Humphry Davy announced the isolation of the elements barium, calcium, "magnium" (magnesium), and strontium to the Royal Society in 1808. Earlier in his career, he isolated nitrous oxide, naming it "laughing gas" after testing its effects on his friend, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The June air was stifling. But in the Royal Society’s steeply raked amphitheater London’s fashionable men and women, scientists and laymen, crowded the benches and gallery to watch Humphry Davy, the celebrity chemist, present his latest scientific findings. The previous year at the Royal Society’s prestigious Bakerian Prize lecture, Davy had tossed a nugget of metallic potassium into a flask of water, where the lump skittered around the surface of the water before exploding in lavender flames. Expectations for the June lecture were high. The crowd leaned in, anticipating another colorful, if not explosive, performance. With his lively demonstration of electrolysis using a sizable voltaic pile, Davy did not disappoint.
The year 1808 was an important one for Humphry Davy. In that year two centuries ago, Davy discovered five elements: barium, calcium, boron, strontium, and magnesium. He delivered the news of his discoveries to rapt audiences in two captivating lectures—the first in June and another in December—that marked stepping stones in his climb to an apex of scientific and social celebrity status in London. But while Davy enjoyed his celebrity, he also bore gossip, speculation, and criticism as an outsider.
Davy’s 1808 discoveries depended on his use of and research into the burgeoning field of electrochemistry, the study of electricity’s effect on chemical reactions. As a young researcher at the Bristol Pneumatic Institute, Davy studied and experimented with voltaic piles, making batteries out of them, and using the electrical charges to separate elements from their compounds. Davy had contributed to the field by discovering that electricity itself was caused by chemistry.
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Excerpted with permission, Chemical Heritage Foundation