Sara Cole and Alexis Wolf on Fidelissima: Women’s literary contributions in the pages of the Davy notebooks

Over the course of the Davy Notebooks Project, our team has come together for monthly online sessions during which we read and discuss one of Davy’s notebooks. Our reading group is always a refreshing opportunity to share knowledge and develop new ideas about the notebooks, some of which contain exciting surprises. This blog post will explore one such discovery, which links Davy’s social and literary life to one of the leading manuscript poets of his day and places him within literary manuscript culture of the period. It also explores how women’s voices, which may not be immediately apparent, in fact populate the pages of Davy’s notebooks.

RI MS HD/13/I, pp. 10 and 11 (click to enlarge)

Notebook 13I opens with seventeen pages of poetry signed ‘Fidelissima’:

Thou to whom heaven its noblest gifts assigned
Blest Friend of Man, the darling of mankind,
Elect of Science on whose infant head
Truth’s angel power the full orb’d Halo spread,
Awhile farewell[.]

By now our reading group is accustomed to seeing poetry and science in the same notebook, but we were particularly struck by the poetry at the beginning of 13I, both in respect of the handwriting, which was new to us, and by the subject matter, point of view, and tone of the poetry, none of which suggested that it was written by Davy himself. The first two poems were signed, ‘Fidelissima’, i.e. ‘most faithful’. The poetry seems to be about Davy, written from a female subject position. We already knew that Fidelissima had written poetry for Davy, but could we identify her from her hand and the nature of her poetry?

We excluded Jane Davy and Anna Beddoes on the grounds of the handwriting, which matched neither of theirs. We also agreed that the poetry was not love poetry in the conventional sense, but rather written to admire Davy’s scientific knowledge, his depth of feeling, and love of nature. In the poems the author is saying goodbye to the Elect of Science and wishing him well on his journey.

Our search for poetry that matched Fidelissima’s tone and style led us to discover Catherine Maria Fanshawe, mentioned in Davy’s Collected Letters.[1] She is described in the edition’s footnotes as a poet and Davy’s friend: someone to whom he gave poems that he had written. We followed up this promising lead by comparing the lines in 13I with scans of a manuscript poem by Fanshawe, ‘A Riddle on the Letter H’, which we found online at the New York Public Library.[2]

Catherine Maria Fanshawe, ‘A Riddle on the Letter H’, New York Public Library (click to enlarge)

RI MS HD/13/I, p. 5 (click to enlarge)

The most telling feature of Fanshawe’s hand is her style of writing the letter ‘W’, which is identical between the two manuscripts. We were soon convinced that the hand in Fanshawe’s poem matched that in the notebook.

During our session, we found that Fanshawe had attended and written about a dinner party at Davy’s house.[3] We also established that she had written an ode to the Reverend Sydney Smith about his lectures at the Royal Institution in the early 1800s.[4] All of this led us to have confidence in our reading group discovery that Catherine Maria Fanshawe was indeed Fidelissima, and that she had copied out her poems to Davy in his own notebook.

Some Davy ‘fan mail’ held by the Royal Institution (RI MS 26/H/13) (click to enlarge)

The attribution of the pseudonym ‘Fidelissima’ to Catherine Maria Fanshawe also gave a satisfying answer to some other mysteries long investigated by our team, such as a collection of ‘fan mail’ held by the Royal Institution, which can also now be traced to Fanshawe.[5]

Looking further into her life and work, it appeared that Fanshawe perfectly embodied a lost world of manuscript sociability that thrived in the early nineteenth century. While very few of her poems were published in her lifetime, they were cherished by a wide variety of readers who encountered them in manuscript form. For example, her manuscript poems were read by Sir Walter Scott, who found them ‘quite beautiful’.[6] Fanshawe’s poems clearly enjoyed appreciation both during and after her life, as seen in publications that printed substantial selections of her poems including Joanna Baillie’s Collection of Poems (1823) and Mary Mitford’s Recollections of a Literary Life (1852).[7]

Given their widespread readership, it is likely that Fanshawe’s poems were both written for and read in social situations such as salons and dinner parties. They may also have been composed through instances of personal collaboration, which we may have discovered an example of through her writing in Davy’s own notebook.

This type of collaborative working is evident in a further example of Fanshawe’s writing that we recently discovered in another Davy notebook, 13J. Dating from 1803-09, the notebook contains a mix of poetry and scientific notes. When encountering the notebook in our reading group, we quickly decided that several poems were also written in the hand of ‘Fidelissima’. One poem shows a clear example this. On p. 16, three lines of a poem are written out in Davy’s hand:

Think not that I forget the days.
When first through rough unhaunted ways
We moved along the mountains side

RI MD HD/13/J, pp. 16 and 17 (click to enlarge)

On the next page, p. 17, there appears a lengthier version of the same poem, written in Fanshawe’s hand, with a title, ‘To A[unclear]xxx[/unclear]’, and several lines added below. This implies that perhaps the pair worked side by side, or that Fanshawe may have served as Davy’s amanuensis on this occasion. Notebook 13J includes multiple poems written in Fanshawe’s hand, implying that they may have both worked with the notebook on several occasions. This type of collaborative working recalls the social writing practices of other Romantic period writers, such as the members of the Wordsworth family circle, who often worked together on manuscripts, using the handwritten pages they produced for shared reading and writing.

The discovery of Fanshawe’s presence changes how we might interpret Davy’s notebooks, proving that they were shared and social objects used by multiple authors. It also allows us to recover the story of a largely forgotten women author who left her mark on the literary world in the early nineteenth century. More than that, this discovery underlines the important role that women writers play in the notebooks’ pages, and in the formation of Davy’s literary identity. As we’re also discovering, this continued after Davy’s death in 1829, when his sister-in-law Margaret Davy and brother John used his notebooks, letters, and published works to construct his posthumous reputation.[8] Fanshawe’s proven readership, despite not seeking publication, may also say something about how Davy circulated his own poems in manuscript.

[1] The Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy, ed. by Tim Fulford and Sharon Ruston, advisory eds Jan Golinski, Frank A. J. L. James, and David Knight, assisted by Andrew Lacey, 4 vols (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[2] Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library, ‘A Riddle on the Letter H’, (1820-1831) <>.

This poem by Fanshawe was long incorrectly attributed to Lord Byron, a fact that is clarified along with a printing of the poem in the posthumous The Literary Remains of Catherine Maria Fanshawe (London: Basil Montague Pickering, 1876).

[3] Literary Remains of Catherine Maria Fanshawe also contains ‘Fragment of a Letter’, which gives an account of dining at Davy’s alongside Madame de Staël and Lord Byron in a small party (pp. 56-59).

[4] Literary Remains of Catherine Maria Fanshawe, ‘Ode’, pp. 45-49.

[5] RI MS 26/H/13; Sharon Ruston wrote about these letters in a blog post in 2012.

[6] Courtney, W. P., and Rebecca Mills. ‘Fanshawe, Catherine Maria (1765–1834), poet.’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) <>.

[7] Joanna Baillie, A Collection of Poems: Chiefly Manuscript, and From Living Authors. Edited for the Benefit of a Friend (London: 1823), pp. 65-77, pp. 167-85; Mary Russell Mitford, Recollection of a Literary Life, or, Books, Places and People (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1852), i, pp. 249-65.

[8] Ellie Bird was awarded the Women’s Studies Group 1558-1837 Bursary in 2023 to examine Margaret’s notebooks at Keele University Special Collections and Archives.

Frank James on the provenance and history of Davy’s Notebooks

As the Davy Notebooks Project comes to an end, and we collect, edit, and annotate the final transcriptions ready for our digital edition on Lancaster Digital Collections, the project team have been reflecting on what makes Davy’s notebook collection so special. Sharon’s recent article published in The Observer (with a shorter version on The Guardian website) discusses the reams of poetry that have been discovered in Davy’s notebooks alongside ground-breaking chemical experiments and discoveries. It is unusual to have such a large cache of notebooks, as Davy’s notebook collection held in the Royal Institution and Kresen Kernow represents, and, in this post, we’ll explore a range of different types of notebooks, including lab notebooks, their provenance, and decisions around their cataloguing.

When Davy died in Geneva in 1829, it seems that all his notebooks, which have been digitised by the Davy Notebooks Project, were in his London townhouse, 26 Park Street, Mayfair, in the care of his widow and executrix Jane, Lady Davy (1780-1855). Two of these, the large folio laboratory notebooks, which ‘had several years ago been taken away by Sir H Davy’, belonged to the Royal Institution who, shortly after Davy’s death, successfully asked Lady Davy for their return.[1] Under the terms of Davy’s will, all the other notebooks were passed to his brother John Davy (1790-1868) who took them to Malta where he was serving as an army medical officer. There, during the first half of the 1830s, he used them as a basis for around a fifth of his two-volume biography of his brother, written in response to what he regarded as the scurrilous biography by John Ayrton Paris (1785-1856).[2]

RI MS HD/14/J, pp. 135-36 (click to enlarge)

According to these pages in notebook 14J, when John began penning his brother’s biography in Malta in 1830, he did not have ‘the whole of his notebooks’ with him.

RI MS HD/12, p. 275 (rotated; click to enlarge): One of the notebooks that came into John’s possession after Jane Davy’s death in 1855

Following Lady Davy’s death in 1855, John Davy acquired from her estate additional Davy notebooks which he used in his curiously titled Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy (1858), including Notebook 12.[3] Following John Davy’s death in 1868, Davy’s notebooks and letters passed down through John’s descendants, eventually ending up in the Science Museum, Keele University, Kresen Kernow, and the Royal Institution, which received virtually all the notebooks now in their collections just before the start of the Great War.[4] However, at least four notebooks somehow escaped this process, and although one was purchased by the Royal Institution in 1982 with the aid of a National Heritage Memorial Fund grant, the others have yet to be located.[5] Excluding the laboratory notebooks, bound drafts of his papers, and a stray volume of notes made by John and Margaret Davy, the Royal Institution retains forty-four personal notebooks kept by Davy between 1795 and 1829. [6] These vary in size from quarto to the quite small, 5½ by 4 inches, and in length to between 24 and 366 pages (average 156 pages).

It is not clear how accessible all these notebooks were to scholars between 1914 and the 1950s. In 1914, the Royal Institution’s Assistant Secretary wrote that the donation would not be made public ‘because there would certainly be many applications for permission to peruse [the] documents’, which would not be beneficial ‘to the labours of the Officials of the Institution.’[7] Such an attitude may explain why, during the first half of the twentieth century, studies of Davy were few and far between with almost everything entirely derived from his own publications as well as from Paris’s and John Davy’s biographies and The Royal Institution: Its Founders, and Its First Professors (1871) by Henry Bence Jones (1813-1873).[8]

In the 1950s, serious study of Davy began with the work of June Fullmer (1920-2000), Anne Treneer (1891-1966), Colin Russell (1928-2013), and Harold Hartley (1878-1972). Initially, that research did not involve using the notebooks. Fullmer, in 1960, published an entire paper on Davy’s poetry without reference to the notebooks, though she did cite a manuscript poem held in the Huntington Library.[9] However, four years later she did use the notebooks in a paper on Davy’s gunpowder work.[10] The first two full biographies published in the 1960s, by Treneer and by Hartley, also used Davy’s notebooks. It would appear that Treneer was the first to use those notebooks that had come via John Davy, quoting a couple of poems by Davy from them as well as other matter.[11] In his biography, Hartley not only used the notebooks, but also published images of a few pages.[12] Russell, after publishing two papers on Davy’s electro-chemistry based entirely on printed sources, wrote a third, published in 1963, about what could be learnt from Davy’s notebooks. What is particularly interesting is that this article seems to be the first to cite their Royal Institution manuscript numbers.[13]

In the early 1980s, Margaret Gray (later Woodall) produced a detailed catalogue of all the papers deemed to belong to the Davy collection, which can be accessed via The National Archives website.[14] The catalogue has enabled numerous subsequent scholars to examine Davy’s notebooks in ways not before possible. The work of these scholars demonstrated their enormous historical and literary significance, ultimately leading to the Davy Notebooks Project.

Thanks again to all of our volunteers who have transcribed and who continue to help us in the late stages of the digital edition.

[1] These are now RI MS HD/6 and 7. See RI MM, 2 October 1829 (vol. 7, p. 276) and 7 December 1829 (vol. 7, p. 285).

[2] John Davy, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, 2 vols (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1836). Frank A. J. L. James, ‘Constructing Humphry Davy’s Biographical Image’, Ambix 66 (2019), 214-38 (p. 226). John Ayrton Paris, The Life of Sir Humphry Davy, 2 vols (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831).

[3] James, ‘Constructing Humphry Davy’s Biographical Image’, p. 233.

[4] Keele University MS Raymond Richards M117-119 includes John Davy, ‘Some Notices of My Life’ (these autobiographical notes have been transcribed and edited by Andrew Lacey and can be found here), volumes of notes made by John Davy and his wife for the Memoirs, and some letters. For details, see James, ‘Constructing Humphry Davy’s Biographical Image’, p. 235. Kresen Kernow GS/6/2-5 comprises five quarto notebooks containing, in Davy’s hand, notes for four geology lectures and one on the history of science.

[5] For a detailed discussion of these processes, see James, ‘Constructing Humphry Davy’s Biographical Image’, pp. 235-36.

[6] RI MS HD/9.

[7] Henry Young to Humphry Rolleston, 16 June 1914, RI MS Rolleston file (uncatalogued).

[8] In addition to a few papers, a couple of biographies were published: Joshua C. Gregory, The Scientific Achievements of Sir Humphry Davy (London: Oxford University Press, 1930) and James Kendall, Humphry Davy: ‘Pilot’ of Penzance (London: Faber and Faber, 1954). The latter did include (p. 73) a small image of a section of the page (RI MS HD/6, p. 61) where Davy recorded his isolation of what he later named potassium. In late 1938, Kendall had given the Christmas Lectures, ‘Young Chemists and Great Discoveries’, and so might have enjoyed special access.

[9] June Z. Fullmer, ‘The Poetry of Sir Humphry Davy’, Chymia 6 (1960), 102-26 (p. 120).

[10] June Z. Fullmer, ‘Humphry Davy and the Gunpowder Manufactory’, Annals of Science 20 (1964), 165-94 (p. 166).

[11] Anne Treneer, The Mercurial Chemist: A Life of Sir Humphry Davy (London: Methuen, 1963), esp. pp. 4-5 and 63-64.

[12] Harold Hartley, Humphry Davy (London: Nelson, 1966), esp. opp. pp. 41, 56, 57, 88, 89.

[13] Colin A. Russell, ‘The Electrochemical Theory of Sir Humphry Davy. Part III: The Evidence of the Royal Institution Manuscripts’, Annals of Science 19 (1963), 255-71.

[14] Frank A. J. L. James and Irena M. McCabe, ‘Collections X: History of Science and Technology Resources at the Royal Institution of Great Britain’, The British Journal for the History of Science 17 (1984), 205-09 (p. 206).

Zooniverse volunteers in the spotlight (#4: Maria and Jonathan)

Welcome to another in our series of posts by our lovely volunteers on Zooniverse. This series allows us to learn more about what motivates people to transcribe Davy’s notebooks and what people’s particular interests in Davy might be.

This time we hear from Maria and Jonathan, who are inorganic chemists whose understanding of Davy’s research has been enhanced by participating in the project, and who mention Davy in their inorganic chemistry lectures!

Volunteers in the spotlight: Maria and Jonathan

1. What interests you about the project?

When in-person volunteer opportunities disappeared in March 2020, I started searching for other options – the Davy Notebooks Project turned out to be the perfect fit! I am an inorganic chemist by training, and I discuss some of Davy’s research in an upper-level inorganic course. This project allows me to explore the many facets of Davy’s work – in his own words – which has resulted in a much deeper appreciation of his many and varied contributions.

2. Why are you enjoying it?

This is a unique opportunity to learn more about Davy’s research, his interests, and the history of chemistry from Davy’s remarkable point of view. I am also married to a chemist who joined me on this project early on – we are very much enjoying volunteering together. It has allowed us to discover the details of the experimental approach taken by a remarkable scientist.

3. Do you have any particular interest in Davy?

Our interests initially stemmed from his chemistry research, in particular the discovery and isolation of several elements, his electrochemistry experiments, and his well-known research on nitrous oxide. We now realize this was a rather narrow view of his work – we are in awe of his wide-ranging interests and can much better appreciate the work he describes in his notebooks related to agriculture, geology, medicine, and travel, amongst others.

4. Are sciences and arts ‘separate’?

Absolutely not! Having collaborated on the chemical analysis of several artefacts with a local archaeologist, I consider art and science very much intertwined. The same imagination and creative impulse that inspires the artist in their studio motivates the scientist in their laboratory. Each seeks to interpret and explain the world that they perceive through the medium in which they excel.

5. What have you learned about Davy since joining the project?

What we have discovered by transcribing his notebooks is completely unexpected in some cases – we were not aware of his non-scientific endeavours (poetry, short stories, and travel diaries, as examples). Davy’s eagerness to explore everything from the origins of rock formations to the dimensions of the fins of freshwater fish is palpable in the way that he writes with the same energy and precision on every topic in the notebooks. The joy that Davy feels in just knowing leaps off the page, and his lecture notes show his desire to communicate his many discoveries and to educate any and all that are interested enough to attend his Royal Institution lectures.

6. Do you have any favourite pages of Davy’s notebooks?

There are so many! Starting with the pages related to his work with oxymuriatic acid and the evolution of inorganic nomenclature and continuing with his lectures related to electrochemical phenomena. In 1810, Davy named chlorine and insisted it was an element not a compound. Notebook 07 contains Davy’s intensive experiments for several months with oxymuriatic acid from mid-1810. On one page, ‘oxymuriatic’ acid is deleted and changed to ‘chlorine’, reflecting the gradual take up of Davy’s new term. Having studied abroad in Ireland, it was wonderful to see Davy’s landscape sketches labeled with geological information. In Notebook 15I, Davy sketches a landing place near Waterford, Ireland, where he noticed a geological similarity with the shist of Cornwall. His scientific diagrams, particularly those where self-experimentation was involved, were quite interesting (and shocking!) to discover. In Notebook 22B, Davy includes a sketch based on the following observation: ‘it appeared when connected with silver water the tongue to produce galvanic excitement’.

RI MS HD/07, p. 404

RI MS HD/15/I, p. 001 (rotated)

RI MS HD/22/B, p. 001

Thank you, Maria and Jonathan!

Ellie Bird

Frank James on Davy’s Book of Common Prayer

The Royal Society, of which Davy was President between 1820 and 1827, has recently acquired his Book of Common Prayer given him by his early patron, the Penzance surgeon John Tonkin (c. 1721/2-1801). Described as being well respected in the town (he served five terms as mayor), Tonkin always dressed in the tradition of the eighteenth-century professional medic: ‘cocked hat, large powdered wig, hand-ruffles, upright collar’.[1] Both the parents of Davy’s mother, Grace Millett (1752-1826), and her four siblings, died within a few days of each other in May 1757. Tonkin had been lodging with them at the time and thereafter seems to have served in loco parentis to the orphans. That support increased as he became wealthier and it extended to the children that Grace had with Robert Davy (1746-94), whom she married in 1776, and especially their first child, Humphry, born on 17 December 1778.

While the Davys were not poor, they were also far from well off. Robert Davy was a yeoman farmer in Ludgvan Parish some three miles east of Penzance. His farm at Varfell, overlooking Mount’s Bay, comprised nearly eighty acres and he seems to have employed one or two labourers. Nevertheless, as his family grew to five children in total, he clearly needed to supplement his income. For instance, in August 1784 Tonkin recorded buying some wreck timber from Robert Davy, a traditional Cornish way to make some extra money. Tonkin also noted providing considerable in-kind support for the Davys. In the mid-1780s, Humphry began school in Penzance and seems to have gone to live with Tonkin in the town, who recorded all the material support he gave him.

That support reached a new level when Tonkin paid the substantial sum of twenty-five guineas for the fourteen-year-old Humphry to attend Truro Grammar School during 1793. He drove Davy to his new school, dropping him off on 15 January. Among the items he gave Davy that day was this Book of Common Prayer, as Davy was to receive, for a year at least, a classical education within an Anglican framework. Though Davy never comes across as particularly devout, on the whole he conformed outwardly to the state church. This particular copy had been printed at Oxford in 1771 by Wright and Gill (printers to the University) and then cost six pence. At the top of the title page is John Tonkin’s name followed by 1771, both crossed through and replaced below by ‘Humpy Davy’ in such a way that the eye is drawn to the (presumably) unintended phrase ‘The Book of Davy’. Davy at the same time also wrote a short poem, possibly the earliest surviving one, in the book, which he claimed was a paraphrase of Psalm 8, a connection that I find rather hard to make.

(Click to enlarge)

It is still not entirely clear why Davy left school after a year. His father died at the end of 1794 just a week before Davy’s sixteenth birthday. Early the following year, his mother apprenticed him for five years to the Penzance surgeon John Bingham Borlase (1753-1813) – the substantial premium of sixty pounds once again being paid by Tonkin. Davy spent just over three-and-a-half years working for Borlase, before being lured to Bristol to work for Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) at his new Medical Pneumatic Institution. That meant persuading Borlase to cancel the remainder of his apprenticeship which after some discussion he did, much to Tonkin’s disapproval. According to some sources, Tonkin then removed Davy from his will, but no primary evidence has so far been found to support that claim.

It is not known what happened to the book for the entire nineteenth century. According to the accompanying provenance note by Œnone Johnson, née Rashleigh (1915-2015), dated 13 October 1958, it had been given to her (in 1958?) by the important mineralogist Arthur Russell (1878-1964). Johnson was a descendent of the Rashleigh family who in the early nineteenth century were the largest landowners in Cornwall with their seat at Menabilly near Fowey on the south coast. During the mid-twentieth century, Menabilly was leased to Johnson’s close friend, the author Daphne du Maurier (1907-89). Russell had acquired part of the mineral collection of Philip Rashleigh (1729-1811), now in the Natural History Museum, so it must have seemed appropriate to give a member of the family Davy’s Book of Common Prayer. He told her that he had purchased it around 1928 from a bookseller in Penzance who acquired it from the Fox family of Falmouth; Russell had also got hold of the mineral collection of Robert Were Fox (1789-1877). No link between Davy and the Fox family has yet been found, but it does raise the intriguing possibility that the prayer book had never left Cornwall until now. Whatever its provenance, the book is emblematic of Davy’s relations with his earliest patron.

[1] John Davy, Memoirs of the Life of Sir Humphry Davy, 2 vols (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1836), i, 109.

Samantha Blickhan on platform-side iteration: learning from the Davy Notebooks Project

In contrast to the majority of posts on the project blog, I want to focus on the technical side of things. In particular, I want to highlight a few ways that we at the Zooniverse have changed our public offerings and internal practices based on lessons learned during our multi-year collaboration as part of the Davy Notebooks Project (henceforth DNP).

One of the biggest impacts of this collaboration has been increased opportunities for teams aiming to build image-based text transcription projects that feature a common type of data organization. In most cases, a team’s dataset will be made up of multiple sub-groups of images. These sub-groups are typically uploaded via the Project Builder as different subject sets. For a project with multiple subject sets, teams need to possess enough information about the content and structure of their images across these sub-groupings to know whether they can all be sent to the same workflow, or whether they require different classification methods.

Sometimes the content of the subject sets will merit varied technical approaches – e.g. a subject set containing tabular data will require different tools for data collection than a subject set containing letters – but other times a single technical approach can be applied to all sub-groupings for an entire dataset. The DNP is an example of the latter. Their full set of images is subdivided into individual, physical notebooks, all with the same goal of text transcription (composed of an underline marking + collaborative transcription) and a series of follow-up questions about what the participant has just transcribed.

For cases like this on the Zooniverse platform, the traditional technical approach would be to create a single workflow and associate all of the subject sets with that workflow, either simultaneously or in a staggered approach (e.g. activating a new subject set once the previous has been retired). However, over the past several years we have seen that, for archival materials in particular, it is beneficial to expose some of the organizational structure behind a dataset, to give participants access to more information about the sub-groupings and options about how they want to participate.

What I mean by ‘exposing structure’ here is providing information about: 1) how the full dataset is organized; 2) what – if any – the relationship is between subjects in a given set (e.g. if they should be displayed to participants in a certain order); and 3) which materials will be available for transcription and when. Additionally, if teams can provide options for volunteers (i.e. make multiple subject sets available simultaneously) that then gives greater agency to participants by allowing them to choose what they want to work on.

However, the setup process for this approach had some issues. For project teams, it was frustrating to have to build a new workflow for every single subject set, particularly if they were re-creating a complex workflow. Teams were also having to keep workflows set to ‘active’ even after the subject set was fully retired, to ensure that they continued to appear on the Stats page (to provide a record of how much collective effort participants had put into the project over time).

For our Zooniverse team, it meant additional work, too: if a workflow had advanced or experimental features requiring our help, those would all need to be set up manually as well. The DNP workflows use the Transcription Task, which requires Zooniverse-side configuration in order for collaborative transcription to work properly. If the configuration isn’t exactly right (e.g. if there are typos or the right box isn’t ticked), it can impact how the task appears on the project frontend.

After the re-launch of the DNP in 2021, we realized we could build support systems for this process into the platform, reducing the risk of error and saving time for both ourselves and for research teams using the Project Builder.

First, we added a Copy Workflow button to the Project Builder ‘Workflows’ page.

Fig. 1: The Copy Workflow button

This allows teams to duplicate a workflow simply by pressing the ‘Copy’ button and giving the workflow a new name. Later iterations of this button ensured that advanced and administrative settings were also copied.

Second, Zooniverse backend developer Michelle Yuen wrote an automated configuration script for workflows using the Transcription Task. Instead of manually inputting the configuration via a user interface, we can simply run the Python script on a command line interface (such as Mac Terminal) to set up a given workflow. This reduces the risk of human error during setup, and is also much, much faster.

Third, to bring additional context to the data being presented, we made it easier internally for our team to set up projects that allow participants to classify images in a particular sequence. In the case of the DNP, images are served in the order they appear within a given notebook, instead of at random (which is the default behavior on the Zooniverse platform). If this sequential classification setting is turned on for a given workflow, it will remain ‘On’ when that workflow is copied.

Although the features described above made it much easier to set up projects using this approach, and to contextualize subjects within a given set, there were still some technical complications caused by creating a lot of workflows on a single project. For example, project teams still needed to rely on the Zooniverse team to create a new workflow, so we wondered if there was a way to make this process more independent.

As part of the Engaging Crowds project, we built an indexing tool that would display the contents of subject sets and allow project participants to choose individual subjects to work on. For part of this effort, we took inspiration from the DNP and created infrastructure that allows participants to choose a subject set to work on within a given workflow.

Fig. 2: A screenshot from the Poets & Lovers project, showing the subject set selection modal (click to enlarge)

Project teams using this feature can add multiple subject sets to a single workflow, and participants will then be prompted to choose which one they want to work on. This means that teams only need to set up a single workflow and add their subject sets as needed, but the data in those subject sets will remain separate from the other subject sets.

As shown in the screenshots above, the selection modal also shows completeness statistics, including when a subject set is finished and no longer requires additional classification.

These changes to the technical infrastructure may seem small, but they have already been very impactful for project teams, the Zooniverse team, and participants. I think the lessons we’ve learned from the DNP are great examples of how paying attention to feedback and user experience can lead to positive outcomes for technical collaborators as well as project teams and participants alike.

Frank James on Before the notebooks: The very young Humphry Davy

The two earliest notebooks kept by Davy to have survived (RI MSS HD/13/F and /21/A) were both begun in 1795 when he was aged sixteen. The only document written by Davy known from before that year is a brief note to the headmaster at Truro Grammar School, which he attended for the entirety of 1793, sending him a short essay. For the first sixteen years of his life even recent authors have relied heavily, and sometimes uncritically, on the first two biographies written by John Paris (1831, but really an anti-biography) and by Davy’s younger brother John Davy (1836, which goes too far in the other direction). While both these draw on recollections made by those who knew Davy in the 1780s and early 1790s, the latter also draws on a series of notes made by Davy’s sister Katherine following his death in 1829 and also on a quite extraordinary contemporary account of the financial and material support that the surgeon and sometime Mayor of Penzance, John Tonkin, gave to the Davy family until the end of the 1790s.

It seems to me that relying on biographies written in the febrile decade of the 1830s is not an especially reliable way to understand Davy’s early life forty years before. It is important to understand his youth and its contexts, as far as the evidence allows, because aged nineteen he already possessed qualities which enormously impressed Tom Wedgwood and Gregory Watt when they wintered in Penzance in 1797/8. There must have been something in Davy’s background and early life that gave him the extraordinary character and charisma that so attracted their attention.

Viewed from London today, Cornwall perhaps appears to have been somewhat remote in the eighteenth century. But in Falmouth it possessed the first major port in England where landfall could be made from the Atlantic (the officer bringing news of Trafalgar landed there) and until the 1800 Act of Union with Ireland just over 8% of MPs at Westminster were sent by the county, an entirely disproportionate number. Many of the gentry and clergy enjoyed close links with the University of Oxford and as the location of the largest tin and copper mines in the world connections with Welsh and Midland industries were close, hence the presence of Watt and Wedgwood.

Davy was born in Penzance on 17 December 1778. At least three buildings in the town are claimed to be the location. Such was his fame that by the 1820s guidebooks to Cornwall were noting his place of birth illustrated by fig.1, which identifies the building immediately below the tower of the market building as the place – it should be noted that now very little of eighteenth-century Penzance remains.

Fig. 1

Davy’s father, Robert Davy, is generally portrayed as fairly easy going. Nevertheless, in official documents he is always referred to as a ‘gentleman’ and the Anglicanism of the family, though not especially devout, gave them a social status above the Methodism that had spread in the county. However, during the eighteenth century the fortunes of the Davy family had declined. At the beginning they were of consequence in Ludgvan parish, about three miles north-east of Penzance (top right in fig. 2).

Fig. 2 (click to enlarge)

By the 1780s Davy’s branch of the family only retained the lease (from the Dukes of Bolton) of a seventy-nine-acre farm centred on Varfell, immediately to the south of Ludgvan (the fields he farmed are picked out in purple ink on fig. 3 which is now a daffodil farm, fig. 4) together with a grist mill and a small amount of land in the village.

Fig. 3 (click to enlarge)

Fig. 4

Robert Davy built a house in Varfell, still standing (fig. 5). Put differently, Robert Davy was a respectable yeoman farmer, a class that has now disappeared entirely, right at the bottom of the gentry.

Fig. 5

When he reached school age, Davy’s time was divided between living in Varfell and staying with Tonkin in Penzance. From his grandmother, who lived in the town, Davy learnt about Cornish legends and myths. These would have included stories about St Michael’s Mount, which is on the coast immediately south of Varfell and visible from the house where fig. 6 was taken.

Fig. 6

The Mount exerted an enormous influence on Davy’s imagination expressed over the years in drawings in his notebooks and in a whole series of poems written and redrafted throughout his life.

From around 1785 he attended Penzance Grammar School where he presumably learnt the Classics in an Anglican context. He was popular with his school fellows as he helped them with their work and he would apparently give them impromptu talks by the Star Inn (on the left in fig. 1). At this time, he also began his life-long passion for fishing and even at the most difficult times of his life, he would frequently leave London for a weekend’s fishing in the Chilterns or on the River Test. Indeed, much of the last two years of his life was spent fishing on the River Sava in what is now Slovenia and the last book he published before his death was entitled Salmonia.

Tonkin paid for Davy to attend Truro Grammar School (fig. 7) throughout 1793 where he would have continued to a more advanced level the studies he had commenced in Penzance.

Fig. 7

For reasons that are unclear he left at the end of the year and very little is known about what he did during 1794. But at the end the year, precisely a week before Davy’s sixteenth birthday, his father died, in serious debt owing to unwise mining investments. He was buried in the graveyard of Ludgvan Parish church (figs. 8 and 9). Later a plaque (fig. 10) was placed inside the church commemorating Davy’s mother and father, though a casual visitor might well be forgiven for thinking it was to Davy. Extraordinarily the plaque gives both an incorrect day and year for Robert Davy’s death.

Fig. 8

Fig. 9

Fig. 10 (click to enlarge)

As a consequence of his father’s death, his mother immediately apprenticed Davy for five years to the Penzance surgeon and apothecary, John Bingham Borlase, the premium, once again, being paid by Tonkin (fig. 11).

Fig. 11 (click to enlarge)

There was some vague idea that once he had completed his apprenticeship, Davy would then study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, a suggestion that receives some evidential support by the short duration of the indenture. It cannot be a coincidence that it is from this period that Davy began his notebooks. One mostly contained his transcription of Euclid’s Elements (21/A) and the other (13/F) a miscellany of poems, philosophical writings, and the like – but not a trace of anything remotely chemical or geological.

When just under three years later, Watt and Wedgwood arrived in Penzance, they found in Davy someone whom they clearly appreciated had enormous potential. Watt, who lodged with Davy’s mother, particularly seems to have turned Davy’s attention to chemistry and within a few months Davy wrote a long essay critiquing on both experimental and theoretical grounds the work of the leading, recently guillotined, French chemist Antoine Lavoisier proposing an alternative to Lavoisier’s theory of calorique. While an audacious essay that in its printed version Davy soon came to regret, Watt gave it to the radical (Jacobin) physician Thomas Beddoes just then establishing the Medical Pneumatic Institution at Clifton, near Bristol. The essay gave Beddoes the confidence, along with strong support from Watt and others, to appoint Davy (without interview) in October 1798 as Superintendent of his new Institution. From that position his spectacular career trajectory flowed.

The story of how Davy came to make this crucial major move from Penzance to Bristol illustrates that Cornwall was not then some kind of provincial backwater, but a county where individual talent could be nurtured and recognised. However, it was not a place where national or international careers could be built and Davy, and later his brother, left the county only to return, infrequently, on family visits. But the memory of Cornwall from his early youth, its landscapes, its people, its myths, remained with him, all of which found expression in his later notebooks.

Gregory Tate on teaching Humphry Davy

Gregory Tate is a Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of St Andrews specialising in nineteenth-century literature, and a member of the Davy Notebooks Project Advisory Board

RI MS HD/13/C, pp. 7-9, ‘The Life of the Spinosist’ (click to enlarge)

Do you teach Davy?

Yes. I work at the School of English in the University of St Andrews, and I teach Davy in a class on our Romantic and Victorian Masters degree. The class uses Davy’s writings to introduce students to the broader question of the relations between literature and science in the early nineteenth century. Davy fits extremely well into the degree programme’s coverage of Romantic and Victorian literature: as well as his central importance to the history of science, he can also be studied as a representative figure in British Romanticism. His writings demonstrate this, I think, especially in their reimagining of traditional literary forms and literary language, in their championing of the social value of intellectual work, and in their examination of the links between physical nature and the spiritual or metaphysical.

Detail from the title-page of ‘A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry’ reprinted in The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy, vol. 2 (1839)

What do you teach?

I ask students to read Davy’s 1802 ‘A Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures on Chemistry’, primarily because I think it’s a model of early nineteenth-century rhetoric, and it therefore helps them to see (often for the first time) the linguistic, rhetorical, and figurative aspects of scientific knowledge. The ‘Discourse’ is an excellent text for showing students of English that they can study scientific writing through the same methods of critical analysis that they use to study literature. And it demonstrates to students that public lectures can be understood as a form of literature as well.

I also teach the different versions of the poem that started as ‘The Spinosist’ or ‘The Life of the Spinosist’ in Davy’s notebooks, before being revised and published as ‘By Mr Davy’ in 1806, and then again as ‘Life’ in 1823. Students are very interested in tracing the similarities and differences between these versions: the poem is an excellent example of the habit of lifelong revision that Davy shared with other Romantic poets. The different versions also highlight the diversity of textual forms in which Romantic poetry was written: private notebooks, periodicals, literary anthologies. And the poem also illustrates the different phases of Davy’s career and, more broadly, the intellectual and social contexts of science in nineteenth-century Britain. Each version is underpinned by a distinct philosophical framework, and the differences between them can tell us a lot about Davy’s changing views on religion, politics, and the position of science within society.

What have you published on Davy?

In 2019 I published an article on ‘Humphry Davy and the Problem of Analogy’, in a special issue of the journal Ambix edited by Frank James and Sharon Ruston. In it, I argue that analogy was central to Davy’s understanding of scientific knowledge, and that analogical thinking is a pervasive presence in his work on chemistry, his philosophical writings, and his poetry. Analogy was an essential intellectual tool for Davy, because it enabled him to construct broader theoretical conclusions from specific observations of physical processes and experimental data. But, throughout his writings, he also worries that analogical reasoning is illegitimate, both because it is arguably based on imaginative speculation rather than the rational interpretation of facts, and because it is a mode of rhetoric, the persuasiveness of which depends not on concrete evidence but on misleading figures of speech. This is ‘the problem of analogy’, which remains unresolved throughout Davy’s writings.

And in 2020 I published a book titled Nineteenth-Century Poetry and the Physical Sciences: Poetical Matter, the first chapter of which is on ‘Wordsworth, Davy, and the Forms of Nature’. The chapter’s argument is that Davy and William Wordsworth both understand the methods of Romantic poetry and science to be similarly inductive, building theoretical conclusions on the basis of observations of the material forms of nature. But their understandings of those natural forms are essentially different: in Davy’s chemistry, they are dynamic and mutable, while in Wordsworth’s poetry they are presented as permanent and unchanging in the psychological and spiritual associations they convey to the human mind. Davy’s work is foundational to the wider argument which structures the book as a whole: that, throughout the nineteenth century in Britain, science and poetry were viewed both as similar and as opposed to each other, because of their differing perspectives on the interpretation of nature’s materiality.

When did you first become interested in Davy?

I first became interested in Davy a decade ago, when I started work on my project on the relations between poetry and science in the nineteenth century. Through the work of Sharon Ruston, I learned about the large volume of poetry written in Davy’s notebooks, and so I spent several very happy months studying the notebooks in the archives of the Royal Institution.

Why are you interested in Davy?

For me, perhaps the most interesting thing about Davy is that he embodies two distinct (and arguably mutually exclusive) models of intellectual work. On the one hand, he was the prototype of a professional man of science, earning a living through his scientific research and setting out a vigorous defence of the particular value of scientific knowledge to culture and society. On the other hand, his work crosses and undermines barriers between different intellectual disciplines: he was as happy (or almost as happy) composing poems and works of speculative philosophy as he was writing scientific lectures and treatises. I’m a big fan of Jan Golinski’s 2016 book The Experimental Self, which interprets Davy’s career as a series of intellectual, methodological, and social performances, through which Davy fashioned (and then sometimes discarded) different identities or personae for himself. I find Golinski’s argument to be very persuasive, and, as a literary scholar, my main interest in Davy concerns the ways in which these various performances and identities (poet, philosopher, ‘man of science’) are constructed and conveyed in the language of his scientific and poetic writing.

What potential can you see for the digital edition of Davy’s notebooks?

My research on Davy’s notebooks at the Royal Institution was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career so far, and I think it’s wonderful that the digitisation of his notebooks by the Davy Notebooks Project is going to make them accessible to a much larger and wider readership. There is a wealth of material in them that hasn’t yet been fully studied, and that will be of interest to researchers not just in the history of science but in English literature and other subjects too. I use the Davy Notebooks Project in my teaching, because the notebooks are an exemplary demonstration of the ways in which different intellectual disciplines intersected with each other in the nineteenth century: sometimes, poems and records of experiments sit side-by-side on the same page. And the hands-on, citizen-science aspect of the Davy Notebooks Project is useful for students too: I ask students to have a go at transcribing some of Davy’s notes, which is an excellent introduction to the study of nineteenth-century manuscripts, and to the difficulty of reading nineteenth-century handwriting!

Aalia Ahmed and Lucia Scigliano on transcribing Davy at our in-person transcribe-a-thon at UCL

Dr Aalia Ahmed completed her PhD at Durham University with a thesis on science and religion in the poetry of John Addington Symonds. Dr Lucia Scigliano completed her PhD at Durham University with a thesis on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s apocalypticism. They both now work as English Editors for MDPI Journals, Manchester.

RI MS HD/03/A/1, p. 50 (click to enlarge)

RI MS HD/03/A/1, p. 53 (click to enlarge)

On Saturday 14 May, the Davy Notebooks Project organised an in-person transcribe-a-thon event, hosted at UCL. The day began with introductory talks delivered by Professor Sharon Ruston, Professor Frank James, Dr Andrew Lacey, and Dr Eleanor Bird which contextualised Humphry Davy and the project. We learnt about Davy’s humble and radical beginnings in Cornwall and Bristol and his scientific career, specifically electro-chemistry, as the notebook (RI MS HD/03/A/1) that we transcribed during the event contained Davy’s lecture notes on this branch of chemistry, dating from 1809. The talks also focused on the materiality and preservation of the notebooks, highlighting the challenges presented by the manuscripts, such as missing or torn pages and ever-fading pencil markings, but also the benefits of this project, particularly its aim to safeguard these precious materials by their digitisation for current and future generations. We then proceeded to the transcription activity itself, which proved to be fascinating and testing in equal measure!

Facing a new manuscript for the first time, however dextrous a copyist or analyst one is, is always a challenging task that requires becoming acquainted with an author’s writing style. At first, using the tools available on Zooniverse to zoom in and out of specific words was extremely helpful, when trying to disentangle the specific letters of Davy’s scientific scribblings. Eventually, we were able to pick up on letters that to us initially appeared to be shapes and patterns, and which gradually became recognisable and identifiable as his idiosyncrasies. Davy’s double ‘s’ characters, for example, appear, to the uninitiated eye, as a ‘p’ followed by a cursive ‘s’, and the word ‘phaenomena’ takes a now obsolete spelling with ‘ae’.

The event lasted for a few hours and this gave us time to glimpse the records of ideas vital to the progress of science. In one of the pages from the notebook (RI MS HD/03/A/1, p. 50), Davy refers to ‘experiments upon the structure of Heat’, a curious concept forcing us to engage our own imagination to envision the mechanisms of energy transfer. Another page from the same notebook presents Davy’s meditations on the nature of lightning and electricity, alluding to the scientific kite experiment that he ascribes to Benjamin Franklin. However, not all of Davy’s notes are circumscribed to his reflections on the experimental sciences. Another page from the manuscript offers lecture notes reflecting on the pioneering spirit and potentiality of British science. Davy refers to Francis Bacon and his contributions to philosophy and science, as well as to Isaac Newton, whom he champions as the ‘glory’ not only of England but also the human race. Davy encourages, in these pages, the promulgation of the spirit of innovation of ‘Englishmen’, proposing that the scientific advances and discoveries achieved in the British Isles have the ability to rival those of Europe (RI MS HD/03/A/1, p. 53).

Unfortunately, we were not lucky enough this time around to encounter any of Davy’s sketches or poetry, which appear in other notebooks. Since Davy tended to synthesise the cultures of the arts and sciences, it would have been a wonderful opportunity to be able to experience an instance of this done in his own hand. This has encouraged us to continue the transcribing process on Zooniverse in the hopes of chancing upon Davy’s scientific reflections presented in the language of poetry to further understand the interconnections between the two fields in the early nineteenth century. The event also allowed us to rediscover the wonderful world of manuscripts, which is always an exciting moment in any academic’s career, but digitally, which we had not yet experienced. The ability to zoom in and out of particular sections of the manuscript, when the handwriting is difficult to decipher or sentences are crossed out to the point of illegibility, is a distinct benefit of the digitised life of the manuscript that gives us the ability to move beyond the immediacy of the physical page and understand the creative and scientific processes informing the writing of the notebooks.

Participating in the editing process of the digital version of Davy’s manuscript notebook was an extraordinary experience. For us, the fact that the project is hosted via the Zooniverse platform is a particular asset to this endeavour as it offers the possibility of widening the project’s audience beyond academia and the UK and encouraging interdisciplinarity by collecting the diverse knowledge of all the volunteers who transcribe the notebooks. This has given many people from varied walks of life the chance to participate in and contribute to such a unique project and huge enterprise. Having the opportunity to consult and transcribe these notebooks brings us face to face with the (sometimes tortuous) inception of the many phenomena that we nowadays take for granted, forcing us to realise the importance of these discoveries and the long-lasting impact that they have on our quotidian and the ways in which we conduct our lives. It encourages us to reflect on how imagined possibilities become, one day, the facts of life that govern the ways by which we understand our position in the universe, thus influencing the way we live.

Zooniverse volunteer in the spotlight (#3: @TEHark)

This is the third in a new mini-series of posts about our lovely volunteers on Zooniverse. The spotlight pieces will focus on individual volunteers; they will allow us to learn a bit more about what motivates individuals to volunteer to transcribe Davy’s notebooks and what people’s particular interests in Davy might be.

Volunteer in the spotlight: @TEHark

1. What interests you about the project?

I have an undergraduate degree in Classical Languages and a graduate degree in Latin and Secondary Education, so I’ve worked quite a bit with old texts. While I never delved too much into reading manuscripts, I sometimes had to examine multiple potential readings, contend with mangled lines, and so on. Sometimes, if we’re very, very lucky, we have reliable accounts of what an author, for whatever reason, did not tell us in any given work. This project gives us the chance to do that with Humphry Davy.

2. Why are you enjoying it?

Deciphering old and sometimes messy handwriting is a kind of puzzle, and, combined with the interesting subject matter, I jumped in with both feet, as it were. They’re also a kind of window into the past. Beyond the writing, it’s neat to see a sketch, a smudge from a hand, a message to his assistants, or even damage from the occasional lab accident. Davy’s notebooks also show the broad range of his interests. I’ve transcribed notes, short stories, poetry, philosophy, travel, and, of course, experiments. Every page can be different, and occasionally even surprising!

3. Do you have any particular interest in Davy?

I got into the project because I recognized his name – primarily, I think, from his nitrous oxide experiments, with a vaguer sense of his work isolating certain elements. I have a long-standing interest in science and the history of science, and how we established the knowledge we take for granted today.

4. Are sciences and arts ‘separate’?

They are not as separate as we sometimes think they are! Davy excelled in communicating his work to various audiences, which is itself a kind of art. The arts can also be a way to imagine or consider what could be possible in science, not just what is possible right now.

5. What have you learned about Davy since joining the project?

It makes perfect sense now but seeing how Davy interacted with scientists and writers we still know today, both in the UK and across Europe, is really neat. I wasn’t aware of his connection to Michael Faraday, for instance, nor of him knowing Sir Walter Scott, Coleridge, or Wordsworth. I also learned that Davy did some research in geology, which was a relatively new field at the time.

6. Do you have any favourite pages of Davy’s notebooks?

There are numerous pages that I remember well, and it’s hard to choose!

In RI MS HD/22/C, there’s a really nice drawing of what could be a cave somewhere on Cornwall’s coast. The cave frames the scenery in an unusual way, and there are two figures in cloaks and hats in the center. Davy could be quite the artist!

In RI MS HD/15/J, there are some doodles. A lion with a rather heraldic look appears to bite a man’s hand.

In one of the laboratory notebooks (RI MS HD/07), it was really interesting to trace the change from oxymuriatic acid gas to chlorine. It was used a few times after the 1810 Bakerian Lecture, when Davy proposed the name, but then was abandoned, evidently because it wasn’t fully accepted. Only later in the following year did the notebook start using chlorine consistently.

Thank you, @TEHark!

If you’re a Zooniverse volunteer who’d like to be featured, please let us know on Talk, or by e-mail.