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The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America

The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America

4.1 23
by Steven Johnson

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Look out for Johnson’s new book, Wonderland, now on sale.

From the bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Ghost Map and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new national bestseller: the “exhilarating”( Los Angeles Times) story of Joseph Priestley, “a founding father long


Look out for Johnson’s new book, Wonderland, now on sale.

From the bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Ghost Map and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new national bestseller: the “exhilarating”( Los Angeles Times) story of Joseph Priestley, “a founding father long forgotten”(Newsweek) and a brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America's Founding Fathers.

In The Invention of Air, national bestselling author Steven Johnson tells the fascinating story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and theologian, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-century radical thinker who played pivotal roles in the invention of ecosystem science, the discovery of oxygen, the uses of oxygen, scientific experimentation, the founding of the Unitarian Church, and the intellectual development of the United States. As he did so masterfully in The Ghost Map, Steven Johnson uses a dramatic historical story to explore themes that have long engaged him: innovative strategies, intellectual models, and the way new ideas emerge and spread, and the environments that foster these breakthroughs.

Editorial Reviews

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This exciting saga about a brilliant 18th-century iconoclast matches a talented storyteller with a superb subject.

Internationally famous in his own time, British polymath Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is best remembered today, if at all, as the discoverer of oxygen, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, and other "different kinds of airs." Few of us know that this eminent scientist was also a prominent participant in the early shaping of the American Republic. Steven Johnson's riveting The Invention of Air renders that story with all its implicit drama, tracking this protean thinker through an active life punctuated by controversy. In England, Priestley's radical religious views and support of the French Revolution made him the target of violent riots; when he and his family emigrated to the United States in 1794, his ideas and writings became political lightning rods, influencing many thinkers, most significantly Thomas Jefferson. This carefully researched narrative by the author of The Ghost Map provides a revealing view of a history we thought we knew.
Russell Shorto
Johnson's new book, The Invention of Air, shows its genre-mixing in its subtitle; it uses Priestley as the fulcrum for a story that blends "science, faith, revolution and the birth of America." What enlivens the book is that Johnson does not simply describe the system within which Priestley and his contemporaries hashed out the features of classical science; he sets it against other, later systems for comprehending physical reality, showing laymen how far we have come from the classical age of science.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly


Reviewed bySimon Winchester

This is an intelligent retelling of a rather well-known story, that of Joseph Priestley, the Yorkshire dissenting theologian and chemist, and then went on to emigrate to America and advised the creators of the new republic-Thomas Jefferson, most notably-on how best to run their country.

Steven Johnson, who has a fine reputation for discerning trends and for his iconoclastic appreciation of popular culture, chooses his topics well. His most recent book, The Ghost Map, looked at the story-also very familiar-of the London cholera epidemic of 1854, and of the heroic epidemiologist, John Snow, who discovered the ailment's origins and path of transmission. It was a good story, but essentially a simple one.

With Priestley, Johnson has now taken on a subject that is every bit as complex and multifaceted as any of the Quentin Tarantino films he so admires. Priestley was a scientist, true, and his meditations on the exhalations of gases from mint leaves and the curiosities of phlogiston and "fixed air," his discoveries of sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide, ammonia gas-and oxygen, most importantly-and his relationship with his French rival Lavoisier have been the stuff of schoolroom chemistry lessons for more than two centuries.

But it is his politically liberal and spiritually dissenting views that underpin the story that Johnson chooses to tell-views that led in 1794 to Priestley, whose house in Birmingham had been sacked by rioters, emigrating to America, thereby becoming "the first great scientist-exile, seeking safe harbour in America after being persecuted for his religious and politicalbeliefs at home. Albert Einstein, Otto Frisch, Edward Teller, Xiao Qiang-they would all follow in Priestley's footsteps."

Johnson unearths an interesting and illuminating statistic: in the 165 letters that passed between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the name Benjamin Franklin is mentioned five times, George Washington three times, Alexander Hamilton twice-and Joseph Priestley, a foreign immigrant, is cited no fewer than 52 times. The influence of the man-he was a fervent supporter of the French Revolution, a tolerant stoic and a rationalist utterly opposed to religious fundamentalism-was quite astonishing, and Steven Johnson makes a brave and generally successful attempt to summarize and parse the degree to which this influence infected the founding principles of the American nation.

As a reminder of the underlying sanity and common sense of this country-a reminder perhaps much needed after the excesses of a displeasing presidential election campaign-The Invention of Air succeeds like a shot of the purest oxygen. Illus. (Jan. 2)

Simon Winchester, author ofThe Professor and the Madman, is working on a biography of the Atlantic Ocean.

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a veritable Renaissance man, whose interests and skills ranged from science to religion to politics. Science writer Johnson (The Ghost Map) weaves together all of these themes and how they played out in his life, in early America, and among the Founding Fathers. He tells the story in a reader-friendly manner that also encourages readers to think about how these themes apply in today's world. This work covers different ground from Jerome D. Bowers's 2007 Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America and discusses more of the culture of the times than the more costly but thorough 2008 collection of essays edited by Isabel Rivers, Joseph Priestley, Scientist, Philosopher, and Theologian. Recommended for all large public and all academic libraries.
—Eric D. Albright

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page




CHAPTER ONE - The Electricians

CHAPTER TWO - Rose and Nightshade

CHAPTER THREE - Intermezzo: An Island of Coal


CHAPTER FIVE - A Comet in the System







Interface Culture:
How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate


The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software



Mind Wide Open:
Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life


Everything Bad Is Good for You:
How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter



The Ghost Map:
The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed
Science, Cities, and the Modern World


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Copyright © 2008 by Steven Johnson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. Published simultaneously in Canada


Johnson, Steven, date.
The invention of air : a story of science, faith, revolution, and the birth of America / Steven Johnson.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.

eISBN : 978-1-440-68531-6

1. Priestley, Joseph, 1733-1804. 2. Chemists—Great Britain—Biography.
3. Scientists—Great Britain—Biography. I. Title.





While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers and Internet addresses at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.

For Jay

The English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble at an air pump, or an electrical machine.



That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.



A few days before I started writing this book, a leading candidate for the presidency of the United States was asked on national television whether he believed in the theory of evolution. He shrugged off the question with a dismissive jab of humor. “It’s interesting that that question would even be asked of someone running for president,” he said. “I’m not planning on writing the curriculum for an eighth-grade science book. I’m asking for the opportunity to be president of the United States.”

It was a funny line, but the joke only worked in a specific intellectual context. For the statement to make sense, the speaker had to share one basic assumption with his audience: that “science” was some kind of specialized intellectual field, about which political leaders needn’t know anything to do their business. Imagine a candidate dismissing a question about his foreign policy experience by saying he was running for president and not writing a textbook on international affairs. The joke wouldn’t make sense, because we assume that foreign policy expertise is a central qualification for the chief executive. But science? That’s for the guys in lab coats.

That line has stayed with me since, because the web of events at the center of this book suggests that its basic assumptions are fundamentally flawed. If there is an overarching moral to this story, it is that vital fields of intellectual achievement cannot be cordoned off from one another and relegated to the specialists, that politics can and should be usefully informed by the insights of science. The protagonists of this story lived in a climate where ideas flowed easily between the realms of politics, philosophy, religion, and science. The closest thing to a hero in this book—the chemist, theologian, and political theorist Joseph Priestley—spent his whole career in the space that connects those different fields. But the other figures central to this story—Ben Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson—suggest one additional reading of the “eighth-grade science” remark. It was anti-intellectual, to be sure, but it was something even more incendiary in the context of a presidential race. It was positively un-American.

In their legendary thirteen-year final correspondence, reflecting back on their collaborations and their feuds, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote 165 letters to each other. In that corpus, Benjamin Franklin is mentioned by name five times, while George Washington is mentioned three times. Their mutual nemesis Alexander Hamilton warrants only two references. By contrast, Priestley, an Englishman who spent only the last decade of his life in the United States, is mentioned fifty-two times. That statistic alone gives some sense of how important Priestley was to the founders, in part because he would play a defining role in the rift and ultimate reconciliation between Jefferson and Adams, and in part because his distinctive worldview had a profound impact on both men, just as it had on Franklin three decades before. Yet today, Priestley is barely more than a footnote in most popular accounts of the revolutionary generation. This book is an attempt to understand how Priestley became so central to the great minds of this period—in the fledgling United States, but also in England and France. It is not so much a biography as it is the biography of one man’s ideas, the links of association and influence that connect him to epic changes in science, belief, and society—as well as to some of the darkest episodes of mob violence and political repression in the history of Britain and the United States.

Meet the Author

Steven Johnson is the author of seven bestsellers, including Future Perfect, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You, and is the editor of the anthology The Innovator’s Cookbook. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently, outside.in—and writes for Time, Wired, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Marin County, California, with his wife and three sons.

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The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 23 reviews.
leopardiNJ More than 1 year ago
It is virtually inconceivable to imagine these days that a successful politician could simultaneously be an established scientist and a significant religious figure. Yet, in the latter part of the 18th century within western Europe and North America more than one notable would fill such a bill. So much for human progress. Joseph Priestly (1733-1804) was an Englishman who rose from obscurity to be an important player in both English and American science, politics and religion. In the Invention of Air Steven Johnson explores the "why" behind Priestly's accomplishments more so than the "what" - although the book is perfectly adequate as a biography as well. Johnson's exploration of Priestly's life convincingly concludes that it was Priestly's fanatical dedication to the free and open exchange of ideas that accounted for all he accomplished - and that was monumental, indeed. Priestly is best known as the discoverer of oxygen, which turns out, in fact, to be not quite true. His scientific "style" would not be seen today as very promising. Priestly's approach to science was to let discovery take him where it would, to explore with seemingly limitless energy any topic he fancied and to broadcast as widely as possible every step (and misstep) along the way to everyone who would pay attention. Priestly began his career as a cleric (he was a co-founder of the Unitarian Church and author of the influential History of the Corruption of Christianity) with the leisure time to explore science as an amateur. His first major contribution was not new discovery but a history of the science of electricity which he had the audacity to propose to the famous London Club of Honest Whigs (that included Benjamin Franklin among its loosely-defined membership). The notables in the Club (and those of its later morph The Lunar Society which included Boulton, Watt, Wedgewood and E. Darwin) were so impressed with Priestly that they enthusiastically supported his scientific endeavors. Over time, Priestly's "shotgun approach" paid off handsomely with discovery after discovery. He acquired an array of both sophisticated and simple instrumentation with which to carry out his studies - which, besides oxygen, included soda water, photosynthesis and respiration. Unable to contain his political and religious opinions anymore than his science, however, got Priestly ("Gunpowder Joe") into serious trouble that resulted in having his Birmingham house and laboratory burnt down by an angry mob and his exile to Pennsylvania. There Priestly started anew and picked up where he left off with a new house, new lab, firm friendships with Franklin and Jefferson, and not-so-firm relationship with Sam Adams that almost cost him a second exile. Although Priestly stubbornly stuck to the errant concept of "dephlogisticated air" rather than Lavoisier's now-accepted concept of oxygen as a unique gas, it was Priestly's prescient espousal of the concept of global ecology that is viewed today (and by some of his contemporaries like Jefferson and Franklin) to be an even more important contribution to science than the output of his laboratory experiments. A few historical woodcut illustrations, brief notes, short bibliography and index round out this worthy text. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
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