Archive Spotlight: Humphry Davy’s Notebooks and the Navy

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We really need your help in completing the project to transcribe Humphry Davy’s notebooks… Read on to see something of Davy’s life two hundred years ago and the kinds of scandal your transcription could unearth…  

In January 1823, Humphry Davy was asked by the Commissioners of the Navy Board to investigate why the copper sheeting on the bottom of ships was corroding, reducing the speed of these vessels greatly. He regarded the matter as one of national importance and immediately referred it to the Council of the Royal Society. They set up a Committee but it was Davy alone who investigated the matter. He was sent samples of the copper used to sheathe two naval ships, the HMS Batavia (a former floating battery that was disposed of in 1823) and Leonidas (a thirty-six-gun fifth-rate frigate launched in 1807). The way that Davy felt called to action, and the patriotic fervour with which he responded, was not unlike the earlier episode of the miners’ safety lamp in 1816. The two episodes would end in a similarly less than ideal manner. 

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Thomas Phillips

At this point in his life, Davy was largely a man of leisure, having married the wealthy widow Jane Apreece in 1812, been granted a baronetcy, and resigned from the work at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He had been elected President of the Royal Society in 1820 and held a weekly soirée for the most eminent scientific men at his house; his letters from this period are replies to people who have sent him their latest books, their accounts of voyages, and who ask his advice on an array of subjects. Davy was highly aware of his status as PRS and would not be tainted by suggestions of monetary gain or reward. For example, and again in keeping with his work on the safety lamp that he performed gratis, he tells one respondent that as President of the Royal Society it would not be proper for him to comment on an invention that was to be patented. A patriotic call from the British Navy was a different matter. 

In 1824 Davy confidently assured the Admiralty and Navy Board that he had found a fool-proof solution: the fitting of zinc or cast-iron protectors. Davy was in Portsmouth from 19 to 23 February and there he experimented with the royal yacht Royal George, the twenty-eight-gun HMS Samarang, and the ten-gun brig HMS Manly. His method became known as ‘Davy’s protectors’ just as the miners’ safety lamp became known as the ‘Davy lamp.’ Unfortunately, what had worked in the laboratory did not work at sea and the electro-plating had a chemical side-effect. It resulted in the ships’ bottoms being fouled, thus slowing them down even more. The whole episode was a disaster for Davy who, nonetheless, maintained throughout that there was no problem. 

Byron had mentioned Davy’s safety lamp in Canto I of Don Juan: ‘Sir Humphrey Davy’s lantern, by which coals / Are safely mined for’. Davy, in turn, wrote some Don Juan-esque lines of his own in a short, private, unpublished poem in a notebooks called ‘On the Bubbles’, dated December 1823. Davy rewrote Byron’s famous line ‘This is the patent-age of new inventions’, which had alluded to Davy’s achievements, to echo the rhythm but put forward his own gripes. It is unusual for Davy to write satirically and the new tone of this poem borrows from Byron’s cynical perspective. The poem has recently been transcribed as part of our AHRC-funded project crowdsourcing transcriptions of Davy’s extant notebooks and begins thus in a rather struggling fashion: 

On the Bubbles
This is the age for humbug &


Whoever possesses them nothing

can want […]

The poem moves to consider the prevention of corrosion occurring on the copper bottoms of ships, which was clearly on Davy’s mind at this time. The manuscript reveals that Davy knew about Robert Mushet’s patent, awarded on 14 June 1823 for a ‘Process for Improving the Quality of Copper, and of Alloyed Copper, Applicable to the Sheathing of Ships, and to Other Purposes’, before there is mention of Mushet in Davy’s letters. Davy takes his revenge privately here in a poem, just as he had in another unpublished poem in the same notebook, where he gave vent to his true feelings on the safety lamp controversy: ‘Thoughts after the ingratitude of the Northumbrians with respect to the Safety Lamp’. In ‘On the Bubbles’, Davy attempts to imitate Byron’s voice and seemingly cavalier attitude: 

We have copper that will not disperse in the sea.

The patent secures it quite from decay  

And make it in voyages bright as the day, 

But every one knows who is not an ass

That the work of this copper depends upon brass

Davy is here criticising Mushet’s patent. Rather than the solution Mushet proposes, he thinks that the Navy’s ships need ‘Davy’s protectors’. Davy’s resentment is demonstrable in these lines, and he chooses to express it in a poem. Transcribing the notebooks has unearthed many moments like this: please do consider taking a look at the project and making such discoveries yourself!  

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Sharon Ruston
Lancaster University