The Davy Notebooks Project has launched – Help us to transcribe the manuscript notebooks of Sir Humphry Davy
The Davy Notebooks Project has just launched on Zooniverse, the world’s largest and most popular platform for people-powered research.
Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was one of the most significant and famous figures in the scientific and literary culture of early nineteenth-century Britain, Europe, and America. Davy’s scientific accomplishments include: conducting pioneering research into the physiological effects of nitrous oxide (often called ‘laughing gas’); isolating seven chemical elements (magnesium, calcium, potassium, sodium, strontium, barium, and boron) and establishing the elemental status of chlorine and iodine; inventing a miners’ safety lamp; developing the electrochemical protection of the copper sheeting of Royal Navy vessels; conserving the Herculaneum papyri; and writing an influential text on agricultural chemistry. Davy was also a poet, moving in the same literary circles as Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and William Wordsworth.
The notebooks selected for this pilot run of the Davy Notebooks Project reveal how Davy’s mind worked and how his thinking developed. Containing details of his scientific experiments, poetry, geological observations, travel accounts, and personal philosophy, Davy’s notebooks present us with a wide range of fascinating insights. Many of the pages of these notebooks have never been transcribed before. By transcribing these notebooks, we will find out more about the young Davy, his life, and the cultures and networks of which he was part.
All you need to contribute is a Zooniverse account – sign up today at https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/humphrydavy/davy-notebooks-project. If you have any questions, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or post them on our Zooniverse Talk boards. Project updates will be posted to our Twitter account: https://twitter.com/davynotebooks
So, it seems that I haven’t written a blog post since last August, when I was in Philadelphia at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Now I’m in Canberra on an Australian National University Fellowship for six weeks and thought I should check in. The Davy Letters edition has gone in! It went in at the beginning of April, four months after the end of 2017 deadline, but for a project that has lasted ten years, that doesn’t seem too bad to me. It was huge in the end – the submitted manuscript was over 4000 pages long. We’re hoping to get a discount flyer soon and to find out how much OUP will charge for such a monster.
I’ve started over the last few months to think about my next project. I always wanted to digitise Davy’s notebooks, which are held at the Royal Institution, and this was my original plan before the executor of June Fullmer’s will showed us her 1960’s collection of letters (and the rest is history). I’m also very excited about the idea of crowdsourcing transcriptions of the notebooks. The Zooniverse is doing some excellent work in this area and they seem keen to be involved. The idea is for a small, pilot project first of three notebooks with an eye to a larger project (all of the c. 70 notebooks?) if this is funded and all goes to plan. It’s exciting to be thinking of something new plus I really have enjoyed editing so I’d like to do some more of that.
I’m also here in Canberra because I’m giving a plenary at the Frankenstein conference to be held here in mid September. I’ve started work on the paper and was pleased to read the book again and find that there was more that I might say about it. I’m about to start writing up my notes and ideas and then need to start trying to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge of the primary and critical texts.
It’s great to have some time to myself and to do my research. I’m very aware of how precious this is and intend to make the most of it.
It’s been a busy fortnight, trying to get sign-ups for the free, online course on Humphry Davy. The course starts on 30 October but you can register your interest in it now: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/humphry-davy/1. We’ve also put one of the films on youtube as a taster of the course: https://youtu.be/nxRHQ1xfnWc – it features Peter Wothers demonstrating one of Davy’s experiments! I do hope that you sign up and tell all your friends and family to sign up too.
During the last week I also sent off the undated letters to my co-editor – these will be the final letters in the edition, so it’s been quite a moment for reflecting on just how far we’ve come. The project started in 2008! These are letters where we just can’t narrow it down to one year because there isn’t sufficient evidence to do so. There aren’t many of these though and I did manage to put a couple into particular dates and years when I looked through them again (and realise that the recipient ‘Miss Berger’ was actually the novelist and biographer Elizabeth Benger!).
There are also – sadly – some letters that won’t be going in the edition. Obviously none that are written by Davy himself; these are all in there. But, we have also been collecting letters by his wife and brother and other letters have come to my notice during this process and there are some corkers. For example, there is a letter from Sydney Smith (who once proposed to Lady Davy) to Georgina Grey, April 1839, held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, York, where he writes: ‘I dine on Wednesday with Jenny Davy – the Laura and Corinne of her age.’ Was she ever really called ‘Jenny’? I’m not sure. I was also really pleased by a letter from John Davy to the Philosophical Magazine, published in 1856, where he writes that Humph used to collect the letters of a famous Swedish chemist, Torbern Bergman (1735-84). As John says in his letter, this is particularly interesting because Davy ‘was little in the habit of keeping letters’. This is why we only usually have one side of the correspondence in our edition. I though it was a nice idea that Davy saw the merits in keeping letters from a previous age, given our efforts for him.
I have only the remainder of this week left here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. It’s been a fantastically productive time for me though I’m sad that I didn’t get to write my part of the introduction to the edition as I had hoped. Next week I go to Boston and New Hampshire and to other archives and then two week’s holiday! My sabbatical ended today and I’ve now spent three hours emailing work rather than working on the edition. Hey ho.
I have just – like, just this second – written what may be the final note to The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy. Fittingly, it was a note identifying a daughter of the railway engineer, Robert Benson Dockray, to whom John Davy (Humph’s brother) was sending his regards; she turns out to be the mother of the Lancaster-born poet Laurence Binyon (1869-1943). That has a nice circular feel to it. Mind, when I began this project in 2008 I hadn’t even started work at Salford University let alone Lancaster. As ever, this last file – letters written by Jane (the wife) and John (the brother) about Humph, his legacy, and his publications, has taken longer than I expected, and I still need to read it through once again before sending to my eagle-eyed associates for their help with some niggling things I haven’t been able to identify/read etc etc.
It’s been a good fortnight, nonetheless, with a number of various satisfying discoveries. For example, I have been astonished and amazed by a discovery made by Sam Illingworth at Manchester Metropolitan University. Sam has found out that in 1806 Davy published a revised version of his ‘Spinosist’ poem in the Gentleman’s Magazine. This is the same version that Davy published separately with the Royal Institution publisher Richard Savage (and there survives a copy of this tipped into Faraday’s copy of his Life of Humphry Davy) in the RI. I know now (because I have finished these later letters) that John Davy used this version – sent to him by Humph’s cousin, Edmund Davy – in his Memoirs (1836) and it seems increasingly likely that John gave it the title by which it is now often referred, ‘Written After Recovery from a Dangerous Illness’. What Sam’s discovery proves is that the revised poem has nothing to do with Davy’s illness of 1807 and that Davy was publishing his work (with his name attached!) at this period in his life.
I’ve enjoyed reading some of John Davy’s works these last few weeks, including a discussion of that famous bit in Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads on the difference between the poet and the man of science, published in John Davy’s Lectures on the Study of Chemistry (1849), p. xxi. I’ve also needed to establish who John Davy’s family are; his later letters refer to the death of a daughter and other family members. It’s been surprisingly difficult to get any authoritative statement on this: the internet tells me that John Davy had anything between one and eight children. In fact, he had three, one of whom died in her early twenties; of the other two, Grace went on to marry George Rolleston, a regius professor of medicine in Oxford (and have a famous son, Sir Humphry Davy Rolleston!), and Archibald, who went into the church, lived in near Lancaster and thereabouts (with a connection to the mother of Binyon, above), and whose daughter, Helen Mary I haven’t yet been able to follow after 1871.
Finally, it is clear that there are still mysteries to be solved. One such is that we haven’t been able to find a painting of Lady Jane Davy, which has always seemed odd. In a letter to the still elusive ‘Miss Talbot’ in 1837, Jane Davy writes: ‘My precious physiognomy has for my inconvenience often been painted; but luckily for the beau ideal these portraits have never been engraved, & therefore your M.S. must forego in this instance the positive representation of me.’ So, there may well (surely?) be paintings of Jane Davy out there, but where are they???
The main thing I have to tell you today is that the free, online course on Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp is now enrolling students. Please do sign up! Send this link out to any friends or family who might be interested too! https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/humphry-davy/1
I’m really pleased with the way the course has turned out; there are some big names involved, for example, films presented by the biographer Richard Holmes, a (really quite dangerous) Davy experiment recreated by the Cambridge chemist Peter Wothers, and some excellent tasks. The course will consider the relationships between science, poetry, politics, culture and society. We’ll use the lens of Davy’s fascinating life and career but will also be asking learners to reflect on what life is like now. Is it still the case that there are two cultures of the arts and the sciences? For the first time, a number of Davy’s own poems can be read and heard; these only existed in manuscript form in some cases, in the archives of the Royal Institution. The videos were filmed in the gorgeous rooms of the Royal Institution with access to Davy’s notebooks, the lecture theatre in which he made his name, and Michael Faraday’s laboratory. And, did I mention that it’s entirely free? The course starts 30 October and will run for four weeks but you can register your interest in it now.
In the last fortnight I’ve been working on the letters we are going to include from the period after his death. These have been quite poignant with people recording their memories of Davy as a young boy. I particularly liked the story his sister told his wife about how ‘At home he would shut himself up in his room, arrange the chairs & lecture them by the hours.’ I’ve found out some things I might never have known, such domestic details as that he liked tea in the morning and coffee in the evening. And his cousin, Edmund Davy, who worked with him in the RI when he was making some of his most important discoveries remembered this about his everyday practice in the lab: ‘He composed with great facility, but was seldom satisfied with the expression of his first thoughts but would go on reading aloud, altering and expanding what he had written. In composing he commonly spoke aloud, modulating his voice according to the nature of the subject. It was easy to know when he had discovered new or important facts, for his countenance naturally expressive would then become more animated, and he would adopt some expressive action or gesture, as a jump, a hearty laugh or he would hum a bit of a tune, or utter a few words of a Greek declension.’ (Edmund Davy to John Davy 15/9/1831).
It’s sad that Davy’s own voice has gone now but the fight over his legacy and reputation is becoming quite fierce and I’m enjoying trying to get to the bottom of all of this.
I had a bit of a break from Davy (for two whole days!) because I finished annotating the 1828 letters – the first draft at least though I’m sure there will be plenty of revision needed – and, it was the 4th July so the library was shut for Monday and Tuesday.
I really have enjoyed doing 1828 even if it has taken me some time. I must have started it early this year but it wasn’t until I was here working in the library 9-5 that I’ve been able to really get to it and finish it. It seems to me like another exciting year, even though it’s so close to Davy’s death in 1829. He’s travelling with a young companion, John James Tobin, who he clearly hates: he calls him ‘the Savage’ or the ‘the Wild Man’ throughout these letters. Amusingly though, Tobin wrote his own account of their travels – through Austria, Slovenia, and Italy – and it’s very funny to compare the two accounts. Davy’s is of course private and Tobin’s is public, but even in the latter you can see the cracks beginning to form in their relationship.
One episode that really tested the relationship occurred when the otherwise unknown servant ‘George’ became horribly unwell (even ‘deranged’!), much to Davy’s annoyance since he wants to be the patient in this situation. Eventually Davy learns that George had been treating a venereal disease with the poisonous and caustic ‘corrosive sublimate’, Mercuric chloride (HgCl2). There are lots of letters about this and it’s fun to see the story unfold; Davy doesn’t know what’s happening at first. I think that George’s wife works in Jane Davy’s entourage because Humph asks Jane not to tell George’s wife at one point. I thought it was interesting though that he did tell Jane about the source of George’s illness. John Davy prints some of these letters but entirely cuts out all of this juicy stuff.
Another thing I’ve learned is that Tobin did the drawings for the second edition of Davy’s Salmonia that were made into engravings in London. This is interesting because Davy’s first biographer, John Ayrton Paris, told us: ‘I am informed by Lady Davy, that the engravings of the fish, by which the work is illustrated, are from drawings of his own execution’ (ii, 315). I’m not sure how this rumour got about but it certainly is Tobin’s work that we see in Salmonia. I hadn’t realised either that Davy was planning to publish his own poetry in Salmonia. Even though this doesn’t happen, the idea is really quite illuminating. He clearly was pleased and proud of his poems and contemplated publishing them at this late stage in his life.
Davy begins Consolations in Travel in 1828; he increasingly feels as though he has some preternatural insight into the human condition now that he is close to death. I really enjoyed reading Consolations, it’s a bonkers, cosmic journey through time and space, written, as Davy puts it, in ‘philosophical poetry though not in metre’. As Davy gets more ill, he is desperate to finish it. After his second stroke in February 1829, his doctor writes to Jane: ‘I am afraid he has occupied himself rather too assiduously in intellectual employment of late, but of this he will not bear to be told. Certain it is however that during the exercise of mind requisite in dictating to Mr Tobin it was that he first discovered his right leg and arm were affected and spite of all remonstrance he has continued to pursue the same occupation every day since.’ Davy definitely knows he has little time left – he turned 50 in 1828 – but as he also puts it, if he doesn’t write, he will ‘vegetate’.
Right, I’m now looking at post 1829 now. We are including letters from after Davy’s death that have direct relevance to him. And, today the Humphry Davy, free, online course went live! You can enrol now even though the course won’t start until 30 September: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/humphry-davy/1 .
I’m working on the 1828 letters again now (after far too long a break doing other things) and I’m right back in the swing of it. It hasn’t been easy – I’ve had to tell work that I’m only answering emails after the working day has ended because I need to get on with the Davy letters work while I’m here in this library.
Davy is at the end of his life – he’s going to die in June 1829 but for the moment, June 1828, he seems quite happy, travelling in Slovenia and making experiments on eels and the salmon found in the Danube and theorising on their reproduction and migration. It’s been really difficult to find the lakes and rivers that he fishes in near Ljubljana, which he calls Laybach; he often uses the German or Italian names for these Slovenian places. He often writes the word phonetically, making a stab at how it’s spelled; you can imagine what that’s like for me to work out.
I’ve also found out almost exactly when Davy started his last – very weird, philosophical book – Consolations in Travel (between 9 and 12th July 1828 in case anyone’s interested). He writes this about it in a letter to his wife on 12th July: ‘I amuse myself as much as I can by literary composition [I have] just finished a ‘vision on the history of human existence’ of which the scene is laid in the Colliseum [sic] & in which I endeavour to establish the progressive nature of intellect & the infinite possibility of spiritual natures. My dream is as good as another & happy are those that dream most in life & most agreably.’ On the 20th July, he writes to his wife again: ‘I think you will be amused by my Vision which is philosophical poetry though not in metre.’
In other news I found a new letter when I went to the New York Public Library in the Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle and it’s to the playwright Joanna Baillie! It’s the only letter we have to her though I knew that they were friends. It’s only dated ‘Thursday evening’ but it talks about consoling her sister in law so I think it’s written following the death of the physician Matthew Baillie on 23 September 1823. Amazing eh?
So, I’m going to try to keep this blog up every two weeks, in the way that I used to when I was working on the Davy letters full time some years ago. It’s my first week as a short-term fellow in the Chemical Heritage Foundation, in Philadelphia, which is has a beautiful library in the historic part of the city. I’m going to be here for 12 weeks and I have a lot to do! I’ve got off to a good start today. I found a word that my co-editor hadn’t managed to work out in a letter held here and the work that I did two weeks ago in the June Fullmer archive continues to bear fruit. We’ve found about 20 new letters as a result and we’re still checking out more.
I’ve just arranged to go to the Morgan Library in New York too and I’ve started now to be a bit more free in my searching for Davy material and to call up letters and diaries that mention him too. These kinds of sources have started to be valuable for working out where he was when and a number of persistent questions have been resolved over the past few weeks of this nature. I’ve also determined to spend an hour or so a day reading from cover to cover a few key texts that I may have read years ago or that I’ve just selected from for specific bits of information, such as the key Davy biographies. The library here is an excellent resource for all things Davy and it’s also very comfortable and conducive to work. Being near the end of the project is quite a different experience: you know a bit more what you should be on the look-out for, and I’m better, I think, at sifting through information to find exactly what I need (if it’s there). Wish me luck! I’ve got a lot to do here…
It’s been ages since I wrote this blog, but today I find myself completely overexcited by the research I’m doing and I want a) to tell someone about it, and b) to record it for myself. I’m in the Ohio State University Archives this week looking at the archives of June Fullmer, who from the 1960s until her death in 2001 gathered materials for a two-volume letters edition of Sir Humphry Davy and his wife Jane. Does this sound familiar? In fact, John Burnham, another Ohio State professor of the History of Science, who died on 12th May this year, was her literary executor and in 2008 he gave the fledgling Davy Letters Project team a typescript of June Fullmer’s collection of 763 letters and this started us off.
Reading through these many boxes of archive material is an odd thing. It’s unusual for me to be reading the research notes and correspondence of a critic rather than, say, Davy himself. I had no idea how much work Fullmer had done on the letters edition and it is rather tragic that she never got to publish it herself. In fact, I’ve read that the print proofs of the first volume of her biography of Davy (the only one to appear) arrived just days after Fullmer had died. It is nice, therefore, that at our last meeting of the Davy Letters Project we decided to dedicate our edition to Fullmer.
There are some treasures in this archive, including a letter from Oliver Sacks to Fullmer. There are a number of leads with regard to letters that we may not have in our edition that Dr Andrew Lacey and I are starting to follow up. There’s an unpublished essay on Jane Davy, the much maligned wife, of whom Fullmer writes: ‘My guess is that when all the returns are in we will find a woman of great native intelligence handicapped by the educational opportunities open to women at the time, a woman who may have seemed silly and tasteless, but, a woman who was nonetheless fascinating to intelligent men.’ I discover in Fullmer’s archive, too, that Jane published poetry, or at least one poem, in the same volume as her husband had, A Collection of Poems: Chiefly Manuscript, and from Living Authors, edited by Joanna Baillie in 1823. Jane’s poem was ‘To Count —-, On the Death of his Wife’ and it can be read in google books. And I have also found that Fullmer wrote poetry! At least there’s some criticism (and appreciation) in a letter from friends about a poem that she had written.
I am sad that Fullmer didn’t get to see her letters edition to fruition. In one letter, written in 1968, she writes that she has been collecting Davy’s letters for 12 years! She says that she has written 7000 letters to libraries around the globe in search for them. In a letter to Andrew Kerr, dated 23/2/1970, Fullmer writes: ‘I have spent so much time reading the Regency literature, as well as letters and diaries of Italian expatriates, etc., for the period up to about 1850, that I know many of these people better than my own neighbors.’
At least I’m here now, reading her work and using it in the edition that will finally see the light of day sometime soon hopefully. It was very touching to read her letter to the Royal Institution, 21/5/71, in which she comments on Dame Kathleen Lonsdale’s death: ‘I do hope, though, that you have some sort of commitment to get her papers. Fifty years from now, or, perhaps, even sooner, historians will find them very interesting.’ I am definitely finding Fullmer’s papers absolutely fascinating. I’m so glad that they were collected and kept and pleased that her work will not have been in vain.
Well, I say ‘1820 done’ but actually those letters and my notes have just gone off to my co-editor, Prof Tim Fulford, and will come back to me with things to check and change and add, but still I have now sent it off to him and it’s already been seen by Prof Frank James. It was a great year to annotate. There’s some really brilliant (and scurrilous) stuff in Davy’s 1820 letters. In May, Davy hears that Joseph Banks has resigned from the Presidency of the Royal Society, comes rushing back to Britain from his leisurely holidaying abroad and begins campaigning in earnest for himself. There are some great letters written by Davy where we don’t have the originals but only printed versions (printed much later) and all of the names have been replaced by asterisks. I’ve been trying to work out whether the number of asterisks used is significant (they do vary) and work out who Davy is referring to. He seems to be really very rude about Davies Gilbert (formerly Giddy) who was his first mentor and the primary reason that Davy managed to get out of his apprenticeship as an apothecary and begin his illustrious career in chemistry. There’s gratitude for you. I love this kind of work where to identify people you need to work out other allusions (eg. a ‘rotten borough’ in Cornwall) and piece together the bits of information you have on them (eg. he hasn’t even published in the Phil Trans!).
I’m into 1822 now and he’s firmly President of the RS; lots of the letters are written in the third person (even in his own handwriting) and they tend to be official, thanking people for the gift of their publications etc etc. As the year of the fellowship where I’m working on this for 100% of my time draws to a close I’ve done a tally of the work that I’ve done. I’ve written 51k words of notes so far and when you add in the letter texts themselves that comes to 132k. And there’s still a few more months to go.
I’m off to Sheffield for the ‘Summer of 1816’ conference on Friday which has an really strong programme. It’s going to be tough to decide which papers to go to actually. I’m putting on a panel on ‘Romantic Science’ though to be honest it’s really about Davy, and why not…?