From Alchemy to Chemistry:
Five Hundred Years of Rare and Interesting Books

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Rare Book Room Exhibit

DAVY, HUMPHRY (1778 - 1829). Elements of Chemical Philosophy. London, 1812.

In 1812 Davy published part I of Elements of Chemical Philosophy, containing a very readable account of that part of the field in which he had worked. Reviewers guessed that part II, which would cover the rest of the science, would never appear, and they were right; Davy could never have produced a systematic treatise. In the course of his researches, Davy tried breathing nitrous oxide and discovered its anesthetic properties. He also suggested that the gas might be employed in minor surgical operations and gave a series of subjective accounts of nitrous oxide anesthesia, which are among the best on record. But nobody took any notice of this recommendation; instead, breathing nitrous oxide for the delightful feeling of intoxication became the rage. Davy proceeded to try other gases, including nitric oxide and carbon monoxide; he later warned his brother against perilous experiments of this kind. In 1800 Davy had concluded that oxygen and hydrogen, in the theoretical proportions, were the only products of the electrolysis of pure water, and in 1807 Davy described the discovery of potassium by electrolysis of slightly damp fused potash. Globules of silvery matter collected at the negative pole; most of these caught fire, but some could be collected. These globules were pure potassium; later, Davy discovered sodium by a similar method. Davy danced about the room in ecstatic delight; he likened the potassium to substances imagined by alchemical visionaries.


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