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Friday, 28 April 2017

Joseph Priestley


Joseph Priestley was born on March 24, 1733, to an established English Dissenting family in Fieldhead, Birstall, – about six miles (10 km) southwest of Leeds, Yorkshire.

He was the oldest of six children born to Mary Swift and Jonas Priestley, a finisher of cloth.

His mother died when Joseph was about six. When his father remarried in 1741, Priestley went to live with his aunt and uncle, the wealthy and childless Sarah and John Keighley, 3 miles (4.8 km) from Fieldhead.

Priestley by Ellen Sharples (1794)

Because Joseph was precocious—at the age of four he could flawlessly recite all 107 questions and answers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism—his Calvinist aunt sought the best education for the boy, intending him for the ministry.

During his youth, Joseph attended local schools including Batley Grammar school where he learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

Priestley's birthplace (since demolished)


In 1751, Priestley started studying for the ministry at Daventry Acadamy in Northamptonshire, a school under Nonconformist auspices, and there his fledgling Unitarian religious views began to take shape.

In September, 1755, Priestley started as a parish minister in Needham Market, Suffolk - though he was not officially ordained until May 18, 1762  at the Warrington Provincial Meeting of the Ministers of the County of Lancaster.

Because Priestley stammered and the parish was not suited to his unorthodox ideas, nor did they want a bachelor for their minister, he was unpopular in his Suffolk parish and he ultimately went to Nantwich, Cheshire.

Priestley established a private school in connection with the church in Nantwich where he preached, and derived his income from that school.

In 1761, Priestley moved to Warrington near Liverpool and assumed the post of tutor of modern languages and rhetoric at the town's Non-Conformist academy. Warrington Acadamy was the biggest of the dissenting academies in England, where the emphasis on practical education contributed greatly to the school’s success.

In addition to languages, Priestley also 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.

The earliest known portrait of Priestley, known as the "Leeds" portrait (c. 1763); 


Priestly's puritan outlook of leading a busy life meant that much of his spare time was devoted to study including scientific experimentation

His scientific reputation rested on his writings on electricity, his invention of soda water, and his discovery of ten previously unknown "Airs" (gases).

In 1773, the Earl of Shelburne asked Priestley to serve as tutor for his children, and librarian for his Calne, Wiltshire estate. The position left ample free time for the research that would earn him a permanent place in scientific history.

The laboratory at Lord Shelburne's estate, Bowood House, in which Priestley discovered oxygen

On August 1, 1774 Priestley discovered a colorless, odorless tasteless gaseous element by heating mercuric oxide using the sun's rays, whilst staying at Bowood House in the capacity of Librarian to the Earl of Shelbourne. He christened it "Dephlogisticated air". To the relief of physics students throughout the English speaking world it was renamed oxygen.

Priestley speculated that one day "Dephlogisticaed air" might become a luxury.

Actually the Swedish Chemist Carl Schele discovered oxygen two years before Priestley, but as the British part time scientist was the first to publish his findings, he gets all the credit.

Equipment used by Priestley in his experiments on gases, 1775

Priestley also discovered other gases during in his time in Calne, including "nitrous air" (nitric oxide, NO); "vapor of spirit of salt", later called "acid air" or "marine acid air" (anhydrous hydrochloric acid, HCl); "alkaline air" (ammonia, NH3); "diminished" or "dephlogisticated nitrous air" (nitrous oxide, N2O).

Priestley discovered a law that governed the force between electrical charges. Based on experiments with charged spheres, he was among the first to propose that electrical force followed an inverse-square law, similar to Issac Newton's law of universal gravitation.

Priestley's "electrical machine for amateur experimentalists", illustrated in his Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity (1768)

When Priestley was serving a congregation in the Yorkshire of Leeds, England, chance willed it that his parsonage should be adjacent to a brewery. The beer mattered little to him, but his curiosity was roused by the fumes diffused by the ferment grain. In search of their source, he was led along the very track that caused him, in 1772, to give soda water to the world. As the first to create the carbonated drink, Priestley has rightly been called "the father of the modern soft drink industry."

In 1770 Priestley discovered that India rubber could be used to rub out lead pencil marks.


Priestley's puritan outlook of leading a busy life meant that much of his spare time was devoted to Science and language. He learned a variety of tongues, both classical and modern, in his youth, including several Semitic languages. By the time he reached middle age he could speak many languages including Arabic, Syrian and Chaldee plus French, German and Italian.

Priestley made significant contributions to education and publishing. At Warrington. he found an intelligent printer, William Eyres, willing to publish his work. It was there that he published, The Rudiments of English Grammar in 1761 (a remarkably liberal grammar for its day and now considered a seminal work on English grammar) and other books on history and educational theory.

Title page of Rudiments of English Grammar (1761)

In 1767 Priestley published The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments. This masterwork encouraged others to research electricity.

Priestley reported on his discovery of 10 previously unknown "Airs" (gases)  from 1774–1786 in a giant book of six volumes: Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air.

He wrote extensively and often controversially on religious matters. In 1782 Priestley wrote An History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which the author believed was "the most valuable" work he ever published."

The first ever openly Atheistic book published in Britain was Matthew Turner's Answer to Dr Priestley's Letters to a Philosophical Unbeliever.


Priestley was an accomplished flute player.

On June 23, 1762, Priestley married Mary Wilkinson of Wrexham, daughter of ironmaster Isaac Wilkinson and sister of industrialist John Wilkinson.

Mary Priestley, by Carl F. von Breda (1793)

On 17 April 1763, they had a daughter, whom they named Sarah after Priestley's aunt.

By September 1767 the combination of his finances and Mary's health caused him to relocate to Leeds.

Except for his membership on the Leeds Library Committee, Priestley was not active in the town's social life.


Priestly studied for the ministry at the Dissenting Academy of Droitwich. Raised as a devout Calvinist, by this time Priestley was questioning his theological upbringing, causing him to reject election and to accept universal salvation.

Though Priestley started as a parish minister in the 1750s, he was not officially ordained until May 18, 1762  at the Warrington Provincial Meeting of the Ministers of the County of Lancaster.

In 1767 Priestley became the minister of Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds, Yorkshire, one of the oldest and most respected Dissenting congregations in England. During the early 18th century the congregation had fractured along doctrinal lines, and was losing members to the charismatic Methodist movement. During Priestley's time as its minister from 1767 to 1773, he guided the chapel towards Unitarianism.

In 1780 the Priestleys moved to Birmingham, where he took up the position of Minister of the city's Unitarian Chapel.

In 1785 Joseph Priestley's controversial History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which developed the scientist's ideas on Unitarianism was burnt by the common hangman.

By the 1790s, Joseph Priestley was a supporter of the French Revolution and a rejecter of the doctrines of Atonement (Christ's death being a sacrifice) and the Trinity. He taught that God existed in one person only. On July 14, 1791 the Unitarian Minister was attending a banquet to celebrate the fall of the Bastille when his Birmingham Chapel and home were destroyed by a mob who were annoyed at his support for the French Revolution and his questionable Unitarian theology. His papers were destroyed and his apparatus smashed.

The attack on Joseph Priestley's home on 14 July 1791

Unable to return to Birmingham, the Priestleys eventually settled in Lower Clapton, a district in Hackney, Middlesex, where he gave a series of lectures on history and natural philosophy at the Dissenting academy, the New College at Hackney.

In 1793, Priestley received an appointment to preach for the Gravel Pit Meeting congregation at Hackney. Hey was minister there between 1793 and 1794 and the sermons he preached, particularly the two Fast Sermons, reflect his growing millenarianism, his belief that the end of the world was fast approaching. Priestley's unorthodox biblical views were generally unappreciated at the Gravel Pit.


By the time he started tutoring at Warrington, Priestley's religious ideas had matured to Socinianism, a form of Unitarianism.

A member of marginalized religious groups throughout his life and a proponent of what was called "rational Dissent," Priestley advocated religious toleration and equal rights for Dissenters. He argued for extensive civil rights in works such as Essay on the First Principles of Government, believing that individuals could bring about progress and eventually the Millennium; Priestley was the foremost British expounder of providentialism.

He was nicknamed “Gunpowder Priestley” after a comment that gunpowder needed to be laid “under the old building of error and superstition."

Priestley was a member of an Enlightenment group of chemists, inventors and medics called the Lunar Society, because they meet each full moon. Other members of the group include the potter, Joshua Wedgwood, the engineer James Watt, the financier Matthew Boulton and the freethinking poet, Erasmus Darwin.


In 1794, Joseph Priestley sailed to Northumberland, Pennsylvania seeking religious freedom. The radical chemist's three sons had already emigrated to America a year previously. His controversial support for the French revolution meant he was unable to rent a house in Britain.

Priestley had hoped his rural Pennsylvania home would become the center of a utopian community, but this never happened as the expected emigrants could not afford the journey.

The Priestleys' rural Pennsylvania home. By User:Ruhrfisch 


During his last years in America, Priestley spent his time writing and experimenting.

On February 3, 1804, Priestley began an experiment, but found himself too weak to continue. He retired to his bed where he remained for the next three days. Priestley passed away there on the morning of February 6. 1804, aged seventy.

Priestley, painted late in life by Rembrandt Peale (c. 1800)

Priestley was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.

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