DAVY, Edward (1806-1885)


DAVY, Edward (1806-1885)
one of the inventors of the electric telegraph
was the son of Thomas Davy, a surgeon. He was born at Ottery, St Mary, Devonshire, on 6 June 1806, and was educated at a school kept by his maternal uncle, a Mr Boutflower, in London. When about 16 years of age he was apprenticed to C. Wheeler, resident medical officer at St Bartholomew's hospital, London. He passed qualifying examinations at Apothecaries Hall in 1828, and the Royal College of Surgeons in 1829, and practised as a physician for some years. He then began a business as an operative chemist and in 1836 published An Experimental Guide to Chemistry. In a catalogue at the end of the volume mention is made of his modification of instruments such as "Davy's Blow-pipe", "Davy's Improved Mercurial Trough" etc., and he had also patented a cement for mending broken china and glass. He had been experimenting for some time on the electric telegraph and the best mode of working the stations. A working model embodying his improvements was shown from November to December 1837 at the Belgrave Institution, London, and afterwards until 10 November 1838 in Exeter Hall. He had endeavoured to patent his instrument but there was opposition from Cooke and Wheatstone. The specification was, however, sealed on 4 July 1838. In 1839 Davy went to South Australia intending to take up land. Before leaving he had written to his father saying "I have perfected, as far as I can, secured and made public the telegraph. What remains, i.e. to make the bargain with the companies when they are ready and willing, can be managed by an agent or attorney as well as if I were present". In this Davy was mistaken. The patent was later on sold for a comparatively small sum, and for a long period his work was forgotten.
In South Australia Davy was editor of the Adelaide Examiner from 1843 to 1845, in 1848 he began managing the Yatala smelting works, and in 1852 he had operative charge of the government assay office. In July 1853 he went to Melbourne to a similar position at a salary of £1500 a year. About 18 months later the assay office was abolished and Davy took up land near Malmsbury, Victoria. His farming was not very successful, so he removed to Malmsbury and practised as a physician for the remainder of his life. He took an interest in municipal affairs and was three times mayor of the town. In 1883 his claims to honour as an inventor were brought forward in the Electrician, London, and he was elected an honorary member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers. In Melbourne R. L. J. Ellery (q.v.) drew attention to Davy's work at the November 1883 meeting of the Royal Society of Victoria. A sub-committee was appointed to make further inquiries, which reported at the December meeting that they were convinced Dr Davy had helped in the development of the electric telegraph, but that so many were working at the problem in 1838 "it was advisable to be cautious in assigning different degrees of merit to the various workers. The chief point in Dr Davy's favour was that he was the first to form a distinct conception of the relay system". Dr Davy was unanimously elected an honorary member of the society. He died at Malmsbury on 26 January 1885. He was married more than once and was survived by sons and daughters.
It is practically impossible now to determine the exact value of Davy's work. The article on the electric telegraph in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica does not mention his name. There is a life of him in the Dictionary of National Biography which gives him "the honour of inventing the 'relay', or, as he called it the 'electric renewer'".
J. J. Fahie, who unknown to Davy revived his claims, considered that "it is certain that, in those days, he had a clearer grasp of the requirements and capabilities of an electric telegraph than probably, Cooke and Wheatstone themselves, and had he been taken up by capitalists, and his ideas licked into shape by actual practice, as theirs were, he would have successfully competed for a share of the profits and honours".
J. J. Fahie, A History of Electric Telegraphy to the year 1837, pp. 349-447 and pp. 516-29; Transactions and Proceedings, Royal Society of Victoria, vol. XXI, p. 150; The Argus and The Age, Melbourne, 27 January 1885. See also The Electrician, vols. XI and XIV which the writer was unable to consult.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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