Friday, 8 August 2014

Giants of Academia & the Arts

… but, then again, nobody is perfect

Joseph Priestley (24 March 1733 – 6 February 1804)

Once again, here we have another notable whose entire existence gets boiled down to a single word, in this instance Oxygen. When it comes to Priestley, however, that discovery is, perhaps, one of his lesser achievements, especially seeing that there are at least two others claiming to have done it at much the same time. As it happens, he was Priestley by name and priestly by nature, being, above all, a theologian but, in that as in everything else, he was fundamentally unorthodox, so possibly the word we should be using for him is Heterodox.

Joseph Priestley should not, of course, be confused with J.B. Priestley (John Boynton Priestley, 1894–1984), the English novelist, playwright and broadcaster, though both were Yorkshiremen, born not very far apart (in mileage), Joe in Batley and John in Bradford, making them, like Newton beforehand, Northerners through and through.

Our Priestley, Joseph, was born to a Dissenting family (religious, hated the C of E) at Fieldhead (near Leeds), the oldest of six children born to Jonas Priestley and Mary Swift. To “ease his mother’s burdens,” (presumably meaning the five more children she was to have in quick succession), Joseph was sent to live with his grandfather at the age of one, returning home five years later, after his mother had died (and we can probably guess what finished her off). Then, in 1741, his father remarried and so he was once again farmed out, this time to his wealthy aunt and uncle, Sarah and John Keighley. In 1745, he entered the local grammar school, learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew, improving on a system of shorthand and becoming proficient in physics, philosophy, algebra, mathematics and a variety of ancient Near Eastern and modern languages. Around 1749, Priestly became seriously ill, leaving him with a permanent stutter, because of which he gave up any thoughts of ministry. Instead, he prepared for a position in trade in Lisbon, which, naturally enough for Priestley, obliged him to study French, Italian, German, Chaldean (Babylonian!), Syrian and Arabic. Meaning that, by now, he could say, “By heck, lad, I’m fair jiggered,” in any number of languages. Except Portuguese

Which is possibly why he decided to knock the Portugal idea on the head and give priesting another go. So, off he goes to Daventry (near Northampton) Academy and, by 1752, had matriculated, emerging as a Rational Dissenter, a group strongly opposed to the hierarchical structure of the Church and its links to government, whilst rejecting traditional ideas such as original sin and the Trinity, believing that science would lead them to a stronger faith. After Daventry, Priestley buried himself in the tiny parish of Needham Market in Suffolk, with its vehemently traditional congregation, who pretty soon decided they didn’t care even the apocryphal fig for his unorthodox views, at which attendances plummeted. So did donations and, to make matters worse, when his aunt found out he was no longer a Calvinist, she refused him all further support, leaving Priestley completely potless, as we say Up North.

In 1758, he finally escaped, to Nantwich in Cheshire, where he set up his own school, though he was so appalled at the standard of English grammar books that he wrote his own, The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761), following the publication of which he was offered a teaching position at Warrington Academy. The move to Warrington was a felicitous one: in 1762, he was ordained and also married Mary Wilkinson, on 23 June, something Priestley was eminently satisfied about, writing that she was, “of an excellent understanding, much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of mind.” Before adding that she “greatly excelled in everything relating to household affairs, relieving me of all that.” Well, he was a Northerner, after all, and housework never has been our forte. On 17 April 1763, they had a daughter, whom they named Sarah after Priestley's aunt, despite the fact that the stingy old trout had cut him off without a penny not so very long ago.

At Warrington, Priestley taught modern languages and rhetoric, though he actually wanted to teach mathematics and natural history. Not that it mattered: the Academy was so impressed with him that they arranged for the University of Edinburgh in 1764 to grant him a degree as Doctor of Law. A subject he had about as much knowledge of as he did of Portuguese. Hard to believe, perhaps, but Warrington, at that time, was actually known as “the Athens of the North,” the intellectually stimulating atmosphere being responsible for getting Priestley started on his scientific experimentations. During that period, he met and was encouraged by Benjamin Franklin (the Kite Man), who nominated him for the Royal Society, being accepted in 1764. He was now on the road towards his greatest discoveries.

These, however, would have to wait until he had moved back to Leeds in 1767, possibly because of Mary’s ill health (though they had two sons in the next two years), or perhaps because, once again, the good Doctor was strapped for cash. He became minister of the Mill Hill Chapel, which, by happy good fortune, placed him right next door to a brewery, where there was the copious supply of CO2 to be had, though, of course, they didn’t call it that then. Barely had he got there than he discovered that if you suspend mice above fermenting beer, the air blanketing it will kill them, though it’s hard to work out quite what led him to be thinking, “I wonder what’ll happen if I hang these mice over that vat of Theakstone’s Old Peculiar?” This air was known as “fixed air” and, once he’d disposed of his rodent friends, Priestley went on to discover a method of infusing water with it, resulting in a refreshing and pleasant tasting drink. Better than the local beer, anyhow, which tended to have a suspiciously mousey flavour.

Not content with having come up with soda water (in a brewery, no less), he went on to discover a whole range of other substances to go with his fixed air: nitric oxide, anhydrous hydrochloric acid, ammonia, nitrous oxide (“laughing gas”), and then (later on, though) the big one, oxygen, which he wanted to call “dephlogisticated air,” from the Greek, phlogiston, meaning burning up. Back then, there was a belief that a substance known as phlogiston was released during combustion, which harked back to the ancient theory of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Priestley was never quite able to shake his belief in phlogiston, with the result that he became isolated from many of his scientific contemporaries. Mind you, during his mouse-torturing phase, he discovered that if you put one of them in a sealed jar until it’s pretty much pegged out and then bung in a sprig of mint, the mouse will be right as rain in no time, a finding that would eventually lead to an understanding of photosynthesis.

Priestley was considered for the post astronomer on James Cook’s second voyage to the South Seas (1772–75) but, alas, wasn’t chosen. However, he still contributed to the voyage by providing a method for making soda water on board, believing it would cure scurvy. It didn’t. Still, even if he hadn’t found a cure, he could still console himself with the thought that, come the third voyage, our jolly jack tars would at least have a dash of something to add to their pre-prandial libations as they waited on Hawaii for the good Captain to come to the boil. Sadly, Priestley never did exploit the commercial potential of soda water, leaving that to Johann Jacob Schweppe, who managed to fail miserably with it at first until Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus (we kid you not), got a liking for it, followed by William IV and a “by Royal Appointment,” at which he made a vast fortune. Whilst Priestly remained as hard up as ever.

Not going on Cook’s second voyage meant he could take up an offer of better cash by working for Lord Shelburne, educating his children and acting as his assistant. Shelburne was a Whig statesman who became Prime Minister just in time to lose the American War of Independence. These years were to prove Priestley’s most fruitful scientifically and it was here that he managed to isolate oxygen, in August 1774, but then Shelburne (the Whig in the wig) wanted to go off on a tour of Europe, so he didn’t get round to writing it down, though he did replicate the experiment in Paris where the audience included French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who would later lay claims to have made the discovery himself. Back in Britain in January 1775, Priestley then added sulphur dioxide to his ever-growing list, which he then called “vitriolic acid air.” What with his “dephlogisticated air,” his “vitriolic acid air” and working for a real live Lord, you could say that Priestley was tending to give himself too many “airs and Your Graces.” Though nobody in their right mind actually would …

In 1774, Priestley’s friend, Theophilus Lindsey (that's him right), founded a new Christian denomination, which became Unitarianism, and Priestley quickly became a supporter, something he would continue with for the rest of his life. Unitarianism should not be confused with Utilitarianism (even if you can see why they might be), though Priestley was greatly influential in both spheres, with Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill crediting his metaphysical works as among the primary sources for utilitarianism. Bentham and Mill believed that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes utility, usually defined as optimizing total benefit and reducing suffering. It is not known what they then made of Priestley’s 1787 pamphlet, An Account of a Society for Encouraging the Industrious Poor, in which he described how to extract the most work for the smallest amount of money from the poor – nowadays, we refer to this way of thinking simply as the Big Society – but we do know that its emphasis on debt collection did not exactly endear him to the poverty-stricken. All rather ironic, given that he was always so hard up himself and ever ready to live on handouts. 

In 1772–1774, his Institutes of Natural and Revealed Religion laid out his belief in Socinianism (basically a system of Nontrinitarianism or antitrinitarianism – anti the Trinity and a good deal else besides) and, after a start like that, managing to bang out the –isms like there was no tomorrow, including millenarianism (which didn’t think there would be a tomorrow, seeing the end of the world was well on the way – “under twenty years,” as Priestley later claimed), determinism, materialism and necessitarianism. His follow-up to that was a second volume of Experiments and Observations on Air, published in 1776, where he finally wrote down his workings with oxygen, still beating rival claimant, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, into print, even though the Swede had made the discovery in 1772. Lavoisier, the other pretender, made his discovery of it in 1775 (after Priestley had shown him how), though he was first to describe it as “purified air of itself entire”, and to coin the name. Not really discovering it, though, is it, Tony?
In 1779, Joseph and Mary headed off to spend “a happy decade in Birmingham” (sounds about as plausible as Warrington being like Athens) until it all came crumbling down when the good Doctor managed to get some riots named after him in 1791. Priestley and a bunch of like-thinking mates had bizarrely decided to hold a banquet in sympathy with the French Revolution – possibly they’d misheard Marie Antoinette and thought she’d said, “Let us eat cake,” (though it was actually in Rousseau's work where the phrase first appeared) ­– which the locals didn’t take any too kindly too, especially after the business about squeezing the poor and debt collection. Passions had been stirred over a number of issues, both national and local, including, equally as bizarrely, arguments over the purchase of library books, though it was the Dissenters they were after, for their unorthodox beliefs and their support of revolution. Which Prime Minister Pitt (the Younger, pictured) happened to be stamping down on just then and, whilst he can’t be implicated in the violence, he was mighty slow in doing anything about it. The local council were the ones actually responsible and it made England too hot for Priestley. Quite literally, seeing they burned his house down, along with a load of others. He went to America, where he became mates with Thomas Jefferson (the “all men are created equal” except slaves especially mine bloke) and then died, on 6 February 1804.

[For the record, Theakstone’s Old Peculiar, far from tasting at all mousey, is a darkly delicious beverage, highly recommended and well worth sampling, should you ever get the chance.]


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