Elemental Priestley

Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen on this day in 1774. In the early 1770s several other European scientists, working independently and using the same experimental method as Priestley, also identified the unique properties of “dephlogisicated air,” as Priestley called it. But Priestley was the first to publish, and given the wide scope of his other interests and discoveries — his 500 published books and pamphlets range over grammar, education, science, politics, religion, and more — history has happily granted him the oxygen discovery. As if himself elemental, Priestley stands today as a metaphor not only for the inquiring mind but also for the confidence that all inquiry must converge and conquer:

This rapid progress of knowledge, which, like the progress of a wave of the sea, of sound, or of light from the sun, extends itself not this way or that way only, but in all directions, will, I doubt not, be the means, under God, of extirpating all error and prejudice, and of putting an end to all undue and usurped authority in the business of religion, as well as of science; and all the efforts of the interested friends of corrupt establishments of all kinds will be ineffectual for their support in this enlightened age…. [T]he English hierarchy (if there be any thing unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble even at an air-pump, or an electrical machine. (From Priestley’s Preface to the six-volume Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air)

Steven Johnson’s recent The Invention of Air begins with the sixty-one-year-old Priestly on the high seas in 1794, immigrating to the United States. Driven out of England by hostility to his views on religion (he was a Unitarian) and politics (he supported the French and American Revolutions), Priestley would spend his last decade in Pennsylvania, a kindred and kindling spirit to Thomas Johnson and John Adams (as he was earlier to Benjamin Franklin):

What they shared was a fundamental belief that the world could change — that it could improve — if the light of reason was allowed to shine upon it. And that belief emanated from the great ascent of science over the past century…. The political possibilities for change were modeled after the change they had all experienced through the advancements in natural philosophy. With Priestley, they grasped the political power of the air pump and the electrical machine. 

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.