Coffeehouse Culture at CHF

Cartoon of Priestley.

In a satirical cartoon from 1791 by James Gillray, Priestley is depicted calling for the head of the British king. The cartoon was published just a week after rioters, angered by Priestley’s political views, burned his home and laboratory. CHF Collections.

On the second Thursday of each month from September to May, CHF hosts meetings of the Joseph Priestley Society, a gathering of people with an interest in chemistry. The meetings include a reception, lunch, and lecture on topics ranging from nanotechnology to pharmaceuticals.

Given its wide-ranging approach, the society is named appropriately after Joseph Priestley, the 18th-century English chemist who “discovered” oxygen and immigrated to Pennsylvania after an angry mob burned down his house for his political and religious views. In Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air,” a biography of Priestley, he describes the scientist’s rock star notoriety: Priestley not only discovered the role of plants in creating breathable air, but also created our first carbonated beverage by infusing carbon dioxide into water from fermenting ale. Johnson reports that in a set of correspondence between ideological adversaries John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin was mentioned five times, George Washington three, and Priestley 52.

While living in London Priestley was a regular visitor to London Coffeehouse, alongside such luminaries as Franklin, as well as other scientists, “electricians,” philosophers, and literati of the Enlightenment. London Coffeehouse discussions were freewheeling, wide ranging and always stimulating (coffee having only recently been introduced in London taverns). James Boswell, an attendee, wrote that “the conversation goes on pretty formally, sometimes sensibly and sometimes furiously.”

London Coffeehouse was a place to exchange ideas, engage in thought-provoking conversation, and meet new people. We continue this tradition over two centuries later at CHF.

Mike Wronski is CHF’s Director of Individual Giving.

Joseph Priestley [CHF]
Birmingham Toast [Chemical Heritage]

Posted In: History

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