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Humphry Davy as Geologist, 1805–29

  • Robert Siegfried (a1) and R. H. Dott (a2)

When Charles Lyell was writing his Principles of geology early in 1830, he interpolated five chapters between a recently written historical account of the science and the main body of textual material whose structure had long been determined. These added chapters contained not only Lyell's effort ‘to express the consequences of the uniformity of nature in the history of the earth’, but also his general arguments against the catastro-phic-progressionist interpretation, which he felt obliged to refute. In Chapter IX, the final one in the introductory sections, Lyell chose as representative of the progressionist view, Sir Humphry Davy, ‘a late distinguished writer’ who had ‘advanced some of the weightiest of these objections’ to Lyell's own steady-state view of the earth. No other defender of the progressionist history of the earth was named in Lyell's chapter, and we might well ask, why Humphry Davy? Was he merely an easy target for Lyell's refutations, a straw man set up by Lyell for his own rhetorical convenience?

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1Wilson, Leonard G., Charles Lyell. The years to 1841: the revolution in geology (New Haven and London, 1972), p. 278.
2Lyell, Charles, Principles of geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth's surface by reference to causes now in operation (3 vols., London, 18301833), i. 144.
3Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘The foundation of the Geological Society of London: its scheme for co-operative research and its struggle for independence’, The British journal for the history of science, i (19621963), 325–55.
4 This general summary of Davy's geological activities is based on the information scattered throughout the two basic biographies: Paris, John Ayrton, The life of Sir Humphry Davy (London, 1831),
and Davy, John, Memoirs of the life of Sir Humphry Davy (2 vols., London, 1836).
5 The archives of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, in facsimile: Minutes of the managers' meetings, 1799–1900 (London, 1971–in progress), iii. 304,
meeting of 18 June 1804; and Paris, John Ayrton, iv. 9, meeting of 11 January 1805.
6The collected works of Sir Humphry Davy, ed. Davy, John (9 vols., London, 18391840), viii. 156.
7 Lecture 2. These lectures have never been published and exist in manuscript in the archives of the Royal Institution in London, each in an unpaginated, bound notebook. Lectures 1 to 5 are in the Davy MSS., box 16, and lectures 6 to 10 are in box 17.
8Davy, John
9Davy, John, lecture 4.
10Davy, John
11Davy, John, lecture 5.
12Davy, John, lecture 9.
13Davy, , op. cit. (4), ii. 140. The letter is dated 28 September.
14 Op. cit. (7), lecture 8.
15Davy, , lecture 5.
16Davy, , lecture 7.
18Rudwick, M. J. S., ‘Hutton and Werner compared: George Greenough's geological tour of Scotland in 1805’, The British journal for the history of science, i (19621963), 117–35 (124).
19 Op. cit. (7), lecture 7.
20Rudwick, M. J. S.
21Davy, , op. cit. (4), i. 481. The letter is dated 18 March 1814.
22Davy, , ii. 166. The letter is dated 1 September 1823.
23 Op. cit. (7), lecture 3.
24 Royal Institution, Davy MSS., notebook 15i.
25 Quoted in Davy, John, Fragmentary remains, literary and scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart (London, 1858), pp. 201–2.
26 Op. cit. (7), lecture 10.
27Collected works of Davy, op. cit. (6), vii. 40–1.
28Davy, John, vii. 41.
29Davy, John, ix. 295.
30Davy, John, ix. 302–3.
31Lyell, Principles, op. cit. (2), i. 145.
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  • ISSN: 0007-0874
  • EISSN: 1474-001X
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