First lessons in chemistry by Uncle Davy by wppalmer []
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First lessons in chemistry.

by Davy, Uncle.;

  Print book : Juvenile audience

First lessons in chemistry by Uncle Davy   (2015-04-17)

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by wppalmer

Review of ‘First lessons in chemistry’ by Uncle Davy (James Hyatt)

CITATION: Hyatt, J. (Uncle Davy). (1839). First lessons in chemistry. New York: American Common School Union.

Reviewer: Dr W. P. Palmer.

First Lessons in Chemistry was written by James Hyatt using the pseudonym of ‘Uncle Davy’ when he was only twenty-two years old. The book is not currently online, though Palmer had suggested that it should be put online in 1998.The copyright details (within the book) indicate that the book was copyrighted on 25th January, 1839 and was first published by the American Common School Union. Hyatt must have been an early admirer of the English chemist Humphrey Davy as the frontispiece is a scene showing coal-mine with some miners being safe from explosions as they are using a Davy safety lamp, whilst others without the lamp are blown up. No full reviews have been found but frequent advertisements by Taylor & Clement. One advertisement for First Lessons in Chemistry states that ‘Chemistry in this juvenile work, is made pleasant by cuts and illustrations, and useful in the daily business of life’. Another advertisement in which First Lessons in Chemistry is listed with ‘the strong approval of Mr J. Orville Taylor, Secretary of the American School Society’ recommends that 'Uncle Davy's Chemistry be followed in higher schools by Comstock's'. The book exists in two editions, with the second edition being published by a different company (Saxton & Miles), but with the same number of pages and probably with only minor changes, if any. The book is still available second hand without undue difficulty, which suggests that it would have sold well. The book is ninety-four pages long, consisting of thirty-three short chapters. The preface to ‘First lessons in chemistry’ follows below:

My young friends,
I here send you some lessons, which if you read carefully, will be useful and amusing. You can find out from them many strange and curious things that in old times were unknown to the wisest men, and so you may know something more than your grandfathers, yet for all that you need not think yourselves wiser than they until you are older and more experienced. Many of you often suffer from accidents and diseases that you might easily escape if you should learn and remember all that I have now written; though the whole is no secret and has been told fifty times before. I have put in this little book (that you can all afford to buy) such things as can only be found in large volumes; and I hope that you will be wiser and happier when you have read them. UNCLE DAVY. New York.

Hyatt has directed this book at a young audience (perhaps at an elementary school level) and there was little competition in this area at the time. Richard Green (Green, 1845) wrote a similar elementary chemistry textbook (Williams, 1996). Mary Swift’s text First Lessons on Natural Philosophy for Children (First and second parts) (Swift, 1833; 1836) provided a physics text for younger readers (Palmer, 2011). At the age of twenty-two, Hyatt’s aim in writing a chemistry textbook for children is to help them understand chemistry in order to escape from accidents and disease at a price that they could afford. The initial impression is of a charming, nicely illustrated and easy to read little book, ideal for beginning to learn chemistry. Further investigation does lead to a tempering of that view as the book does contain errors that would have been known at that time although the book has its virtues too!

i. Caloric theory. Hyatt explained ‘caloric’ in the first three chapters of his book and frequently thereafter which gives this theory an undue emphasis. Antoine Lavoisier had postulated an invisible liquid, caloric, half a century earlier, 'Wherefore, we have distinguished the cause of heat, or that exquisitely elastic fluid which produces it, by the term of caloric.' (Lavoisier, 1806, p.1). Although caloric theory was accepted by some chemists into the twentieth century, its emphasis in this book makes the book appear old-fashioned for the 1840s.
ii. Usage of words ‘mixture’, ‘simple substance’ and ‘compound’. He wrote ‘air is a compound substance’ (Uncle Davy, 1846, p. 24) and there are several similar errors as he wrote ‘Fire-damp is a mixture of carbon and hydrogen...’ (Uncle Davy, 1846, p. 64).
iii. Uncle Davy (1846, p. 24) refers to lead ‘rusting’.
iv. Hyatt (Uncle Davy) is at his best when he refers to practical uses of chemistry with which his audience would have been familiar as Williams (1999) wrote:

‘A quaint 1839 American children's chemistry book presented the hydrogen lighter as a common household utensil, even used by young children:

And how shall we make some hydrogen?
Why you have made it many a time.
Have you not often lighted a candle from the glass jar on my table?
Yes; but did I make hydrogen then? [Uncle Davy, 1846, p. 36]’

v. Hyatt (Uncle Davy) is somewhat prone to exaggeration, for example, when he explained how to make a primitive oxy-hydrogen torch and stated that: ‘It will melt or burn all the metals and stones.’ (Uncle Davy, 1846, p. 43).

It is a book written by a young man with the best of intentions, but it contained too many errors. The book is recommended for its historical interest.


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