Joseph Priestley's Story

Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections

June 1, 2009 - Philadelphia, PA

From Chemical & Engineering News, June 1, 2009, p. 33

by Mary Ellen Bowden

In 2007 and early 2008, when economic skies were blue, I took part in a committee charged by the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) to submit a plan to increase the number of visitors to Joseph Priestley’s home in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, and enhance their experiences there. The house that Priestley and his wife designed and built about 150 miles northwest of Philadelphia at the joining of the two branches of the Susquehanna River is a handsome one, unique among the nation’s surviving 18th-century houses for its attached chemical laboratory.

But the committee soon agreed that the real interest in the site is Priestley the man, best known to chemists as one of the discoverers of oxygen. Priestley was also a founder of the Unitarian religion; a political thinker whose ideas helped shape our American political system; and an educator who, among other contributions, advised Thomas Jefferson on the curriculum for the University of Virginia. A visitor can see where he performed experiments, wrote books, conducted Unitarian services, taught neighborhood children, and lived and died.

How to make Priestley, today a virtually unknown figure to the general public, communicate with modern audiences? The committee had no shortage of answers, such as livening up the presentation of the laboratory of this consummate experimentalist with videos of a few of his classic experiments (nowadays only occasionally performed by Ronald Blatchley, a retired chemistry teacher and Priestley reenactor) and opening up discussions with visitors of a number of Priestley’s issues that have resonance in our times, such as the role of religion in the American political scene or the fate of immigrants to this country.

Now science writer Steven Johnson quite independently is trying to engage the public with Priestley in his very readable “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America,” a book that reflects as well on the state of knowledge and politics in 21st-century America. But this book, with its potential of inspiring visits to Priestley House, may have come too late to save the house museum, which stands now on the brink of being declared one of six (out of 22) sites operated by PHMC to shut its doors in the current economic crisis because of low visitation (C&EN, April 6, page 9).

Johnson has an enviable record of finding readers. Among his other works are three bestsellers: “Ghost Map” (2006), about the way the cause of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London was determined and the general impact of this method; “Everything Bad is Good for You” (2005), on the positive effects of popular culture; and “Mind Wide Open” (2004), about how recent technological breakthroughs help in understanding brain function. Johnson is, moreover, the founder of several websites—most recently of, which tracks news and views in nearly 12,000 towns and neighborhoods. Since Johnson’s interests, however seemingly diverse, all have to do with innovation, interdisciplinary thinking, networks, and the transmission of ideas, Priestley is in many ways an ideal subject for this biographer. Priestley was an innovator in several fields, and he was for much of his adult life one of the best networked individuals in the 18th century.

Johnson has not written a standard biography but incorporates Priestley’s life into a very big picture. He diagrams his multidisciplinary and multiscale approach, which he calls “Long-Zoom,” in flow charts sure to intrigue scientist readers. The flow moves back and forth from neurochemistry through individual biography, social networks, information networks, and energy flows, with more layers in between. Luckily for the reader, the book is organized in the usual manner of a biography in terms of consecutive periods of its subject’s life, with only one interruption of the basic human story, which I will describe later...

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