Lessons from the forgotten Davy lamp

Sir Humphry Davy’s exemplary life holds some important lessons for ethics and science today, says Laurie Zoloth.

Sir Humphry Davy visited mines and talked to miners to develop his prototype safety lamp. – SCIENCE SOURCE/Getty Images

Consider Humphry Davy, 19th century poet and poor boy made peer of the realm because of his extraordinary scientific mind. Davy had escaped an impoverished Cornish childhood because of his daring and his experimental zeal. Before becoming the Royal Institution’s first chemistry lecturer he wrote to a friend: “I wish to do something for the public good.”

At 29, Davy had already been the first to experiment with the anaesthetising power of nitrous oxide. He had also used the Institute’s voltaic batteries to decompose potash to find the new elements sodium and potassium. He had volunteered to oversee a ventilation scheme for Newgate Prison and had nearly died of typhus.

But science had made him wealthy and so had his marriage to a London widow. So, in 1815 he had no need to be standing deep in the mines of northern England holding a candle in the dark. He went because miners were dying.

In recent years enormous mine explosions had rocked the hard, iron hills with a new ferocity, as the miners went ever deeper in their search for coal. In the lower tunnels pockets of methane and other volatile gases that the miners called “firedamp” became exposed and gathered silently. The mines were lit by fire; each miner carrying a wax candle stub on his helmet or in his hand. The open flame ignited the gases killing 300 miners in five years. One explosion at the great Felling mine, which was seen as a clean and model pit, killed 92 men. Seven months later, a second explosion at the same mine killed 22 more. After the accident, a safety committee led by the Duke of Northumberland was formed. It called for a national expert to turn his full attention to the danger in the mines.

When 57 more men were blown apart in Newbottles, the committee appealed to Davy. He was abroad on his honeymoon, writing metaphysical poetry (“Nothing is lost; the ethereal fire, which from the farthest star descends; though the immensity of space; its course by worlds attracted bends to reach the earth …”).

When he returned, he headed to Yorkshire. Davy studied the problem for three weeks in Durham, visiting mines and talking to miners. He then went to his London lab for three months of intense work and “fearful explosions” until he had a working prototype of what would be known as the Davy Lamp. It was considered an astonishing technical victory, and as a moral gesture of great importance. The lamps were simple and beautiful with copper handles, smoky glass and fine mesh enclosing the lit wick, so the gases cannot penetrate to the blaze.

Davy's safety lamps became a standard feature of coal mines, saving thousands of lives. – SHEILA TERRY/Getty Images

Davy then returned to the mines. He spent hours underground, teaching safety techniques, refining the design. The lamps became a standard feature of coal mines, saving thousands of lives. Davy refused to take out a patent, citing the need for the lamp to be widely distributed. He wrote: “The results of these labours will, I trust, be useful to the cause of science … but a much higher motive is offered … when that knowledge is felt to be practical power, and when that power may be applied to lessen the miseries or increase the comforts of our fellow creatures.”

Why tell the nearly forgotten story of Humphry Davy? He came to mind when I was considering how the funding for new, Big Science projects are decided today. Rooms full of experts discuss how public funds will be allocated and what projects will be pursued in an expensive process called roadmapping. The discussion includes the companies that will bank on the worth of the research, but the larger national conversations about where science should go are typically not a part of the plan.

More and more, as a prominent biologist has observed, “scientists have to tell a story that can be sold”. So the choice of what to pursue is largely influenced by the desire of the market, not by the needs of the most vulnerable. It is hard to imagine a labor union, say, or a workers’ council, joined by leading clergy and political leaders asking scientists for help in saving lives. The worlds of labour and science seem far more separated today than in 1815. What would science look like if public need drove it as surely as financial concerns? If the “lightning from the clouds” really did serve humanity?

What makes Davy’s work important for ethicists, and all of us who wonder if science is still “good”, is that it recalls for us a time in which something other than market success rendered science important. Davy insisted that the work of the scientist was to serve the needs of “all”.

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Laurie Zoloth is a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University, Chicago.
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