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Few boys have ever led a happier, busier, or more varied existence than did Humphry Davy. He was the son of a poor wood-carver, who lived in the pretty seaside town of Penzance, in England, where Humphry was born in 1778. Lowly, however, as was his birth, in his earliest years Humphry gave many proofs that nature had endowed him with rare talents.
Some of the stories told of his childish brightness are hard to believe. They relate, for instance, that before he was two years old he could talk almost as plainly and clearly as a grown person; that he could repeat many passages of "Pilgrim's Progress," from having heard them, before he could read; and that at five years old he could read very rapidly, and remembered almost everything he read.
His father, the wood-carver, had died while Humphry was still very young, and had left his family poor. But by good-fortune a kind neighbor and friend, a Mr. Tonkine, took care of the widow and her children, and obtained a place for Humphry as an apprentice with an apothecary of the town. Humphry proved, indeed, a rather troublesome inmate of the apothecary's house. He set up a chemical laboratory in his little room upstairs, and there devoted himself to all sorts of experiments. Every now and then an explosion would be heard, which made the members of the apothecary's household quake with terror.
Humphry began to dream ambitious dreams. Not for him, he thought, was the drudgery of an apothecary store. He felt that he had in himself the making of a famous man, and he resolved that he would leave no science unexplored. He set to work with a will. His quick mind soon grasped the sciences not only of mathematics and chemistry, but of botany, anatomy, geology, and metaphysics. His means for the experiments he desired to make were very limited, but he did not allow any obstacle to prevent him from pursuing them.
He was especially fond of wandering along the seashore, and observing and examining the many curious and mysterious objects which he found on the crags and in the sand. One day his eye was struck with the bladders of seaweed, which he found full of air. The question was, how did the air get into them? This puzzled him, and he could find no answer to it, because he had no instruments to experiment with.
But on another day, soon after, as he strolled on the beach, what was his surprise and delight to find a case of surgical instruments, which had been flung up from some wreck on the coast! Armed with this, he hastened home, and managed to turn each one of the instruments to some useful account. He constructed an air-pump out of a surgeon's syringe, and made a great many experiments with it.
Fortunately for Humphry, he formed a friendship with a youth who could not only sympathize with him, but was of a great deal of use to him. This was Gregory Watt, a son of the great James Watt, the inventor of the steam-engine. Gregory Watt had gone to Penzance for his health, and had there fallen in with the ambitious son of the wood-carver. This new friend was able to give Humphry many new and valuable hints and encouraged him with hopeful words to go on with his studies and experiments.
Already Humphry was getting to be known as a scientific genius beyond the quiet neighborhood of Penzance. He had proposed a theory on heat and light which had attracted the attention of learned men; and at twenty-one he had discovered the peculiar properties of nitrous oxide--what we now call "laughing-gas"--though he nearly killed himself by inhaling too much of it. He had also made many experiments in galvanism, and had found silicious earth in the skin of reeds and grass.
So famous indeed had he already become, that at the age of twenty-two--when most young men are only just leaving college--he was chosen lecturer on science at the great Royal Institution in London. There he amazed men by the eloquence and clearness with which he revealed the mysteries of science. He was so bright and attractive a young man, moreover, that the best London society gladly welcomed him to its drawing-rooms, and praises of him were in every mouth. His lecture-room was crowded whenever he spoke.
But he was not a bit spoiled by all this flattery and homage. He worked all the harder; resolved to achieve yet greater triumphs in science than he had yet done. An opportunity soon arose to turn his knowledge and inventive powers to account in a very important way. For a long time the English public had every now and then been horrified by the terrible explosions which took place in the coal mines. These explosions resulted often in an appalling loss of human life. Their cause was the filling of the mine by a deadly gas, called "fire-damp," which, when ignited by a lighted candle or lamp, exploded with fearful violence. One day an explosion of fire-damp occurred which killed over one hundred miners on the spot.
This event called universal attention to the subject, and Humphry Davy was besought to try and find some means of preventing, or at least lessening, similar calamities. He promptly undertook the task, and set about it with all his wonted energy. The problem before him was how to provide light in the mines in such a way that the miners might see to work by it, and at the same time be safe from the danger of fire-damp explosion. Many attempts had been made to achieve this, but they had all failed,
Davy began his experiments. He soon made several valuable discoveries. One was that explosions of inflammable gases could not pass through long narrow metallic tubes. Another was that when he held a piece of wire gauze over a lighted candle, the flame would not pass through it. As a result of his long and patient toil Davy was able at last to construct his now famous Safety-Lamp, which has undoubtedly saved the lives of thousands during the period which has elapsed since it was invented. He presented a model of his new lamp to the Royal Society, in whose rooms in London it is to be seen to this day.
It is a simple affair, being merely a lamp screwed on to a wire gauze cylinder, and fitted to it by a tight ring. His idea was to admit the fire-damp into the lamp gradually by narrow tubes, so that it would be consumed by combustion. The Safety-Lamp was in truth the greatest triumph of Humphry Davy's useful life.
"I value it," he said, "more than anything I ever did."
Honors of all kinds were showered upon him. Many medals were awarded to him, and the grateful miners subscribed from their scant wages enough to present him with a magnificent service of silver worth $12,000. His discovery was hailed from every part of Europe. The Czar Alexander of Russia sent him a beautiful vase, and he was chosen a member of the historic Institute of France; while his own government conferred upon him the coveted title of baronet.
Sir Humphry Davy, as he was now called, died in the prime of life and in the fulness of honor and fame. Fond of travel, and continuing to the last his scientific studies, he went to the continent, and took up his abode at Geneva, on the borders of one of the loveliest of Swiss lakes. There he had a laboratory, where he could work at will, and could also indulge his passion for fishing and hunting.
But he was worn out before his time. He was attacked by palsy, and passed away at Geneva in 1829, in the fifty-first year of his age. There he was buried. A simple monument reveals where he lies in the foreign churchyard; while a tablet in Westminster Abbey keeps alive his memory in the hearts of his countrymen.