Joseph Priestley

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Joseph Priestley (March 13 1733February 6 1804) was an English chemist, philosopher, dissenting clergyman, and educator.

He was born in Birstall parish, six miles from Leeds, Yorkshire. He learned a variety of languages, both classical and modern, in his youth, including several Semitic languages; he also studied what was then called "natural history".

In 1751 he entered Daventry, a school under Nonconformist auspices, and there his religious views took shape. He became an adherent of Arianism. In September, 1755, he started as a parish minister in Needham Market, Suffolk - though he was not officially ordained until May 18, 1762. Because he stammered and the parish was not suited to his heterodox ideas, nor did they want a bachelor for their minister, he was unpopular in his Suffolk parish and he ultimately went to Nantwich, Cheshire. He established a private school in connection with the church in Nantwich where he preached, and derived his income from that school.

Subsequently he went to Warrington, the biggest of the dissenting academies in England, as a tutor in belles-lettres. By this time his religious ideas had matured to Socinianism, a form of Unitarianism. At Warrington, he associated with other liberal-minded tutors and found an intelligent printer, William Eyres, willing to publish his work. It was here that he published his grammar book in 1761 (a remarkably liberal grammar for its day) and other books on history and educational theory. He taught anatomy and astronomy and led field trips for his students to collect fossils and botanical specimens. Both modern history and the sciences were subjects which had not been taught in any schools before Priestley.



On June 23 1762, Priestley married Mary Wilkinson of Wrexham, and by September 1767 the combination of his finances and her health caused him to relocate to Leeds. He there took charge of the Mill Hill congregation. In Leeds Priestley also published two political works, Essay on the First Principles of Government 1768 and The Present State of Liberty in Great Britain and her Colonies 1769, and also in 1769 Remarks on Dr Blackstone's Commentaries where he defended constitutional rights of dissenters against William Blackstone. Priestley's house was next to a brewery and Priestley began to expermiment with the gas given off by fermenting beer. His first experiments involved demonstrating that the gas would extinguish lighted wood chips. He then noticed that the gas appeared to be heavier than normal air as it remained in the vats and did not mix with the air in the room. The gas, which Priestley called 'fixed air' and had already been discovered and named 'mephitic air' by Joseph Black, was carbon dioxide. Priestley discovered a method of impregnating water with the carbon dioxide by placing a bowl of water above a vat of fermenting beer. The carbon dioxide soon became dissolved in the water and Priestley found that the impregnated water developed a pleasant sweet acidic taste. He began to offer the treated water to friends as a refreshing drink. In 1772 Priestley published a paper entitled Impregnating Water with Fixed Air in which he described a process of dripping sulphuric acid (or oil of vitriol as Priestley knew it) onto chalk in order to produce carbon dioxide and forcing the gas to disolve by agitating a bowl of water in contact with the gas. In December of 1772 Priestley was hired by Lord Shelburne, as his personal librarian, and stayed in that post until 1780.

In 1772 Priestley wrote Observations on Civil Liberty and the Nature and Justice of the War with America. Whilst tutoring his benefactor's sons at Bowood House near Calne in 1774 he discovered oxygen, unaware of Carl Wilhelm Scheele's prior discovery sometime before 1773. Priestley discovery was published in 1775 in Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air and in 1777 Scheele's discovery was published in his book Chemical Treatise on Air and Fire. Both Priestley and Scheele were unaware that oxygen was a chemical element; Priestley named the gas (which he had generated by heating red mercuric oxide with a 'burning lens') 'de-phlogisticated air', in accordance with the phlogiston theory which held at the time. In his experiments he managed to identify eight distinct gases, disproving the commonly held view that there was just one 'air'.


In 1780 he moved to Birmingham and was appointed junior minister of the New Meeting Society. He became a member of the Lunar Society, but his admiration for the French Revolution caused him to be driven out of the city in the Priestley Riots of 1791. He is remembered there by the Moonstones, and a more traditional statue in Chamberlain Square in the city centre. The latter is a 1951 recast, in bronze, of a white marble original by A. W. Williamson, unveiled in 1874.

London and USA

He next moved to London where he received an invitation to become morning preacher at Gravel Pit Chapel, Hackney. His three sons emigrated to the United States in 1793. The following June, Priestley followed them, seeking political and religious freedom. Although never naturalized, he lived in Pennsylvania for the last decade of his life.

See also

External links

bg:Джоузеф Пристли da:Joseph Priestley de:Joseph Priestley fr:Joseph Priestley it:Joseph Priestley ja:ジョゼフ・プリーストリー ms:Joseph Priestley nl:Joseph Priestley sv:Joseph Priestleyzh:约瑟夫·普利斯特里


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