Book Preview: Joseph Priestley

Thought folks might like to see a sneak peak of the upcoming book They Called Me Mad: Genius, Madness and the Scientists Who Pushed the Outer Limits of Knowledge
 Here’s an excerpt about one of the great chemists of all time, Joseph Preistley:

Prior to becoming a teacher, Priestley had little in the way of formal science education, but he viewed science as an important part of his students’ education. As he wrote in one of his later works:

“I am sorry to have occasion to observe, that natural science is very little, if at all, the object of education in this country, in which many individuals have distinguished themselves so much by their application to it. And I would observe that, if we wish to lay a good foundation for philosophical taste, and philosophical pursuits, persons should be accustomed to the sight of experiments, and processes, in early life. They should more especially be early initiated in the theory and practice of investigation, by which many of the old discoveries may be made to be really their own…” (Priestley, Expriments and Observation of Different Kinds of Air)

With this in mind, he began educating himself in the topic to better instruct his young charges. He even purchased a few scientific instruments for their benefit, including an air pump, a well-calibrated scale and a machine for generating static electricity.

The scientists of the time were a far cry from the professional researchers of today. In fact, the word “scientist” wouldn’t come into popular English usage for another hundred years. Instead, scientific experiments in the 1700’s and well into the 1800’s were carried out largely by amateurs, dilatants and dabblers who had the time and inclination to explore the scientific mysteries of the day. Once he began conducting and demonstrating experiments for his students, Priestley quickly became hooked, and was soon on his way toward becoming one of the dabblers.

Like many of his peers, Priestley became fascinated with the newly fashionable phenomenon of electricity. It was quite in vogue at the time, due in no small part to the efforts of an American experimenter named Benjamin Franklin. He and his fellow electricians, as they were called, were busy capturing the public’s imagination with flamboyant demonstrations of electrical wonders. What’s more, they were inventing practical applications for their electrical knowledge, including Franklin’s lightning rod and E.F. von Kleist’s invention of an early capacitor known as a Leyden jar.

Priestly was struck by the fact that no one had documented the history of this rapidly expanding field. He was still enjoying the success of his earlier book, and thought he might be just the man to tackle the job. With that goal, he set off for London to meet the electricians for himself, and propose to them that he chronicle their discoveries. To smooth the way, he brought with him a letter of introduction from the rector of the Warrington Academy, John Seddon. It was addressed to one of England’s leading electricians, John Canton, a member of the Royal Society. In his letter, Seddon wrote, “You will find [Priestley] a benevolent, sensible man, with a considerable share of Learning.” At the end, there was a short postscript: “If Dr. Franklin be in Town, I believe Dr. Priestley would be glad to be made known to him.” (Johnson)

As it happened, Franklin was in town. He was serving as the deputy postmaster general for North America. During the extended stays in London this required, Franklin would often frequent one of the local coffee houses near St Paul’s Cathedral, where he could strike up conversations with fellow freethinkers. Eventually Franklin and his friends formed an informal group they called the Club of Honest Whigs. They would meet on alternate Thursdays and discuss the burning issues of the day over coffee and porter. Frequently these discussions would involve scientific questions, and new theories and speculations about electricity were a frequent topic.

It was just such a meeting that John Canton attended in 1765, and invited the young Dr. Priestley to tag along. Soon the humble pastor was sitting across the table from his heroes, including the world famous Dr. Franklin himself. Franklin and the others welcomed their new admirer warmly as one of their own, and over the course of the afternoon, Priestley laid out his book proposal. Not only did they give the idea a warm reception but promised to help by supplying research materials and offering to read the manuscript. They also suggested experiments that he could conduct himself to better understand the subject. With their encouragement, Priestley leapt fully into the world of science.

Within a few days, Priestley was accompanying Franklin and Canton as they visited the Royal Society. Imagine what it must have been like for Priestley to entered those hallowed halls of science where Newton himself had once presided, and in such august company. In less than a week he had gone from a young dabbler to an honored guest of the great men of science. He would soon be sitting amongst them as a scientific peer.

When his time in London was done, he rushed back to Warrington and began assembling a sort of make shift laboratory. Using his limited funds to purchase the tools and materials he needed, He was soon throwing himself into scientific experimentation with an almost manic intensity. Unfortunately, there is no record of his wife’s reaction to all this, but she must have been less than pleased when, in order to conduct some of his messier experiments, he commandeered their kitchen sink.


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