Davy, Edward (DNB00)

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DAVY, EDWARD (1806–1885), scientific investigator, the eldest son of Thomas Davy, a surgeon resident at Ottery St. Mary, and with an extensive medical practice in that district of Devonshire, who married Elizabeth Boutflower, daughter of a literary gentleman living at Exeter, and the original of the fairy queen in Coleridge's ‘Songs of the Pixies,’ was born at Ottery on 16 June 1806. He was educated at the school of the Rev. Richard Houlditch in his native town, and by his maternal uncle, Mr. Boutflower, a schoolmaster in Tower Street, London. When about sixteen years old he was apprenticed to Charles Wheeler, house surgeon at St. Bartholomew's Hospital, with whom he lived for three years. In 1825 he gained the hospital prize for botany, passed the Apothecaries' Hall in 1828, and became a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1829. Shortly afterwards he bought, as he supposed, a medical practice at 390 Strand, but soon discovered that he had been taken in, the business being that of a dispensing chemist. In this establishment he thereupon began to trade as an operative chemist, under the title of Davy & Co., and to supply the scientific apparatus which his studies had enabled him to modify or to improve. In 1836 he published ‘An Experimental Guide to Chemistry,’ and at the end is printed a catalogue, occupying seventeen pages, of the instruments on sale at his shop, in which occur such special articles as ‘Davy's blow-pipe’ and ‘Davy's improved mercurial trough.’ In 1835 he invented and patented a cement called ‘Davy's diamond cement,’ for mending broken china and glass, and for many years it brought him a small annual profit. It was at this period of his life that Davy undertook those experiments in electric telegraphy by which his name is still kept green in scientific circles. Even at that date he had a very clear perception ‘of the requirements and capabilities’ of an electric telegraph, and to him is due the honour of inventing the ‘relay,’ or, as he called it, the ‘electric renewer.’ These ideas had been brooding in his mind for some years, but in 1836 they shaped themselves into his ‘Outline of a new plan of telegraphic communication.’ Very early in 1837 he obtained permission from the office of woods and forests to lay down a mile of copper wire around the inner circle of the Regent's Park, through which, with the help of a friend, many successful experiments were obtained. In May of the same year he endeavoured to stop the granting of their first patent to his rivals, Cooke and Wheatstone, for their inventions, but his efforts were not attended with success. A working model of his instruments, in which his improvements were brought down to date, was shown at the close of 1837 at the Belgrave Institution, London, and attracted much attention. Still greater publicity was drawn to his invention of the needle telegraph when an exhibition of his apparatus was opened at Exeter Hall on 29 Dec. 1837. He applied for a patent for his electro-chemical recording telegraph, and in spite of the opposition of his rivals the specification was granted on 4 July 1838. There was a confident expectation on the part of his family that his discoveries would secure for him both fame and fortune, but his prospects were marred by his sailing from the Thames for Australia as the medical superintendent of an emigrant ship on 15 April 1839. He believed that his venture had been perfected, and that his future success would not be impaired by his absence from England, but the attempts of his father and friends to finish his inventions after he had taken this ill-advised step resulted in failure. Another exhibition of his apparatus which was set on foot in 1839–40 ended in disappointment, the machines were sent down to Ottery at the close of the latter year, and after forty years of neglect were broken up and sold as old metal. His patent was bought up by the old Electric Telegraph Company for 600l., and quietly allowed to lapse.

In his new home Davy showed abundant energy. Farming was his first pursuit, but this occupation was quickly abandoned, and he took to literary occupations. He contributed to the ‘Melbourne Argus,’ and from 1843–5 was engaged as editor of the ‘Adelaide Examiner,’ and his friends record that while engaged in newspaper life he published a prediction, soon to be realised in fact, that certain districts of Australia were auriferous. In 1848 he became the manager of the copper smelting works at Yatala, and the establishment was carried on with great prosperity until 1851, when the departure of the workmen for the goldfields led to its being closed. When the government assay office was opened at Adelaide in 1852 the operations were placed under Davy's charge, and in this post he showed such skill and judgment that the Victorian government when establishing a similar department at Melbourne tempted him with a liberal salary of 1,500l. per annum to take charge as superintendent of the practical section of the office. This handsome pay he only enjoyed from July 1853 to December 1854, when the assay department was abolished by Sir Charles Hotham. Davy again took to farming, and again without profit to himself. He thereupon settled at Malmesbury, Victoria, as a surgeon, and laboured energetically in his profession and in the local affairs of that town. For more than twenty years he was a magistrate, for twenty-five years he gratuitously held the office of medical officer of health for the district, and on three occasions he was mayor of the town. At the close of his life attention was drawn by Mr. Fahie to Davy's scientific discovery, and the distinction of honorary member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians was conferred upon him in November 1884. Davy died at Malmesbury on 27 Jan. 1885. By his first wife, Mary Ann Bryant, he had one son, George Boutflower Davy, now an official in the land registration court of New Zealand. She died about 1877, and he married again about 1880, leaving behind him at his death a widow and an infant child. Under brighter auspices Davy's fame might have been worldwide. A mass of papers relating to his career were deposited by his nephew, Henry Davy, M.D., of Exeter, with the Society of Telegraph Engineers.

[Melbourne Argus, 28 Jan. 1885; Short Memoir of Edward Davy by his nephew Henry Davy, M.D., reprinted from Electrician, vol. xi. 1883; Honour to whom honour is due; Fahie's Edward Davy and the Electric Telegraph, reprinted from Electrician, vol. xi. 1883; Fahie's Electric Telegraphy to 1837, pp. 349–447, 516–529; Electrician, xiv. 50, 287 (1884–5); Mechanics' Mag. xxviii. 261, 295, 327*, xxx. 101 (1838–9).]

W. P. C.