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Davy, Edward (1806–1885)

by William O. Gibberd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Edward Davy (1806-1885), medical practitioner, was born on 16 June 1806 at Ottery St Mary, Devonshire, England, the son of Thomas Davy, who had an extensive medical practice at Ottery and was a house surgeon at Guy's Hospital, London. Edward Davy was educated at a school kept by his maternal uncle in Tower Street, London, and then apprenticed to Dr Wheeler, house surgeon at St Bartholomew's Hospital. He gained the prize for botany in 1825, passed the Apothecary's Hall in 1828 and the Royal College of Surgeons in 1829. His early interest appears to have been more in fundamental sciences, particularly chemistry and electricity, than in the practice of medicine. Soon after he graduated, his father bought him a business in The Strand, but instead of a medical practice, it turned out to be that of a dispensing chemist, and Davy began trade as an operative chemist under the name of Davy & Co. In 1836 he published a small work Experimental Guide to Chemistry, at the end of which was a catalogue of instruments and other goods supplied by his firm.

In 1835-38 Davy experimented extensively with the electric telegraph. His work was reviewed nearly fifty years later by J. J. Fahie, who claimed that Davy, at least equally with his rivals and contemporaries, Cooke and Wheatstone, was the inventor of the electric telegraph. Certainly Davy gave many lectures and wrote papers on this subject. These papers show a clear understanding of the principles of electro-magnetism. He demonstrated the operation of the telegraph over a mile of wire laid in Regents Park, and exhibited a working model giving telegraphic communication between two rooms in Exeter Hall, London. He certainly invented the electric relay; in his experiments it consisted of a magnetic needle which dipped into a mercury contact when an electric current passed through the surrounding coil. In recognition of this work he was elected an honorary member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1885 and was informed of this by telegraph a few days before his death.

In 1838 Davy migrated to South Australia unaccompanied by his first wife and son. At the time he had been involved in litigation over his patents on the electric telegraph. His intention on leaving England was to take up land, but he did not become a successful settler in South Australia. The Adelaide Lands Titles Office shows fifteen land transactions in his name, principally in the town area. He was a prominent Adelaide citizen from 1839 to 1852. His election to the municipal council and his interest in improving the city's water supply and in other civic affairs made him an appropriate, if temporary, editor of the Adelaide Examiner in June and July 1842; although his editorials were striking they showed little evidence of literary style. His interest in science remained, and in 1843 he experimented successfully with the production of starch from wheat, then at a low price. He was elected president of the Port Adelaide Mechanics' Institute at its inaugural meeting in 1851 and the minutes record him as a 'Gentleman of Scientific Attainments'. At least once in the period to 1845 he resumed his profession of medical practitioner.

With the development of copper mines in South Australia, Davy established an experimental kiln for smelting copper ore using charcoal from local forests, a process for which he was given a South Australian patent in September 1849. In December 1845 he smelted ore to produce about 50 per cent copper. In December 1847 the Adelaide Smelting Co. was established near Alberton, with a capital of £10,000. Davy was a director and manager for three years. Through lack of capital and failure to gain the commitment of the Burra Mining Co.'s ore, his company, which had been producing some 1½ tons of copper a day by 1849, failed. In February 1852 Davy was appointed chief assayer of the Government Assay Office in Adelaide, which was temporarily empowered to issue gold tokens as currency.

In July 1853 Davy was appointed assay master in Melbourne, at a salary of £1500. When this office was abolished in October 1854, he took up farming near Malmsbury, Victoria. He was not successful and soon moved into Malmsbury where he practised as a physician for the rest of his life. Here again he became active in local affairs, was three times mayor, and for more than twenty years an active justice of the peace and health officer. He was also elected as correspondent of the Malmsbury Common School's local committee which had duties such as appointing teachers, erecting and maintaining the school and negotiating with the government for financial support. He held this position continuously until 1880. He died at Malmsbury on 26 January 1885.

Davy married three times. His first wife Mary Minshull, was English and they had one son, George Boutflower Davy. His second wife was Rebecca Soper, by whom he had a large family before she died at Malmsbury in 1877. He then marred Arabella Cecil who survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Fahie, History of Electric Telegraphy (Lond, 1884)
  • F. E. Meleng, Fifty Years of the Port Adelaide Institute (Adel, 1902)
  • J. J. Fahie ‘Edward Davy and the Electric Telegraph, 1836-39’, Electrician, 7 July 1883
  • South Australian, 10 Dec 1845
  • Adelaide Times, 23 Apr 1849.

Citation details

William O. Gibberd, 'Davy, Edward (1806–1885)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davy-edward-1966/text2373, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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