Davy's Elements (1805-1824)

Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was a famous chemist of the early 19th century who developed a popular lecture tradition for the public at the Royal Institution in London that persists to this day. He is also highly honoured in his hometown of Penzance, Cornwall for his invention of the miner’s safety lamp. But he is best known for the discovery of the active metals in their metallic form.

Previously, sodium, potassium, calcium, and others of the alkali and alkaline earth families had been known only in their compound form, such as caustic potash (potassium hydroxide), natron (sodium carbonate) or limestone (calcium carbonate). Davy developed an electrolysis technique, which enabled him to produce the pure form of these active metals, each of which would react rapidly with the atmosphere or with water to revert to the original compound form.

Explore the elements by decade:

Read more: "Humphry Davy and the voltaic pile," a Chem 13 News article by James Marshall.

1805-1814: sodium, potassium, boron, calcium, iodine

Sodium, 11

Pen and watercolor on paper. Sir Humphrey Davy’s head appears hovering over a landscape of the village Podkoren. Chemical symbol “Na” and atomic number “11” are prominently featured to the right. At the bottom of the landscape are sodium chloride (table salt) crystals.
Gimnazija Jesenice
Jesenice, Slovenia
Teacher: mag. Natalija Bohinc Zaveljcina
Artist: Ana Ajša Vičar

Sodium was discovered by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1807. He also travelled a lot and was in our country for a few times (Slovenia, Europe). He was amazed by the beauty of our mountains. He especially adored a very small alpine village called Podkoren. There is an old house with a memorial plate in his honour. The image includes crystals of sodium chloride below, the village Podkoren and our green mountains and woods and Davy´s portrait.

Potassium, 19

Charcoal on paper. Portrait of Sir Humphry Davy appears top left. Chemical symbol “K” and atomic number “19” below. Right are foods containing potassium, including fruits, vegetables, milk plus a nerve cell. Bottom is the original experiment between potassium and water. 19 silver balls dot the bright blue background.
Middlefield Collegiate Institute/YRDSB
Markham, Ontario, Canada
Teacher: Alison MacPherson
Artist: Zhiyang Su

In 1807 Sir Humphry Davy discovered the element potassium which is why his image was included. The experiment shown at the bottom of the artwork is the reaction of potassium and water forming potassium hydroxide and hydrogen gas. Davy conducted this experiment with Faraday in 1808. The 19 silver balls represent the 19 electrons in potassium. The food on the top right side represents the food containing a high level of potassium. The nerve drawn in the artwork was included because getting enough potassium from your diet can help to maintain healthy nerve function.

Boron, 5

 discovered in 1808” written to look like the Borax box. Below, the periodic table tile with “B”, atomic number 5 and atomic weight 10.81, plus the chemical structure of the Borax salt with “Davy, Gay-Lussac, and Thénard” highlighted.
Mount Allison University
Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada
Teacher: Stephen Westcott
Artist: Eric G. Bowes

Boron – The Fifth Element - was discovered in 1808 by Sir Humphry Davy, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, and Louis Jacques Thénard in experiments on boric acid. Borax, the sodium salt of boric acid, is a naturally occurring mineral that is used daily for many purposes in society, including the production of detergents, anti-fungal agents, and materials. Our artwork is stylized to represent the iconic packaging of commercial borax and features the [B4O5(OH)4]2- anion present in the molecular structure of the salt.

Calcium, 20

Digital composite featuring Sir Humphrey Davy holding a test tube. Chemical symbol “Ca”, plus the atomic number “20” and “1808”. Background features an atomic Bohr model and crystals.
Jean Vanier Catholic Secondary School
Milton, Ontario, Canada
Teacher: Karen Caruana
Artist: Nicole Roasa

In 1808 calcium was first isolated by Sir Humphry Davy, a chemist, inventor and at the time Britain’s leading scientist. He conducted many experiments to reduce moist lime by electrolysis, similarly to producing sodium and potassium, with often unsuccessful results. Through further experimentations, however, he electrolyzed a mixture of lime and mercuric oxide together, which allowed him to isolate and discover calcium.

Iodine, 53

 1. Bernard Courtois discovered iodine in 1811; 2. Iodine was first discovered from seaweed during manufacturing of salt petre; 3. On heating iodine forms a violet gas and because of this in 1812 Gray Lussac named it as iode; 4. In 1814 Sir Humphrey Davy renamed it as iodine from iode; 5. In 1895 Baumann discovered iodine present in human thyroid gland; 6. David Marine proved that goiter is caused by lack of iodine in diet. Thus iodine became essential for human.
Samtse College of Education, Royal University of Bhutan
Samtse, Samtse, Bhutan
Teacher: Nandu Giri
Artist: Tenzin Sonam

First students collected information about the timeline element iodine from library. Students took one week to read and understand about the properties and uses of iodine. Then students shared their knowledge through cooperative learning strategy. They selected six important points for the hexagon, including its discovery in 1811. Students designed the hexagon with art work and inserted each point in the hexagon. The emphasis of this activity was on cooperative learning and creativity.

Back to the top.

1815-1824: lithium

Lithium, 3

Colored pencil on white paper. Simple periodic table tile of “Li” surrounded by August Arwedson who “Discovered lithium in 1817”, Magenta flames, Swedish flag, bottle of lithium pills and a lithium battery.

Wembley Primary School
Wembley, Western Australia, Australia
Teacher: Susanna Webber
Artist: Ella Teh

Lithium is a chemical element on the Periodic Table with the symbol Li and the atomic number 3. I drew the Swedish flag because lithium was discovered in Sweden. I illustrated Johan August Arfwedson because he discovered this chemical element in 1817. The magenta colour at the top of my artwork represents the magenta flame that lithium produces. I also included images of lithium pills and lithium batteries. Lithium can be found in pills used to prevent illnesses such as depression and manic syndrome. Lithium batteries are frequently used to power electric cars, some computers and medical devices.

Back to the top.