The History of Air: Nick Gillespie on Joseph Priestley

Lynne Kiesling

Nick Gillespie’s review in Reason makes me even more eager to read Steven Johnson’s new book, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. The main protagonist of this work is Joseph Priestley, one of the foundational chemists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries:

Along with his contemporaries Antoine Lavoisier and Carl Wilhem Scheele, Priestly isolated oxygen gas and was the first to draw connections between “pure air” and blood. However, as Johnson notes, Priestley was trapped within a rapidly failing scientific paradigm, phlogiston theory, which limited his ability to fully understand and accept what he was witnessing in his own experiments. One of the great dead ends in scientific discourse, phlogiston theory was a fanciful and massively influential attempt created in the 16th and 17th centuries to explain combustion, rust, and other forms of oxidation by replacing the ancient Greek elements (fire, water, air, and earth) with a series of previously undiscovered substances. Ironically, Lavoisier would ultimately use Priestley’s own experiments as the basis for refuting phlogiston theory and creating what we now know as chemistry. Like a laboratory Moses, Priestly pointed the way for others to a destination at which he could not quite arrive.

If you are interested in this book, chances are that you will also like Uglow’s The Lunar Men, a book that I enjoyed thoroughly and wrote about here and here back in 2003. Priestley figures prominently in that group in England, along with James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, before moving to the US.

Nick’s review of Johnson’s book is quite compelling, and highlights Johnson’s characterization of Priestley as a man “who survived riots, threats of prosecution, and other hardships and yet never doubted that ‘the world was headed naturally toward an increase in liberty and understanding.'” His intellectual curiosity and his quest for knowledge, and the connection between liberty and understanding, are important relationships to bear in mind today as much as they were two centuries ago.