existence of pain, if the energies of the mind were directed to counteract it; but he added, that he very shortly afterwards had an opportunity of witnessing a practical refutation of this doctrine, for, upon being bitten by a fish, Sir Humphry roared out most lustily!It is not difficult to understand how it happened, that a person, endowed with the genius and sensibilities of Davy, should have had his mind directed to the study of mineralogy and chemistry, when we consider the nature and scenery of the country in which accident had planted him. Many of his friends and associates must have been connected with mining speculations; shafts, cross courses, lodes, &c. were words familiarised to his ears; and his native love of enquiry could not have long suffered such terms to remain as unmeaning sounds. Nor could he wander along the rocky coast, nor repose for a moment to contemplate its wild scenery, without being invited to geological enquiry by the genius of the place; for, were that science to be personified, it would be impossible to select a more appropriate spot for her local habitation and favoured abode. "How often when a boy," said Sir Humphry to a friend, upon showing him a view of Botallack Mine, "have I wandered about those rocks in search after new minerals, and when tired, sat down upon those crags, and exercised my fancy in anticipations of scientific


l » Such scenery also, in one who possessed a quick sensibility to the sublime forms of nature, was well calculated to kindle that enthusiasm so essential to poetical genius. It accordingly appears that Davy drank of the waters of Helicon when only nine years old, and, subsequently, composed a poem on the Land's End; in which he powerfully describes the magnificence of its convulsed scenery, the ceaseless roar of the ocean, the wild shrieks of the cormorant, and those " caves where sleep the haggard spirits of the storm." This bias he cultivated till his fifteenth year, when he became the pupil of Mr. (since DrO Borlase of Penzance, an ingenious surgeon, intending to prepare himself for graduating as a physician at Edin

burgh. At this early age Davy laid down for himself a plan of education, which embraced the circle of the sciences; and by his eighteenth year he had acquired the rudiments of botany, anatomy, and physiology, the simpler mathematics, metaphysics, natural philosophy, and chemistry. But chemistry soon arrested his whole attention. As far as can be ascertained, the first original experiment performed by him at Penzance was for the purpose of investigating the nature of the air contained in the bladders of sea-weed. His instruments, however, were of the rudest description, manufactured by himself out of the motley materials which fell in his way: the pots and pans of the kitchen were appropriated without ceremony, and even the phials and gallipots of his master were without the least remorse put in requisition. While upon this subject, the following anecdote may not be unamusing: —A French vessel having been wrecked near the Land's End, the surgeon became acquainted with young Davy, and, in return for some kind offices, presented him with his case of surgical instruments. The contents were eagerly turned out and examined; not, however, with any professional view of their utility, but in order to ascertain how far they might be convertible to philosophical purposes. The old-fashioned and clumsy clyster-apparatus was viewed with exultation, and seized with avidity. What violent changes, what reverses, may not be suddenly effected by a simple accident! so says the moralist — behold an illustration : in the brief space of an hour, did this long-neglected and unobtrusive machine, emerging from its obscurity and insignificance, figure away in all the pomp and glory of a complicated piece of pneumatic apparatus. The most humble means may, undoubtedly, accomplish the highest objects, — the filament of a spider's web has been used to measure the motions of the stars; but that a worn-out clyster-pipe should have thus furnished the first philosopher of the age with the only means of enquiry within his reach, certainly affords a whimsical illustration of the maxim. Nor can we pass over these circumstances without observing how materially they must have influenced the subsequent success of Davy as an experimentalist: had he in the commencement of his career been furnished with all those appliances which he enjoyed at a later period, it is more than probable that he might never have acquired that wonderful tact of manipulation, that ability of suggesting expedients, and of contriving apparatus, so as to meet and surmount the difficulties which must constantly arise during the progress of the philosopher through the unbeaten tracks and unexplored regions of science. In this art Davy certainly stands unrivalled; and, like his prototype Scheele, he was unquestionably indebted for his address to the circumstances which have been alluded to: there never, perhaps, was a more striking exemplification of the adage, that " Necessity is the parent of invention." The next prominent occurrence in Davy's life was his introduction to Mr. Davies Giddy, now Mr. Gilbert, the present distinguished and popular president of the Royal Society. The manner in which this happened furnishes an additional instance of the power of mere accident in altering our destinies. Mr. Gilbert's attention was, from some trivial cause, attracted to the young chemist, as he was carelessly lounging over the gate of his father's house. A person in the company of Mr. Gilbert observed, that the boy in question was young Davy, who was much attached to chemistry. "To chemistry !" said Mr. Gilbert; " if that be the case I must have some conversation with him." Mr. Gilbert, who, as is well known, possesses a strong perception of character, soon discovered ample proofs of genius in the youth; and liberally offered him the use of his library, or any other assistance that he might require, for the pursuit of his studies. Another circumstance also occurred, which afterwards contributed to introduce Davy to notice. Mr. Gregory Watt, who had long been an invalid, was recommended by his physicians to reside in the West of England; and he accordingly went to Penzance, and lodged with Mrs. Davy. It may easily be supposed, that two kindred spirits would not be long in contracting an acquaintance and friendship. Before the formation of the Geological Society of London, which has been the means of introducing more rational and correct views in the science over which it presides, geologists were divided into two great parties, — Neptunists and Plutonists; the one affirming that the globe was indebted for its form and arrangement to the agency of water, the other to that of fire. It so happened, that the professors of Oxford and Cambridge ranged themselves under opposite banners: Dr. Beddoes was a violent and uncompromising Plutonist, while professor Hailstone was as decided a Neptunist. The rocks of Cornwall were appealed to as affording support to either theory ; and the two professors, who, although adverse in opinion, were united in friendship, determined to proceed together to the field of dispute, each hoping that he might thus convict the other of his error. The geological combatants arrived at Penzance; and Davy became known to them, through the medium of Mr. Gilbert. Mr. Watt was also enthusiastic in his praise; and it so happening that at that time Dr. Beddoes had just established at Bristol his "Pneumatic Institution," for the purpose of investigating the medical powers of the different gases, he proposed to Mr. Davy, who was then only nineteen years of age, but who, in addition to the recommendations that have been mentioned, had prepossessed the professor in his favour by an essay in which was propounded a new theory of heat and light, to suspend his plan of going to Edinburgh, and to undertake the superintendance of the necessary experiments. This proposal Davy eagerly accepted. It is now generally acknowledged, that the art of physic has not derived any direct advantage from the application of a class of agents that held out the highest promise of benefit; and they are, accordingly, rarely used in the treatment of disease, except, perhaps, by a few ignorant or crafty empirics. The investigation, however, paved the way to some new and important discoveries in science; so that, although our philosophers failed in obtaining the treasure for which they so eagerly dug, they, at least, by turning up and pulverising the soil, rendered it fertile. Such were the circumstances that first extricated Davy from the obscurity of his native town, and paved the way to an eminence which but very few philosophers in this or any other country have been able to attain. Davy was now constantly engaged in the prosecution of new experiments; in the conception of which, as he himself candidly informs us, he was greatly aided by the conversation and advice of his friend Dr. Beddoes. He was also occasionally assisted by Mr. W. Clayfield, a gentleman ardently attached to chemical pursuits, and whose name is not unknown in the annals of science; indeed it appears that to him Davy was indebted for the invention of a mercurial air-holder, by which he was enabled to collect and measure the various gases submitted to examination. In the course of these investigations, the respirability and singularly intoxicating effects of nitrous oxide were first discovered; which led to a new train of research concerning its preparation, composition, properties, combinations, and physiological action on livhig beings ; enquiries which were extended to the different substances connected with nitrous oxide, such as nitrous gas, nitrous acid, and ammonia; when, by multiplying experiments, and comparing the facts they disclosed, Davy ultimately succeeded in reconciling apparent anomalies; and, by removing the greater number of those difficulties which had obscured this branch of science, was enabled to present a clear and satisfactory history of the combinations of Oxygen

and NITROGEN. These interesting results were published in a separate volume, entitled "Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide and its Respiration; by Humphry Daxy, Superintendant of the Medical Pneumatic Institution." Of the value of this production, the best criterion is to be found in the admiration which it excited: its author was barely twenty-one years old, and yet, although a mere boy, he was hailed as the Hercules in science, who had cleared an Augean stable of its impurities. In a majority of

« ElőzőTovább »