The Decline of Davy's Reputation

As President of the Royal Society Davy felt that it should become a purely scientific society. This had caused a great deal of opposition however; but he felt that he could overcome this by founding an elite society for nonscientific people who would otherwise have wanted to join the Royal Society. Faraday was to be the secretary of the club and he canvassed potential eminent men such as artists, philosophers, writers and other members of the intelligentsia. The society was to be called the Athenaeum and it held it's first meeting in 1824.

Faraday was offered a salaried position but he turned it down. However he became a member and still continued to work for the society but finally resigned in 1851. He later claimed that his membership of the society had cost him a small fortune and a great deal of work; and the only benefit he had gained from it was a single dinner! In the meanwhile though Davy's popularity plummeted as he tried to force through his changes.

Worse was afoot though. In 1823 the British Navy was suffering from budget cuts. A major item of expenditure was replacing the copper sheeting which covered the wooden ships under the waterline in order to protect them from wood boring organisms (hence the origins of the term 'copper bottomed'). This sheeting was found to be deteriorating rapidly in oxygenated water, although not in water that was devoid of oxygen.

Davy concluded that there was an electrochemical reaction between the copper and the oxygenated salt water. Copper is a more electronegative metal than most, and he felt, rightly, that attaching zinc, a more electro-positive metal could cancel this out, and solve the problem. Faraday conducted most of the experiments and when he showed his results to the Admiralty the process was adopted. Unfortunately, like many treatments, there were side-effects!

Ships were being encrusted, below the waterline, with limpets, barnacles, and all manner of fouling. This was greatly reducing the speed and manoeuvrability of the ships and it was necessary for them to go into dry dock to be thoroughly cleaned. The reason? Whilst the copper had been decaying prior to the application of the zinc it had created salts which were toxic to sea life, which prevented this contamination. A problem had been solved, only for a worse one to be created.

The order went out that all these treatments were to be removed; coupled with the cleaning of the copper sheeting this was a mammoth, and expensive, undertaking. Their Lordships of the Admiralty were enraged and someone had to carry the can. Fairly or not Davy was blamed and not long afterwards he resigned as president of the Royal Society, whilst Faraday's reputation took hardly a dent.

Prior to this problem becoming apparent, however, Davy had undertaken another project to improve optical glass, which had as it's first aim the creation of better navigational instruments. Faraday's job was to actually make the glass; by 1827 a glass furnace had been installed at the Royal Institution and he started work. It was a task which, despite the expenditure of a huge amount of time and effort, he ultimately failed at. Perhaps this was because his heart wasn't really in the project; he felt that there were other research projects that he would rather be dealing with. Davy however was blamed for the project's failure.

By 1829 Davy had solved the problem by dying; the whole project founded and Faraday was free to leave it and take up a post as Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich. For more than 20 years he taught chemistry to cadets of the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery.