The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth of America

The BCCE in 1994 was at Bucknell University, not far from the US home of Joseph Priestley, and I was one of a group that went there to see his place. While I knew some of his scientific contributions, I did not at the time appreciate how important a role he had played in the intellectual life of the nascent republic. While they were not close when either of them was in office, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams exchanged 165 letters during the last years of their lives. In them, the two men wrote about Alexander Hamilton (a mutual antagonist) twice, Benjamin Franklin five times, and George Washington three times. They mentioned Joseph Priestley, the expatriate Unitarian and discoverer of oxygen, fifty two times. Such was the influence on his adopted country of this "amateur" scientist. Priestley was no theorist - he left to others (including Lavoisier) the careful quantitative experiments that were essential to prove that mass is conserved, even in chemical reactions that involve gases. Priestley's science was of sufficient quality to get him into the Royal Society, but his theological tracts against the worship of saints and the divinity of Jesus got him run out of the England. Priestley made all of the details of his work available freely to colleagues, hiding nothing and spreading his love for experimentation to anyone showing an interest. His motto, "Exciting the Attentions of the Ingenious" would be a good one for my JCE Feature, "The Cost-Effective Teacher".

Publication information
Pick Attribution: 

Steven Johnson

Publication Date: 
Tuesday, January 1, 2008