When we think of a scientist, we conjure up images of a very smart, but sad, serious man who never laughs nor smiles. Well, not Humphry Davy. He had a penchant for laughing gas and often inhaled it with his friends for fun. In his defence, he also thought the gas could have some beneficial properties that, when discovered, could be used to perform surgical operations and relieve hangovers. But he experimented so much with it that he became addicted. It was said that the experiment room in his house was built just so that he and his friends could throw laughing gas parties!
But I’m getting ahead of the story. Humphrey Davy was born at Penzance in Cornwall, on 17 December 1778. When he was 9, the family moved to Varfell, near Ludgvan, but during the school term, the young boy boarded with John Tonkin, his mother’s godfather. He finished his education at Truro Grammar School, but no one there realised just how bright he was. Maybe it’s because the education he received wasn’t that great. He later said: “I consider it fortunate I was left much to myself as a child, and put upon no particular plan of study… What I am I made myself.”
Davy dabbled for a while in poetry, and even painted a bit but, after he was apprenticed to a surgeon, his passion for science bloomed. He love conducting experiments, much to everyone else’s vexation. He almost blew up his house several times, and the ladies also lamented the chemicals he used would ruin their dresses beyond repair. But, through his job, Davy also met other men interested in the sciences.
One of these, Dr Thomas Beddoes, offered him a position as his assistant at the…