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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index D > Sir Humphry Davy Quotes

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Sir Humphry Davy
(17 Dec 1778 - 29 May 1829)

English chemist who discovered several chemical elements and compounds, invented the miner's safety lamp, and epitomized the scientific method.

Science Quotes by Sir Humphry Davy (29 quotes)

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And by the influence of heat, light, and electrical powers, there is a constant series of changes [in animal and vegetal substances]; matter assumes new forms, the destruction of one order of beings tends to the conservation of another, solution and consolidation, decay and renovation, are connected, and whilst the parts of the system, continue in a state of fluctuation and change, the order and harmony of the whole remain unalterable.
— Sir Humphry Davy
The Elements of Agricultural Chemistry (1813), in J. Davy (ed.) The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy(1839-40), Vol 7, 182.
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But if the two countries or governments are at war, the men of science are not. That would, indeed be a civil war of the worst description: we should rather, through the instrumentality of the men of science soften the asperities of national hostility.
Davy's remarks to Thomas Poole on accepting Napoleon's prize for the best experiment on Galvanism.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Quoted in Gavin de Beer, The Sciences were Never at War (1960), 204.
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By science calmed, over the peaceful soul,
Bright with eternal Wisdom's lucid ray,
Peace, meek of eye, extends her soft control,
And drives the puny Passions far away.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, in J. Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy. (1839-40), Vol 1, 26.
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Cavendish gave me once some bits of platinum for my experiments, and came to see my results on the decomposition of the alkalis, and seemed to take an interest in them; but he encouraged no intimacy with any one, and received nobody at his own house. … He was acute, sagacious, and profound, and, I think, the most accomplished British philosopher of his time.
— Sir Humphry Davy
As quoted in Victor Robinson, Pathfinders in Medicine (1912), 143.
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Cavendish was a great Man with extraordinary singularities—His voice was squeaking his manner nervous He was afraid of strangers & seemed when embarrassed to articulate with difficulty—He wore the costume of our grandfathers. Was enormously rich but made no use of his wealth... He Cavendish lived latterly the life of a solitary, came to the Club dinner & to the Royal Society: but received nobody at his home. He was acute sagacious & profound & I think the most accomplished British Philosopher of his time.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Quoted in J. Z. Fullmer, 'Davy's Sketches of his Contemporaries', Chymia, 1967, 12, 133.
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Cuvier had even in his address & manner the character of a superior Man, much general power & eloquence in conversation & great variety of information on scientific as well as popular subjects. I should say of him that he is the most distinguished man of talents I have ever known on the continent: but I doubt if He be entitled to the appellation of a Man of Genius.
— Sir Humphry Davy
J. Z. Fullmer, 'Davy's Sketches of his Contemporaries', Chymia, 1967, 12, 132.
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Every discovery opens a new field for investigation of facts, shows us the imperfection of our theories. It has justly been said, that the greater the circle of light, the greater the boundary of darkness by which it is surrounded.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Humphry Davy and John Davy, 'Consolations in Travel--Dialogue V--The Chemical Philosopher', The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1840), Vol. 9, 362.
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Fortunately science, like that nature to which it belongs, is neither limited by time nor by space. It belongs to the world, and is of no country and of no age. The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply,– there are always new worlds to conquer.
— Sir Humphry Davy
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Gay-Lussac was quick, lively, ingenious and profound, with great activity of mind and great facility of manipulation. I should place him at the head of all the living chemists in France.
— Sir Humphry Davy
In Mary Elvira Weeks, Discovery of the Elements (1934), 161, citing J. Davy, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (1836) Vol. 1, 469.
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Geology, perhaps more than any other department of natural philosophy, is a science of contemplation. It requires no experience or complicated apparatus, no minute processes upon the unknown processes of matter. It demands only an enquiring mind and senses alive to the facts almost everywhere presented in nature. And as it may be acquired without much difficulty, so it may be improved without much painful exertion.
— Sir Humphry Davy
'Lectures on Geology, 1805 Lecture', in R. Siegfried and R. H. Dott (eds.), Humphry Davy on Geology (1980), 13.
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I have sometimes experienced from nitrous oxide, sensations similar to no others, and they have consequently been indescribable. This has been likewise often the case with other persons. Of two paralytic patients who were asked what they felt after breathing nitrous oxide, the first answered, “I do not know how, but very queer.” The second said, “I felt like the sound of a harp.”
— Sir Humphry Davy
Referring to his investigation of the effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas).
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I thank God that I was not made a dexterous manipulator, for the most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by my failures.
— Sir Humphry Davy
In Joseph William Mellor, Modern Inorganic Chemistry (1927). Quoted earlier in books by Samuel Smiles.
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Imagination, as well as reason, is necessary to perfection of the philosophical mind. A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery. Discrimination and delicacy of sensation, so important in physical research, are other words for taste; and the love of nature is the same passion, as the love of the magnificent, the sublime and the beautiful.
— Sir Humphry Davy
In Parallels Between Art and Science (1807).

In the present state of our knowledge, it would be useless to attempt to speculate on the remote cause of the electrical energy, or the reason why different bodies, after being brought into contact, should be found differently electrified; its relation to chemical affinity is, however, sufficiently evident. May it not be identical with it, and an essential property of matter?
— Sir Humphry Davy
Bakerian Lecture, 'On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1807, 97, 39.
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It is contrary to the usual order of things, that events so harmonious as those of the system of the world, should depend on such diversified agents as are supposed to exist in our artificial arrangements; and there is reason to anticipate a great reduction in the number of undecompounded bodies, and to expect that the analogies of nature will be found conformable to the refined operations of art. The more the phenomena of the universe are studied, the more distinct their connection appears, and the more simple their causes, the more magnificent their design, and the more wonderful the wisdom and power of their Author.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), in J. Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy(1839-40), Vol. 4, 42.
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It will be a general expression of the facts that have been detailed, relating to the changes and transitions by electricity, in common philosophical language, to say, that hydrogen, the alkaline substances, the metals, and certain metallic oxides, are all attracted by negatively electrified metallic surfaces; and contrariwise, that oxygen and acid substances are attracted by positively electrified metallic surfaces and rejected by negatively electrified metallic surfaces; and these attractive and repulsive forces are sufficiently energetic to destroy or suspend the usual operation of elective affinity.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Bakerian Lecture, 'On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1807, 97, 28-29.
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John Dalton was a very singular Man, a quaker by profession & practice: He has none of the manners or ways of the world. A tolerable mathematician He gained his livelihood I believe by teaching the mathematics to young people. He pursued science always with mathematical views. He seemed little attentive to the labours of men except when they countenanced or confirmed his own ideas... He was a very disinterested man, seemed to have no ambition beyond that of being thought a good Philosopher. He was a very coarse Experimenter & almost always found the results he required.—Memory & observation were subordinate qualities in his mind. He followed with ardour analogies & inductions & however his claims to originality may admit of question I have no doubt that he was one of the most original philosophers of his time & one of the most ingenious.
— Sir Humphry Davy
J. Z. Fullmer, 'Davy's Sketches of his Contemporaries', Chymia, 1967, 12, 133-134.
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Natural science is founded on minute critical views of the general order of events taking place upon our globe, corrected, enlarged, or exalted by experiments, in which the agents concerned are placed under new circumstances, and their diversified properties separately examined. The body of natural science, then, consists of facts; is analogy,—the relation of resemblance of facts by which its different parts are connected, arranged, and employed, either for popular use, or for new speculative improvements.
— Sir Humphry Davy
'Introductory Lecture to the Chemistry of Nature' (1807), in J. Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1839-40), Vol 8, 167-8.
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Nothing tends so much to the advancement of knowledge as the application of a new instrument. The native intellectual powers of men in different times are not so much the causes of the different success of their labors, as the peculiar nature of the means and artificial resources in their possession.
— Sir Humphry Davy
In Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), Vol. 1, Part 1, 28.
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Oh, most magnificent and noble Nature!
Have I not worshipped thee with such a love
As never mortal man before displayed?
Adored thee in thy majesty of visible creation,
And searched into thy hidden and mysterious ways
As Poet, as Philosopher, as Sage?
— Sir Humphry Davy
A late fragment, probably written when he knew he was dying, in Fragmentary Remains (1858), 14.
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Scientists were rated as great heretics by the church, but they were truly religious men because of their faith in the orderliness of the universe.
— Sir Humphry Davy
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The beginning of civilisation is the discovery of some useful arts, by which men acquire property, comforts, or luxuries. The necessity or desire of preserving them leads to laws and social institutions. The discovery of peculiar arts gives superiority to particular nations ... to subjugate other nations, who learn their arts, and ultimately adopt their manners;— so that in reality the origin as well as the progress and improvement of civil society is founded in mechanical and chemical inventions.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Consolations In Travel; or, the Last Days of a Philosopher (1830), 228.
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The moment after, I began to respire 20 quarts of unmingled nitrous oxide. A thrilling, extending from the chest to the extremities, was almost immediately produced. I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling, and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room and was perfectly aware of my situation. By degrees, as the pleasurable sensations increased, I last all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised—I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the sight of the persons about me. My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked round the room, perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavoured to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr Kinglake, 'Nothing exists but thoughts!—the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!'
— Sir Humphry Davy
Researches, Chemical and Philosophical (1800), in J. Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1839-40), Vol 3, 289-90.
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The native intellectual powers of men in different times, are not so much the causes of the different success of their labours, as the peculiar nature of the means and artificial resources in their possession‎. Independent of vessels of glass, there could have been no accurate manipulations in common chemistry: the air pump was necessary for live investigation of the properties of gaseous matter; and without the Voltaic apparatus, there was no possibility of examining the relations of electrical polarities to chemical attractions.
— Sir Humphry Davy
In Elements of Chemical Philosophy (1812), Vol. 1, Part 1, 28-29.
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The progression of physical science is much more connected with your prosperity than is usually imagined. You owe to experimental philosophy some of the most important and peculiar of your advantages. It is not by foreign conquests chiefly that you are become great, but by a conquest of nature in your own country.
— Sir Humphry Davy
From an introductory lecture to a course on electro-chemical science in 1809, quoted in 'Extracts' in J. Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1839-40), Vol. 8, 358.
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There are very few persons who pursue science with true dignity.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Consolations in Travel (1830), Dialogue 5, The Chemical Philosopher, 226.
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Those who consider James Watt only as a great practical mechanic form a very erroneous idea of his character: he was equally distinguished as a natural philosopher and a chemist, and his inventions demonstrate his profound knowledge of those sciences, and that peculiar characteristic of genius, the union of them for practical application.
— Sir Humphry Davy
As reported in Proceedings of the Public Meeting held at Preemasons' Hall, on the 18th June, 1824, for Erecting a Monument to the Late James Watt (1824), 8.
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To me there never has been a higher source of earthly honour or distinction than that connected with advances in science. I have not possessed enough of the eagle in my character to make a direct flight to the loftiest altitudes in the social world; and I certainly never endeavored to reach those heights by using the creeping powers of the reptile, who, in ascending, generally chooses the dirtiest path, because it is the easiest.
— Sir Humphry Davy
In Maturin Murray Ballou, Treasury of Thought (1894), 459.
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To me there never has been a higher source of honour or distinction than that connected with advances in science. I have not possessed enough of the eagle in my character to make a direct flight to the loftiest altitudes in the social world; and I certainly never endeavored to reach those heights by using the creeping powers of the reptile, who in ascending, generally chooses the dirtiest path, because it is the easiest.
— Sir Humphry Davy
Consolations in Travel (1830), Dialogue 5, The Chemical Philosopher, 225.
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Quotes by others about Sir Humphry Davy (18)

Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet.
Quoted in Joseph Cottle, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey (1847), 329.

I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark.
On his plans to set up a joint chemistry laboratory with Davy and Wordsworth in the Lake District.
Letter to Humphry Davy, 15 July 1800. In Earl Leslie Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1956), Vol. 1, 605.

I attended Davy's lectures to renew my stock of metaphors.
In 1802 Coleridge attended an entire course of Humphry Davy's lectures at the Royal Institution, and took over 60 pages of notes.
Quoted in Sir Harold Hartley, Humphry Davy (1971), 45.

[Davy's] March of Glory, which he has run for the last six weeks—within which time by the aid and application of his own great discovery, of the identity of electricity and chemical attractions, he has placed all the elements and all their inanimate combinations in the power of man; having decomposed both the Alkalies, and three of the Earths, discovered as the base of the Alkalies a new metal... Davy supposes there is only one power in the world of the senses; which in particles acts as chemical attractions, in specific masses as electricity, & on matter in general, as planetary Gravitation... when this has been proved, it will then only remain to resolve this into some Law of vital Intellect—and all human knowledge will be Science and Metaphysics the only Science.
In November 1807 Davy gave his famous Second Bakerian Lecture at the Royal Society, in which he used Voltaic batteries to “decompose, isolate and name” several new chemical elements, notably sodium and potassium.
Letter to Dorothy Wordsworth, 24 November 1807. In Earl Leslie Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1956), Vol. 3, 38.
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This is, in truth, the first charm of chemistry, and the secret of the almost universal interest excited by its discoveries. The serious complacency which is afforded by the sense of truth, utility, permanence, and progression, blends with and ennobles the exhilarating surprise and the pleasurable sting of curiosity, which accompany the propounding and the solving of an Enigma... If in SHAKPEARE [sic] we find Nature idealized into Poetry, through the creative power of a profound yet observant meditation, so through the meditative observation of a DAVY, a WOOLLASTON [sic], or a HATCHETT; we find poetry, as if were, substantiated and realized in nature.
Essays on the Principle of Method, Essay VI (1818). In The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Friend (1969), Vol. 4, 1, Barbara E. Rooke (ed.), 471.
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I was introduced to Mr. Davy, who has rooms adjoining mine (in the Royal Institution); he is a very agreeable and intelligent young man, and we have interesting conversation in an evening; the principal failing in his character as a philosopher is that he does not smoke.
Letter to John Rothwell, January 1804. Quoted in J. P. Millington, John Dalton (1906), 141.
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When [Humphry Davy] saw the minute globules of potassium burst through the crust of potash, and take fire as they entered the atmosphere, he could not contain his joy—he actually bounded about the room in ecstatic delight; some little time was required for him to compose himself to continue the experiment.
Quoted in Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, in J. Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy(1839-40), Vol 1, 109.
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Dear Sir Walter ... Your account of his seizure grieved us all much. Coleridge had a dangerous attack a few weeks ago; Davy is gone. Surely these are men of power, not to be replaced should they disappear, as one alas has done.
From letter to Samuel Rogers (30 Jul 1830), collected in Peter William Clayden, Rogers and His Contemporaries (1889), Vol. 2, 41. Also Quoted in Raymond Lamont-Brown, Humphry Davy: Life Beyond The Lamp (2004), 168.

The poetic beauty of Davy's mind never seems to have left him. To that circumstance I would ascribe the distinguishing feature in his character, and in his discoveries,—a vivid imagination sketching out new tracts in regions unexplored, for the judgement to select those leading to the recesses of abstract truth.
Presidential Address to the Royal Society on Davy's Death, 1829. Quoted in J. Davy, Fragmentary Remains of Sir Humphry Davy (1858), 314.
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[To Margaret Ruxton] Too many men have often seen
Their talents underrated;
But Davy knows that his have been
Duly Appreeciated.
Mrs Apreece, a rich widow, married Davy in 1812.
Quoted in T. E. Thorpe, Humphry Davy, Poet and Philosopher (1896), 165.
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Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.
Said to have been written as a schoolboy during a chemistry class at St. Paul’s School. Fromn Edmund Clerihew Bentley, 'Sir Humphrey [sic] Davy', Biography for Beginners (1905). An example of a clerihew, an irregular form of biographical humorous verse, devised by the author. Collected in Complete Clerihews (2008), 38. Schoolboy comment as quoted in Alan L. Mackay, A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (1991), 26. Note the correct spelling for Davy’s name is Humphry.
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Davy was the type of all the jumped-up second-raters of all time.
Spoken by the fictional character, Luard, an unhappy school chemistry teacher in the novel The Search (1932), 21.
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Sir H. Davy's greatest discovery was Michael Faraday.
'Michael Faraday', in Paul Harvey (ed.), The Oxford Companion to English Literature (1932), 279.
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To day we made the grand experiment of burning the diamond and certainly the phenomena presented were extremely beautiful and interesting… The Duke’s burning glass was the instrument used to apply heat to the diamond. It consists of two double convex lenses … The instrument was placed in an upper room of the museum and having arranged it at the window the diamond was placed in the focus and anxiously watched. The heat was thus continued for 3/4 of an hour (it being necessary to cool the globe at times) and during that time it was thought that the diamond was slowly diminishing and becoming opaque … On a sudden Sir H Davy observed the diamond to burn visibly, and when removed from the focus it was found to be in a state of active and rapid combustion. The diamond glowed brilliantly with a scarlet light, inclining to purple and, when placed in the dark, continued to burn for about four minutes. After cooling the glass heat was again applied to the diamond and it burned again though not for nearly so long as before. This was repeated twice more and soon after the diamond became all consumed. This phenomenon of actual and vivid combustion, which has never been observed before, was attributed by Sir H Davy to be the free access of air; it became more dull as carbonic acid gas formed and did not last so long.
Entry (Florence, 27 Mar 1814) in his foreign journal kept whilst on a continental tour with Sir Humphry Davy. In Michael Faraday, Bence Jones (ed.), The Life and Letters of Faraday (1870), Vol. 1, 119. Silvanus Phillips Thompson identifies the Duke as the Grand Duke of Tuscany, in Michael Faraday, His Life and Work (1901), 21.
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The influence of electricity in producing decompositions, although of inestimable value as an instrument of discovery in chemical inquiries, can hardly be said to have been applied to the practical purposes of life, until the same powerful genius [Davy] which detected the principle, applied it, by a singular felicity of reasoning, to arrest the corrosion of the copper-sheathing of vessels. … this was regarded as by Laplace as the greatest of Sir Humphry's discoveries.
Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), 16.
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This is the patent-age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions;
Sir Humphrey Davy's lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,
Tombuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles,
Are ways to benefit mankind, as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.
Don Juan (1819, 1858), Canto I, CXXXII, 36. Although aware of scientific inventions, the poet seemed to view them with suspicion. Davy invented his safety lamp in 1803. Sir W.E. Parry made a voyage to the Arctic Regions (4 Apr to 18 Nov 1818).
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The pre-Darwinian age had come to be regarded as a Dark Age in which men still believed that the book of Genesis was a standard scientific treatise, and that the only additions to it were Galileo's demonstration of Leonardo da Vinci’s simple remark that the earth is a moon of the sun, Newton’s theory of gravitation, Sir Humphry Davy's invention of the safety-lamp, the discovery of electricity, the application of steam to industrial purposes, and the penny post.
Back to Methuselah: a Metabiological Pentateuch (1921), viii.
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Physical investigation, more than anything besides, helps to teach us the actual value and right use of the Imagination—of that wondrous faculty, which, left to ramble uncontrolled, leads us astray into a wilderness of perplexities and errors, a land of mists and shadows; but which, properly controlled by experience and reflection, becomes the noblest attribute of man; the source of poetic genius, the instrument of discovery in Science, without the aid of which Newton would never have invented fluxions, nor Davy have decomposed the earths and alkalies, nor would Columbus have found another Continent.
Presidential Address to Anniversary meeting of the Royal Society (30 Nov 1859), Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1860), 10, 165.
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See also:
  • 17 Dec - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Davy's birth.
  • Humphry Davy: Life Beyond the Lamp, by Raymond Lamont-Brown. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Humphry Davy.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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