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.
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.
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?
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.]