Joseph Priestley - a pioneering 18th century scientist
Joseph Priestley was an internationally renowned Enlightenment figure on many fronts before
he began his scientific career in 1767 at the age of 31.
His first scientific publication was a huge book entitled The History and
Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments. In it, he is
the first person to state the Inverse Square Law of Electrostatics. This is one of the
fundamental laws of physics, describing how electric charges exert forces on each other.
Here is a short article for non-scientists, reprinted from the Joseph Priestley House Spring 2012
The following, which includes relevant excerpts from Priestley's book and a comment from The Feynman
Lectures Vol. II, might be of interest to physicists and historians of science:
As a scientist, Priestley was an extraordinarily skilled experimentalist who
made fundamental discoveries across the disciplines we now call biology, chemistry,
medicine and physics.
For example: he showed that 'plants purify air made noxious by animals breathing',
a discovery that demonstrated that we will not suffocate in the carbon dioxide
('fixed air') we produce;
he discovered oxygen and many other gases, including nitric oxide and its antiseptic
properties; the first recorded synthesis of water from hydrogen ('inflammable air')
and oxygen ('dephlogisticated air') was at a meeting of the Lunar Society of
Birmingham in 1781 (water is not an element!); he showed that blood absorbed oxygen,
but, like many of his other discoveries, this was ignored (because of prejudices
held against him for his political and religious views),
holding up progress
in respiratory physiology for a generation.
For an appreciation of Priestley's scientific work (from IBSN 1 85858 269 5):
Here is a 20-minute DVD in which the narrator, dressed in 18th century costume,
re-enacts some of Priestley's experiments and discusses their significance. It was
recently recommended by School Science Review as an 'excellent resource that brings to life the How science works aspect of the national curriculum'.
Material on these web pages is copyright ©
Professor Goronwy Tudor Jones, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham,
Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom.