S ir Humphry Davy once nearly killed himself, when he inhaled carbon monoxide to see what the effects would be. Michael Faraday almost blew his hand off while investigating the properties of nitrogen trichloride. John Tyndall was drawn to death-defying feats of mountaineering in the Alps, because he wanted to understand how glaciers worked.
Risking their necks in the name of knowledge, all three of these scientists were once resident professors at the Royal Institution in Mayfair, living in rooms on the second floor where I now work as a writer for the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Yet perhaps the bravest of this building’s 19th-century professors was the one most often overlooked.
His name was Sir James Dewar. He died a century ago this month. As well as being the inventor of the thermos flask, he was once credited with having won World War I.
T hat claim takes some unpacking. The short version is that Dewar invented cordite: a smokeless replacement for gunpowder used by British soldiers in the trenches. Yet the story is a bit more complicated.