Joseph Priestly Biography

The story of Joseph Priestly, the first man to identify oxygen.

"In completing one discovery we never fail to get an imperfect knowledge of others of which we could have no idea before, so that we cannot solve one doubt without creating several new ones." - Joseph Priestly, 1786

Joseph Priestly was a clergyman, teacher, librarian and scientist who lived from 1733 to 1804. Joseph was the oldest son of a weaver and a farmer's daughter named Mary Swift. Mary died when Joseph's was six years old, and he was adopted by his paternal aunt, Sarah Kelghley. He attended Daventry academy, and studied under tutors as he developed a strong interest in chemistry.

His most important achievement was the isolation of oxygen by heating mercuric oxide. The gas we now refer to as oxygen was originally called "dephlostigated air"! He shared credit for this discovery with a Swede named Carl Scheele. Scheele was the one who figured out that heating liquids results in a release of gas. It was Priestly who, using Scheele's information, first isolated oxygen.

Priestly also discovered that the gas captured when fermenting grain (now known as carbon dioxide), when dissolved in water, produces the drink we know as seltzer. Without this discovery we would not have carbonated beverages! He got the carbon dioxide in question from a nearby brewery. The beverage industry would not be the same without Joseph Priestly!

In 1766 Benjamin Franklin got him interested in the study of electricity. Priestly was the first to discover that graphite is a good electrical conductor.

When he first saw the gummy tree sap from the Americas, he realized it would remove pencil marks from paper, and so, thanks to old Joe, we have the eraser!



Priestly married and had three sons and a daughter. He oversaw the spiritual and educational development of his sons. Consider the times.

If his brilliance in the sciences wasn't enough, he also served as a tutor in languages and literature at Warrington Academy in Lancshire. He worked as a librarian for a time, and as a clergyman.

Some say that Priestly invented laughing gas, properly known as nitrous oxide, but others credit a contemporary of his.

Joseph Priestly was a spiritual man, as well, but his religious ideas were contrary to the norm. He was a Unitarian, and known as a religious dissenter. He did not believe in a trinity.

Joseph Priestly was a political non-conformist as well, and this didn't sit well with his countrymen. He supported the American Revolution, and the French Revolution, too. Angry at his radical notions about religion and politics, rioters burned down his house in Birmingham, England in 1791 and he was forced to leave the country.

Priestly brought Unitarianism to Pennsylvania in the United States, although the religious movement was not called that until some years later. He died in the United States a decade later at the age of seventy-one.

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