Joseph Priestley

Who was Joseph Priestley?

When Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is remembered today, it’s usually for his 1774 discovery, in England, of oxygen. Few know he was a noted theologian, political progressive, and prolific author whose scientific contributions include the development of the modern timeline, the carbonation process, the identification of carbon monoxide and other gases, early experiments in electricity and an early understanding of the inter-relationship of plants and animals mediated by gases: oxygen and carbon dioxide and the role of sunlight in photosynthesis.

He counted Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Watt among his friends. Yet Priestley was also a controversial figure whose views were so odious to some of his countrymen that his house, Fair Hill in Birmingham, was burned in a riot in 1791, and he and his family fled to London and then left England in 1794. Priestley spent the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he continued his work in science, religion, and education. But even in this democratic republic his liberal ideas were frequently received with intolerance, and the peace that he so ardently desired was often elusive.

Priestley’s Apparatus

Priestley’s Works

A full list of Joseph Priestley’s works can be found at:

Priestley’s Discoveries

Joseph Priestley discovered an array of gases over his years of scientific work. These include: nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, nitrous oxide, hydrogen chloride, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, silicon tetrafluoride, nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon monoxide. Demonstrations of the discoveries of three of the gases in a modern laboratory are shown below:

Priestley’s Discovery of Carbon Monoxide (partial funding from the Susquehanna Valley ACS through an ACS Local Section Innovative Program Grant)
Priestley’s Discovery of Nitrous Oxide (partial funding from Department of Anesthesiology, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center )
Priestley’s Discovery of Ammonia (partial funding from a Merck Cherokee Neighbor of Choice Grant)
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