Online course and exhibition shine light on Sir Humphry Davy

Sir Humphry Davy portrait © Portrait of Sir Humphry Davy by H.W. Pickersgill after Thomas Lawrence 1831 by courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain

British inventor Sir Humphry Davy’s chemical experiments – complete with a re-creation of a spectacular demonstration of how he thought a volcano worked – together with his life and historical times will be available for all to see and hear next month.

A revamped, free, online Lancaster University course, substantially revised, updated, and capturing more about the chemist (and poet) will get underway on Monday, October 9.

New aspects include recently transcribed poems, some of the sketches found in his notebooks, first-hand accounts of Davy in the laboratory at the Royal Institution performing some of his most famous experiments, and evidence of his links to transatlantic slavery.

The Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC), created by a team of experts from the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, will also consider his lectures at the Royal Institution, the links between Davy, the Romantic poets (including William Wordsworth and Coleridge) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, as well as some of Davy’s own poetry and the famous miners’ safety lamp he invented. The MOOC will close with a look at Davy’s legacy.

The course has been developed to include some of the new findings made during the last few years on the Davy Notebooks Project.

More than 3000 volunteers have almost finished transcribing 75 of Davy’s notebooks via the platform Zooniverse.

Professor Sharon Ruston, who leads the Davy research project and MOOC, said: “We are still trying to finish this mammoth task, which will result in the transcription of more than 10,000 pages of Davy’s chemical, poetical, and personal writing. We would welcome more people to help us get over the finish line.

“If you’ve helped us with this task already, we’re extremely grateful. This course will tell you about Davy’s life and career and give you some context to the transcription that you’ve been doing.

“The course is open to all. If you’ve done it before, you’ll hopefully enjoy the new material that we’ve included. There are some new steps, new activities, and lots of new resources which the project team have created over the past few years including online talks, articles and blog posts.”

As with the previous MOOC, participants can do as much or as little of the course as they choose and take it at their own pace.

“That said,” added Professor Ruston, “we’ll start each new week on the Monday and sum up on the Friday. Someone from the project team will be available every day to respond to your queries and help moderate the discussion. We hope people will enjoy the course!”

You can join here:

In celebration of the Davy Notebooks Project, which draws to a close early next year, an exhibition on the findings has opened at the Royal Institution in Great Britain, in the building where the famous early nineteenth-century chemist worked and lectured in Albemarle Street in London from 1801-12.

The exhibition runs at the Royal Institution from Tuesday, September 12, 2023, to Friday, November 3, 2023. It will then move to Northumberland County Hall from Wednesday 8 November 2023 to Friday 12 January 2024. The final destination is the Wordsworth Trust in Grasmere, where it will be run from Tuesday, January 16, 2024 to Saturday, March 23, 2024.

The exhibition will showcase several original Davy manuscripts and focus on his lectures, geology, chemistry, links with the slave trade, his poetry and the Davy lamp.

Activities associated with the exhibition, including teaching resources for schools, a talk at Northumberland County Hall on November 15, a Davy Poetry Reading Workshop in Morpeth Library on January 11 and a webinar for the Wordsworth Trust on January 25.

For more details: social media (@davynotebooks) or email

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