to resist the influence of the current that has already lifted him from his moorings and is bearing him onward in its course. The delicious draught is too intoxicating to allow reason to exert its wonted control; and nothing but an entire reversion of circumstances can bring him again to a sober view of the “dull realities of life," and lead to that correct course of conduct which such a view alone can produce. Nor is the case of Davy an exception to this remark. The unfavorable change in his manners, the commencement of which his friends observed with so much pain soon after his removal to London, continued to increase until little remained of his former simplicity of character; and his marriage with the lady whose name we have just introduced brought him into possession of means that enabled him still more effectually than before to ape the manners and customs of the aristocracy. For this he was but poorly fitted either by education or habit; and it is not to be wondered at that, declining as he did to appear in the simple character of the man of science, in order to assume that of the gentleman, he should fail to receive the respect that would have been due to either. We would not, however, insinuate that he was ever neglected or otherwise treated, so far as external appearances are concerned, than with respect ; but, presenting himself in a character in many respects foreign to his true one, he evidently failed to receive that inward homage of the heart, that supreme veneration which his eminent abilities and important scientific achievements ought to have commanded.

* His introductory lecture, it will be recollected, was given on the 21st of the preceding month.

Immediately after their marriage, Sir Humphry and his lady made a journey of several months through the Highlands of Scotland; and the next year, by the express permission of Napoleon, they visited France and Italy, and returned to England in April, 1815.

Throughout his journey, and in Paris particularly, he was received by the learned with the utmost cordiality; and more than usual effort was made to honor him, and to render his visit in the highest degree pleasant and agreeable. They even elected him a corresponding member of the first class of the Imperial Institute, on the 13th of December, an honor which has been extended to but few foreigners.

During his absence, he prepared and forwarded to the Royal Society several important papers on the nature of iodine, then just discovered, and some of its compounds ; on the nature of the diamond and other carbonaceous substances; and on the nature of the various substances used as pigments by the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Soon after Davy's return to his native country, the opportunity was presented to him to do science and the cause of humanity a great service, in the invention of the safety-lamp for the use of workmen in coal mines. It had long been known that a peculiar gaseous compound of hydrogen and carbon occasionally forms in coal mines, and mixes with atmospheric air in such quantities as to occasion violent explosions on the approach of flame, to the great danger of all who are in the mine at the time. As the use of light in the mines is absolutely necessary, many lives had been lost in this way within a few years, in the various coal mines of England; no less than ninety-two individuals having been destroyed at one time in the Felling colliery in Sunderland. This led to the formation of a society for the prevention of such accidents, who had then been about two years prosecuting their, thus far, fruitless inquiries. Almost immediately after Davy's arrival, application was made to him to engage in the work, to which he returned a favorable answer; and soon commenced some investigations which resulted in the invention of his safety-lamp, in December of the same year.

A great variety of plans had been proposed to accomplish the desired object, but as none of them were practicable, it will not be necessary for us here to delay to describe them; nor, indeed, will we even follow Davy through his extended preparatory investigations, or examine his various ingenious contrivances, by which he was enabled more or less perfectly to accomplish the proposed end. His safety-lamp, as stated above, was given to the world in December, 1815; and so nearly perfect was its construction, that it has been found susceptible of little improvement after the experience of twenty-five years.

This lamp, which has given so much celebrity to the name of its inventor, and conferred so much benefit upon those connected with the coal business, consists simply of an ordinary lamp, having its wick entirely surrounded at a little distance with fine wire gauze. In the course of his investigations, Davy was led to determine several important principles connected with flame and combustion; but the most important fact ascertained by him, and the one upon which the efficacy of his lamp chiefly depends, is simply this, viz., that ordinary flame cannot pass through very small tubes. Now, fine wire gauze may be considered as a collection of such tubes, permitting the escape of the light and accession of atmospheric air to support the combustion, but which at the same time perfectly prevents the communication of flame to any explosive mixture that may be without. The occurrence of such a mixture in a mine is at once shown by the enlargement of the flame of the lamp, which will often fill the entire space within the gauze. The miner cannot, of course, continue to work in such an atmosphere as this, as any accident to his lamp, by the oxydation of the wire gauze or other circumstances, might endanger the safety of all within the mine. The only safe course, on such an occurrence, is instantly to retreat, and take measures for the ventilation of the mine, or that part of it in which the explosive mixture has collected.

The use of this lamp has been found to be of immense pecuniary benefit to those connected with the coal business, and has, without question, prevented the loss of thousands of lives. Explosions still occasionally take place, in consequence of carelessness in the use of the lamp, or from the use of gunpowder in working the mines, which is sometimes necessary; it is said, too, that unless the gauze is very fine, flame may sometimes be communicated through it by a strong current of the explosive mixture.

Davy, perhaps, more than any other philosopher of equal celebrity that has ever lived, in all his investigations and inventions aimed at practical utility; and it is not surprising, therefore, that he should ever regard this as one of the most satisfactory of all his achievements. Some of the circumstances connected with it were likewise particularly pleasing. He might unquestionably have realized great profit from the invention by securing a patent; but having already a competency, he disdained any pecuniary consideration, giving all the free use of the lamp who might be disposed to try it. The proprietors, however, of many of the coal mines in Newcastle, and others connected with the coal trade, raised a subscription of about £1200 or £1500, with which they procured for him a service of plate, as "a testimony of their gratitude” for the benefit he had conferred upon them. It was presented to him at a public dinner in Newcastle, September 25, 1817, by the late Earl of Durham, in the name of the subscribers.

Public meetings of the laborers in the mines were also held in one or two instances, in which resolutions were passed, testifying their gratitude to the man who had placed in their hands the means of protecting themselves from danger, and from constant apprehension and alarm.

It would be gratifying if we could leave this subject here, but an honest exhibition of truth requires that a few additional statements should be made.

As already intimated, when Davy commenced the investigations which subsequently led to the invention of the safety-lamp, the subject had been made very public, and had not failed to interest many others, who were bent upon contriving some means to remedy the great evil complained of. Among these was a Mr. Stephenson of Killingworth—a mechanic, as Dr. Paris remarks, “not even professing a knowledge of the elements of chimistry,” who seems to have constructed a lamp similar to some of the first of Davy's, and very nearly at the same time. We deem it a question of very little importance whether one or the other may have been a day or two first in his invention in point of time, since it is not pretended that either had any assistance from, or even knowledge of, the other; and though Davy, with the characteristic celerity of all his movements, entirely anticipated his rival in perfecting the construction of the instrument, and thus fully entitled himself to the first honor, yet the real merits of Stephenson should have been acknowledged and rewarded. His party, in the controversy that arose, perhaps claimed too much for him; but we must confess, we have never been able to contemplate the conduct of Davy's friends, in denying him all claim to merit in connection with the invention, but with regret, as being unjust and oppressive. We have often felt quite a disposition to inquire what would have been the result had the distinguished and titled man of science and the obscure mechanic exchanged places in relation to the affair !

It was expected by Davy's friends that the government would take some notice of him in consequence of his great discoveries, but nothing of the kind was ever done except to confer a baronetcy upon him nearly three years after the invention of his lamp.

The next subject which particularly engaged the attention of our philosopher was a plan for unrolling the ancient manuscripts found in Herculaneum, in which he enlisted with much enthusiasm. Having obtained the approbation and patronage of the prince regent, afterward George IV., and other high officers of government, he left England for Naples in May, 1818, in order to put his plan to the test. At Naples he for a time at least met with every encouragement; but, as the enterprise proved an entire failure, it is not necessary here to give a particular description of the various processes by which he expected to accomplish his purpose. The object proposed was one in which both science and literature were highly interested ; and in proportion to its importance, and the expectations that had been raised, was the mortification of failure. It is believed, however, that his want of success is not to be attributed to any lack of zeal or of skill on his part, but to the decayed condition of the papyri.

Sir Humphry returned to his native country early in the year 1820; and in the autumn was elected president of the Royal Society, an office which he continued to fill till near the close of his life, when he resigned in consequence of his continued ill health.

In the winter of the year 1819, Professor Oersted of Copenhagen made his celebrated discovery which laid the foundation of the whole science of ELECTRO-MAGNETISM; and it was no sooner announced, than Davy, with his characteristic ardor, was engaged in

« FöregåendeFortsätt »