Five Questions: Tim Fulford and Sharon Ruston on Humphry Davy’s Letters

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Professors Tim Fulford (De Montfort University) and Sharon Ruston (Lancaster University) have recently completed the gargantuan task of collecting and annotating all the surviving letters of the great Romantic-period chemist Humphry Davy. These are now available in a four-volume Oxford University Press edition that as well as the letters themselves includes an introduction, comprehensive notes, biographies of salient people and a glossary of chemical terms. Below, Tim discusses the process of producing the edition and provides a glimpse of the treasures it contains.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to publish an edition of Humphry Davy’s letters?

Sharon Ruston had written about the Shelleys and chemistry; I had written about Coleridge, Southey, Joseph Banks and Count Rumford. Davy had kept popping up in our research on these projects.  Then Sharon was contacted by the literary executor of June Z. Fullmer, a US historian of chemistry who had begun an edition of Davy’s correspondence but had been prevented by illness from completing it.  He made over the papers to Sharon and we decided that completing the project was viable.  We did not know then that we would find hundreds of manuscript letters unknown to Fullmer, more than doubling the size of the task.

2) How did you go about locating the correspondence the edition includes?

Locating correspondence is obviously crucial.  The bread-and-butter way to find MS letters is by searching the catalogues of archives and by emailing archives whose catalogues are not online. We were able to win grants for research assistance to get help with this.  Our superb Research Associate, Andrew Lacey, handled a large correspondence with archives all over Europe and America. Then there is the way of expert advice, which sometimes leads to unexpected contacts: we had help from Frank A. J. L. James, editor of Michael Faraday’s Correspondence.  He pointed us to several private collectors, including Herb Obodda, a veteran mineral collector and trader. I found Obodda’s address via an old magazine that featured a photo of him taken during a collecting expedition on the Pakistan border in the 1970s — in Afghan dress, toting an AK47, and accompanied by three Mujahideen.  Enquiring of the magazine editors, it became clear that Obodda was a legendary figure.  They gave me several email addresses for him — but I got no reply for nearly a year, when out of the blue, he sent scans of the letters he owned, having emerged from a stay in hospital.

3) What were the most challenging aspects of constructing the editorial apparatus you designed to explain and contextualise the letters?

Creating a large edition involves controlling huge masses of information.  Knowing that most researchers consult correspondence editions in search of information, rather than reading them cover to cover, we wanted the apparatus to allow readers to find things easily but without our having to repeat ourselves.  How often should our footnoting explain particular experiments, or detail obscure people, when they were mentioned in different letters months or years apart?  Simply doing so once and then using the index to cross-reference further mentions would be cumbersome for readers, forcing them to move back and forth across the volumes.  Repeating the same information many times risked redundancy, but at least offered readers instant same-page explanations.  In the end, we decided to err on the side of repetition, agreeing that it was better to risk having too much rather than too little explanation. To reduce redundancy, we put into small capitals the names of people for whom we had created entries in an alphabetically-organised list of mini-biographies. By this means, readers can see at a glance when further information on a person is available.

4) Are there particular letters you discovered as part of the project that you think deserve especial attention, either for the important new light they shed or for their intrinsic interest as compositions?

Davy’s letters are fascinating for many things, so it’s hard to answer this briefly other than to say, order the edition for your library and read it!  A letter that will especially interest students of Romanticism however is one of October 1800 in which Davy describes a visit to Tintern Abbey, evidently made in the wake of his reading Wordsworth’s poem (he was seeing the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads through the press at the time).  In it, he looks to investigate whether Wordsworth’s description of being laid asleep in body and becoming a living soul has a physiological and chemical cause, rather than being simply metaphorical. He also announces his new experiments on matter with the Voltaic pile.  Here’s a part-transcript with our annotations:

28. Humphry Davy to Davies Giddy, 20 October [1800] Pneumatic Instn; Hotwells. Octr 20.

Be assured my respected friend that your last letter[1] though short was highly gratifying to me; it could not indeed have communicated to me more pleasing intelligence than that of the perfect restoration of your health.—At the moment it was brought to me I was about to depart with King[2] & Danvers[3] on an excursion to the banks of the Wye. Our design was to see Tintern Abbey by moonlight; and it was perfectly accom­plished.[4] After viewing for three hours all the varieties of light & shade which a bright full moon & a blue sky could exibit in this magnificent ruin;[5] and wandering for three days among the colored woods & rocks sur­rounding the river between Monmouth & Chepstow we arrived on the fourth day at Bristol having undergone (to balance against the pleasures of the tour) the fatigues of a stormy voyage down the Wye, across the mouth of the Severn & up the Avon.— On analysing after our return the air collected from Monmouth, from the woods on the banks of the Wye, & 〈from〉 the mouth of the Severn, there was no perceptible difference. They were all of similar composition to the air in the middle of Bristol. ie they contained about 22 pr cent oxy­gene—The air from the bladders of some sea weed apparently just cast on shore at the old passage likewise gave 22.—Comparing the expts made by Cavendish nearly 20 years ago at London & Kensinton[6] & the expts of Berthollet at Paris & [xxxx] in Egypt[7] with those I have made within the last month at different temperatures, in different weather & with dif­ferent winds, I am almost convinced that the whole of the lower stratum of the atmosphere is of uniform composition—The air that I took from the mouth of the Severn must have passed over much of the atlantic as the wind had blown nearly due west for more than a week before.[8]—

No test can be more fallacious & imperfect than Nitrous gas[9] on account of the different composition of the Nitrous acid formed in the different manipulations of eudiometrical expts[10] The high overating of the oxygene of the atmosphere at 27 & 28 Prcent is owing to the almost general use of the nitrous test.—The Eudiometer[11] that I have lately used is a very sim­ple & commodious one—It consists of a tube about 5 inches long contain­ing 200 grains of water—The space between the 140 & 180 grains is graduated.—This tube is emptied of water in an atmosphere when you wish to know its composition & plunged into a solution of muriate or sulphate of iron[12] impregnated with Nitrous gas—The oxygene is absorbed in a few minutes & the residuum gives (without correction) the Nitrogene.[13]— In pursuing expts on galvanism during the last two months I have met with unexpected & unhoped for success. Some of the new facts on this subject promise to become instruments capable of destroying the mysteri­ous veil which Nature has thrown over the operations & properties of etherial fluids— Galvanism I have found by numerous expts is a process purely chemical & it depends wholly on the oxydation of metallic surfaces having different degrees of electric conducting power.[14]—[. . .] But I must stop without being able to expatiate on the connection which now is obvious between galvanism & some of phaenomena of organic motions. I never consider this subject without having forcibly impressed on my imagination your observations on the science of etherial fluids & I cannot help flattering myself that this age will see your predictions accom­plished.[15 [18 in original]]— I remain with sincere respect & affection yours H. Davy 

  1. Not traced.
  2. John King [Nicholas Johann Koenig] (1766–1846), a Bristol­ based surgeon who succeeded Davy in his role at the Medical Pneumatic Institution in 1801.
  3. Charles Danvers (c.1764–1814), a Bristol wine merchant, trading in partnership under the name Danvers and White.
  4. On this expedition to see Tintern at night Davy was following, with two of Southey’s friends, in the footsteps of a picturesque tour made by Southey, Coleridge, and Joseph Cottle in 1795. Davy was also in 1800 preparing for the press the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, a collection in which the most prominent poem was Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour’.
  5. Full moon fell on 2 October 1800, suggesting the likely date of the expedition. Davy wrote a reverie partly based on this experience in his notebook; it is quoted in Memoirs, i, pp. 117–19.
  6. Henry Cavendish (1731–1810) published in 1783 and 1784 descriptions of experi­ments he had made to measure the composition of the atmosphere (eudiometry): ‘An Account of a New Eudiometer’, PTRS [Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society], lxxiii (1783), 106, and ‘Experiments on Air’, PTRS, lxxiv (1784), 119–53.
  7. Berthollet participated in Napoleon’s expedition in 1798–1800 to Egypt, where he conducted a series of eudiometric observations on the composition of the atmosphere. These and similar experiments made in Paris were reported in the Annales de chimie, xxxiv (1800), 73, and translated in A Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, iv (April 1800– March 1801), 214–19. Berthollet argued that the proportions of gases composing the air varied little in different places. It seems Davy, having just read Berthollet’s paper, was repeat­ing his experiments while on the Wye. On eudiometry, see Simon Schaffer, ‘Measuring Virtue: Eudiometry, Enlightenment, and Pneumatic Science’, in The Medical Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century, eds Andrew Cunningham and Roger French (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 281–318.
  8. Davy re­used this discussion of Cavendish and the Atlantic­-borne air in ‘An Account of a New Eudiometer’, Journal of the Royal Institution, i (1802), 45–8 (p. 48) (CWHD [Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy], ii, pp. 228–32 (p. 231)).
  9. More commonly known as nitrous oxide (N2O).
  10. As part of his work on nitrous oxide, Davy devised experiments which showed that nitrous gas is entirely dissolved in green iron sulphate, but when air is also present the nitrous gas becomes nitrous acid. (He published these in Researches, pp. 152–79 (CWHD, iii, pp. 92–108)). His eudiometry benefitted from these experiments in that the amount of nitrous gas generated in a eudiometric test was more accurately estimated when dissolved in Davy’s way, in green iron sulphate, than when shaken in air over water, the typical practice.
  11. This then-­new instrument, invented by Marsilio Landriani (1751–1815) and developed by Volta, was made famous by Horace ­Bénédict de Saussure (1740–99) who in 1788 used one to measure the composition of the air on an Alpine col. In 1802, Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) carried one almost to the top of Mount Chimborazo in the Andes to measure the composition of the air at still more elevated heights.
  12. Now known as ferric chloride (FeCl3); ferric sulphate (Fe2(SO4)3).
  13. Davy published the results of his experiments on the composition of air at different locations in ‘An Account of a New Eudiometer’, Journal of the Royal Institution, i (1802), 45–8 (CWHD, ii, pp. 228–32).
  14. When the pile was first constructed, it was not clear whether the electricity it produced was the same as the static electricity typically collected in Leyden jars, or whether it gener­ated what Galvani claimed was the different electricity found in animals.Volta argued that the pile worked like an electrifying animal—the torpedo fish—but produced the same kind of electricity as static electricity (‘common electricity’). The pile showed that animal electricity was not necessarily different in kind from common electricity. Having repeated the experiments of Volta, Davy here differs from him concerning the mode of its action: rather than pursue the analogy to the torpedo, he offers a chemical explanation, as William Nicholson had already done, for its generation of electric current. On Davy’s early work on the pile, see G. Pancaldi, ‘On Hybrid Objects and Their Trajectories: Beddoes, Davy and the Battery’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society, lxiii (2009), 247–62.
  15. While still a youth in Penzance, Davy, encouraged in scientific pursuits by Giddy, had devised an experiment intended to disprove the Lavoisierian theory that heat was an etherial fluid—caloric. His publication ‘An Essay on Heat, Light, and the Combinations of Light’ (Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, pp. 5–147) (CWHD, ii, pp. 3–86) was based, in part, on a refined version of the experiment, but was criticized by Giddy for specu­lating too boldly.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Sharon is leading a project to transcribe and put online Davy’s notebooks.  She also has coming out, with the Bodleian Library Press, The Science of Life and Death in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (2021).  I am editing, with Dahlia Porter, the letters of Davy’s mentor Thomas Beddoes, for Cambridge University Press.  I have also edited a special issue of European Romantic Review on Robert Bloomfield and John Clare, out later in 2021. My scholarly edition of Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson will be published by Routledge in 2021; I will follow that with an edition of his Life of Wesley in 2022.