Chemistry & Physics

Davy, Humphry | The Bakerian Lecture on some Chemical Agencies of Electricity

  • First edition of the rare offprint of this important paper on electrolysis, presentation copy inscribed by Davy on the title, “from the Author”. Only one copy of the offprint appears in recent auction records, sold at Christies in 2008.

    Davy’s belief that “electricity was a force or power, not a substance” (ODNB) led to a remarkable series of experiments that laid the groundwork for his electrical theory of chemical affinity and raised British physical science to the same level as that being done in France.

    “In 1806 Davy was able to return to electrochemistry, and in November of that year it formed the subject of the Bakerian Lecture, which he delivered before the Royal Society. The first part of the lecture was concerned with the decomposition of water on electrolysis... Davy established that when pure water, redistilled in silver apparatus, was electrolyzed in gold or agate vessels in an atmosphere of hydrogen (so that nitrogen could not combine with the nascent hydrogen or oxygen), it was decomposed into oxygen and hydrogen only... Nobody had reasoned and experimented with a clarity approaching this. Davy then proceeded to discuss the use of electrolysis as a method of chemical analysis and the transport of substances during electrolysis, and to propose an electrical theory of chemical affinity... Davy found that the electrical condition of a substance can modify its chemical properties; negatively electrified zinc is inert, and positively electrified silver is reactive. This, and that an electric current decomposed compounds, led Davy to propose that chemical affinity is electrical” (DSB).

    This lecture was read on November 20, 1806, and the experiments described here led Davy to discover sodium and potassium the following year, and in 1808 barium, calcium and boron. “Davy's papers describing these researches were chosen as the Bakerian lectures of the Royal Society and marked him as one of the greatest men of science of the day. British science was provincial compared to that in Paris, but now patriots and upholders of freedom could rejoice that a Briton had given chemistry a new direction, making it seem the fundamental science” (ODNB).

    References: Source Book in Chemistry p. 243; Sparrow 52; Wheeler Gift 2511.

  • ...[Offprint] from the Philosophical Transactions. London: W. Bulmer and Co., 1807.

    Quarto. Recently bound to style in plain blue paper wrappers. Engraved plate. Spotting to contents, particularly the title and early leaves, two raised, reddish-brown spots to B4, and a short closed tear at the bottom edge of the same leaf. Very good condition.