Volume 87 Issue 22 | pp. 32-34 | Book Reviews
Issue Date: June 1, 2009

Joseph Priestley's Story

Book examines all aspects of the life of a famed scientist, political thinker, and theologian
By Mary Ellen Bowden
Department: Books
Keywords: Joseph Priestley, Books
THE INVENTION OF AIR: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2008, 219 pages, $25.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59448-852-8)
THE INVENTION OF AIR: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, by Steven Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2008, 219 pages, $25.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-59448-852-8)
Priestley’s Birmingham, England, house in flames.
Credit: The Archives & Special Collection, Dickinson College
Priestley’s Birmingham, England, house in flames.
Credit: The Archives & Special Collection, Dickinson College
Surviving lock and key from Joseph Priestley’s Birmingham, England, house.
Credit: Joseph Priestley House, Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commissions
Surviving lock and key from Joseph Priestley’s Birmingham, England, house.
Credit: Joseph Priestley House, Pennsylvania Historical & Museums Commissions
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections

New & Noteworthy

Food: The Chemistry of its Components, 5th Ed.,by Tom Coultate, 
RSC Publishing, 2009, 501 pages, $59.95 paperback (ISBN: 978-0-854-04111-4)

Investigates food components that are present in large amounts (carbohydrates, fats, proteins, minerals, and water) and those that occur in smaller amounts (colors, flavors, vitamins, and preservatives). Food-borne toxins, allergens, pesticide residues, and other undesirables are also given detailed consideration. Attention is drawn to the nutritional and health significance of food components. This classic text has been extensively rewritten for its fifth edition to bring it up-to-date, and many new topics have been introduced.

Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life,
by Carl Zimmer, Pantheon Books, 2008, 243 pages, $25.95 hardcover (ISBN: 978-0-375-42430-4)

Delivers big lessons about life from a very small creature, Escherichia coli. The author explores how this microbe, known to most of us for its deadly outbreaks, is actually leading scientists to a new understanding of what it means to be alive. From altruism to death, genetic destiny versus individualism, and the possibility of life beyond our planet, E. coli can answer many of our deepest questions about existence.

IN 2007 and early 2008, when economic skies were blue, I took part in a committee charged by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) to submit a plan to increase the number of visitors to Joseph Priestley’s home in North­umberland, Pa., and enhance their experiences there. The house that Priestley and his wife designed and built about 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia at the joining of the two branches of the Susquehanna River is a handsome one, unique among the nation’s surviving 18th-century houses for its attached chemical laboratory.

But the committee soon agreed that the real interest in the site is Priestley the man, best known to chemists as one of the discoverers of oxygen, but who also was a founder of the Unitarian religion; a political thinker whose ideas helped shape our American political system; and an educator who, among other contributions, advised Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum for the University of Virginia. A visitor can see where he performed experiments, wrote books, conducted Unitarian services, taught neighborhood children, and lived and died.

How to make Priestley, today a virtually unknown figure to the general public, communicate with modern audiences? The committee had no shortage of answers such as livening up the presentation of the laboratory of this consummate experimentalist with videos of a few of his classic experiments (nowadays only occasionally performed by Ronald Blatchley, a retired chemistry teacher and Priestley reenactor) and opening up discussions with visitors of a number of Priestley’s issues that have resonance in our times, such as the role of religion in the American political scene or the fate of immigrants to this country.

Now science writer Steven Johnson quite independently is trying to engage the public with Priestley in his very readable “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America,” a book that reflects as well on the state of knowledge and politics in 21st-century America. But this book, with its potential of inspiring visits to Priestley House, may have come too late to save the house museum, which stands now on the brink of being declared one of six (out of 22) sites operated by PHMC to shut its doors in the current economic crisis because of low visitation (C&EN, April 6, page 9).

Johnson has an enviable record of finding readers. Among his other works are three bestsellers: “Ghost Map” (2006), about the way the cause of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London was determined and the general impact of this method; “Everything Bad is Good for You” (2005), on the positive effects of popular culture; and “Mind Wide Open” (2004), about how recent technological breakthroughs help in understanding brain function. Johnson is, moreover, the founder of several websites—most recently of http://outside.in, which tracks news and views in nearly 12,000 towns and neighborhoods. Since Johnson’s interests, however seemingly diverse, all have to do with innovation, interdisciplinary thinking, networks, and the transmission of ideas, Priestley is in many ways an ideal subject for this biographer. Priestley was an innovator in several fields, and he was for much of his adult life one of the best networked individuals in the 18th century.

Johnson has not written a standard biography but incorporates Priestley’s life into a very big picture. He diagrams his multidisciplinary and multiscale approach, which he calls “Long-Zoom,” in flow charts sure to intrigue scientist readers. The flow moves back and forth from neurochemistry through individual biography, social networks, information networks, and energy flows, with more layers in between. Luckily for the reader, the book is organized in the usual manner of a biography in terms of consecutive periods of its subject’s life, with only one interruption of the basic human story, which I will describe later.

ON THE WHOLE, the book is best when the focus is on what Priestley did and wrote. Uniquely among Priestley biographies, it explores in some depth Priestley’s friendships with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Jefferson. Occasionally, Johnson waxes overenthusiastic about Priestley’s scientific accomplishments, but Priestley needs a cheerleader now. The most problematic of Johnson’s efforts is the overlay of the human narrative with the history of changing energy systems and their effects on the planet and human history.

In the prologue, Johnson captures the reader’s attention with descriptions of waterspouts and Priestley’s observations of them during his two-month-long passage in 1794 from England to the U.S. aboard a merchant ship. One learns of Priestley’s famously inquisitive mind; of his long friendship with Franklin, who had also taken advantage of transoceanic voyages to study Atlantic phenomena; and of Priestley’s sanguine disposition. He was fleeing in fear of his life because his support of the French Revolution (and the American Revolution before that) and his Unitarianism made him an enemy of England’s establishment. At the age of 61, he was ready to start a new life in a new country.

Chapter 1, “The Electricians,” flips back to Priestley’s maiden scientific book, “The History of Electricity” (1767) and the roles in its composition of Franklin, then representing several American colonies, and a London coffee house, the 18th-century version of the Internet. Chapter 1 also describes Priestley’s discovery, while pottering around a neighboring brewery in Leeds where he had just been chosen to lead a Unitarian congregation, of the means of artificially carbonating water (1767).

Oddly enough, given Johnson’s complex systems approach to history in which individual genius has a relatively minor role, he occasionally reverts to a very old way of writing history by making priority claims for Priestley that do not ring true. For example, concerning Priestley’s “History of Electricity,” Johnson writes, “He had invented a whole new way of imagining science; instead of a unified, Newtonian pronouncement, Priestley recast natural philosophy as a story of progress, a rising staircase of enlightenment, with each new innovation building on the last.” Newton is Johnson’s straw man here because he wrote the “Principia” (1687) in Latin and presented its arguments as principles. There is no mention of Newton’s “Opticks” (1704), which was first published in English and in which the author drew his conclusions from carefully described experiments and ended with famously open-ended queries that inspired at least a century of scientists. Nor do we hear about Priestley’s several predecessors and contemporaries who put together progress narratives within such disciplines as astronomy and chemistry.

The next chapter treats Priestley’s principal contributions to the chemistry of gases. Upending historical tradition, Johnson gives far less attention to Priestley’s discovery in 1774 of what he called “dephlogisticated air” (known to us as oxygen) than to his experimental proof in 1771 that plants restore air to breathability—in Priestley’s terms, remove phlogiston. Despite the unusual terms of Priestley’s discussion, his capturing and testing of air changed by mint and other vegetation growing under glass is generally regarded as an early solved piece of the puzzle of photosynthesis.

Phlogiston was a very useful concept introduced in the early 18th century by German chemist Georg Stahl to explain what occurs in seemingly diverse processes: the combustion of plant and animal materials; their respiration; and the smelting and calcination of metals. In one group of these processes, something was lost or given off. In the other group, something was taken up. That something was phlogiston, which imparted various properties such as inflammability, luster, and vitality. Changes in such qualities as these could be tracked; the confusing changes in weight were not equally regarded.

On the basis of correspondence between Priestley and Franklin concerning Priestley’s work on plant respiration, Johnson describes Franklin’s point that trees around houses should be spared, not chopped down, “the first stirrings of a genuinely new way of thinking about life on Earth and our role in that system.” He thereby transforms Franklin and Priestley into very early “green” chemists. Considering the hoary tradition of viewing man as an integral part of various natural cycles and predicting doom should man violate the natural order, Johnson’s analysis is an exaggeration. For a more specifically chemical view of the role of living beings in nature’s economy that is closer to Priestley’s time, one could cite Stahl’s suggestion that the phlogiston released in burning and putrefaction is recycled by plants and animals. To be sure, Stahl did not provide the experimental proof that Priestley obtained.

The answer to the implied question of the book’s title, “The Invention of Air,” appears in a 10-page “Intermezzo” chapter, which races through several epochs of geological history. Who did invent air? Not Priestley, who might be said to have discovered oxygen—a feat that can also be ascribed to Carl Scheele and Antoine Lavoisier, as Johnson correctly points out. The path to atmospheric air, as we know it, was initiated 2 billion years ago by cyanobacteria, the real inventors of air in Johnson’s telling of the Priestley story. These microorganisms developed a metabolic strategy that released oxygen from water and increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere from 1% to double digits.

In the 18th century, Priestley showed that plants are responsible for making oxygen, in a manner of speaking. Later in the book, geology comes back into the Priestley story as coal in the Midlands of England. Like most coal, it resulted from the remains of giant plants that flourished during the Carbonaceous era, 300 million years ago. They increased the oxygen content of the atmosphere to an amazing 35% (which was later reduced by an evolving ecosystem to today’s homeostatic 21%).

The biography resumes with Priestley’s Birmingham period, 1780–91, but it is overarched in terms of a conflict of energy systems. Priestley had literally moved from a horse-powered agrarian economy—where he had worked as companion and tutor in the service of Lord Shelburne, whose lands and palatial country residence were in Wiltshire—to Birmingham in the Midlands, where he was called to lead another Unitarian congregation and his scientific endeavors were supported by the Lunar Society. The members of this society were titans of the coal-fired, steam-driven Industrial Revolution who were interested in discussing scientific and industrial innovation.

Meanwhile, Priestley’s own diverse interests in science, religion, and politics were converging with those of his new benefactors. They opposed England’s established religion and a political system that awarded them no seats in Parliament, since representation was still based on the concentration of wealth and population in the south of England during the Middle Ages.

For Johnson, the mayhem of the Birmingham Riots of 1791 was nearly inevitable, since he rather quixotically claims they were underpinned by conflicting energy systems. These riots, which Johnson vividly describes, cost Priestley his meeting house, home, laboratory, and the homes of his closest associates in the Unitarian Church. In attempting to understand how and why Priestley had become the focus of such rage, Johnson admittedly gives scant attention to Priestley’s intellectual lineage, close reading of his published work and correspondence, or the political pressures and conflicts of the time. True, asking readers to understand the complexities of 18th-century British political parties and the varieties of philosophical and theological materialism afloat in the 18th century would be a tall order.

WE HEAR NO MORE from Johnson about energy systems once Priestley immigrates to the U.S. in 1794. He was after all coming to the land of several highly influential friends. True, Franklin had died (1790), but Adams, whom he had known from Adams’ days as the first U.S. ambassador to England (1785), wanted him to settle in Boston. Jefferson, whom he had not yet met in person, was an enthusiastic reader of Priestley’s “History of the Corruptions of Christianity” (first edition, 1782), which Jefferson later wrote was the book that returned him to the Christian fold. And Priestley and his family had chosen to live way up the Susquehanna River near where his sons had planned to found a Utopian community far away from hotbeds of political controversy like New York City and Philadelphia.

Aside from the personal tragedies of the deaths of Priestley’s beloved youngest son and his wife, perhaps the greatest blow that he endured in the U.S. was a threat from Secretary of State Timothy Pickering to have him imprisoned during the Adams Administration under the terms of the notorious Alien & Sedition Acts of 1798. Priestley had allegedly contributed to the publication of handbills written by fellow chemist and liberal Thomas Cooper that sharply criticized Adams’ policies. Adams got Priestley off the hook by writing to Pickering, “He is as weak as water, as unstable as Reuban, or the wind. His influence is not an atom in the world.”

Johnson’s book finishes with an analysis of the Adams-Jefferson correspondence that resumed in 1812 and lasted to their deaths in 1826. The two had become political enemies with rather different views about how the U.S. should develop politically and economically, differences that led to the founding of our first two political parties. Astonishingly, Priestley, who died in 1804, was mentioned by name 52 times in the 165- letter correspondence; Franklin, five times; and George Washington, three. Adams was in 1813 positively describing Priestley as “a Comet in the System” and trying to explain why he had ever called Priestley weak-minded.

Johnson searches for what these Founding Fathers so valued about Priestley. What does that say about their own values––and perhaps about what heritage we should adopt? He concludes that Adams, Jefferson, and Priestley all thought that science serves a critical role in the seamless web of knowledge, which they refused to strictly compartmentalize into science, faith, and politics. While they all maintained a belief in man’s progress, Priestley was the most optimistic of the three. Priestley and Jefferson, but probably not Adams, recognized that science and reason would inevitably undermine the institutions and belief systems of the past, and they welcomed this prospect.

In Johnson’s hands, Priestley becomes a man of hope to emulate in our times and an early green chemist—well worth a turn off Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania to visit his American home.


Mary Ellen Bowden is a senior research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

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