Joseph Priestley House
Backstory and Context
Born in 1733, Joseph Priestley was a prominent 18th-century philosopher, chemist, theologian and political theorist whose tumultuous legacy brought about many scientific discoveries. As a theologist as well as a scientist Priestley held views that commonly merged the two. His attempt to fuse rationalism and theism led to many of his publications being deemed controversial for the time. In addition to Priestley’s views on science and religion he was also an outspoken political philosopher who opined about tolerance and liberal theories, much to the disagreement of society at the time. His religious views aligned with the burgeoning Unitarianism movement also ran counter to the religious viewpoints of not only the society, but also King George III. Over time Priestley’s publications, teaching, and controversial support of the French Revolution led to him being forced to flee in 1791 to the United States following a mob attack on his home and church in Birmingham.
During his life, Priestley spent a great deal of time dedicated to the scientific investigation of several types of “airs”, unknown to the world at the time. Through his extensive work Priestley had significant involvement in the discovery of numerous types of gases. In addition, through his works he had a role in the discovery of the precursor to photosynthesis with his experimentation of plant revitalization within an enclosed air environment. His most famous discovery was what he called at the time “dephlogisticed air” or as we know it now oxygen, O2. Through a process of focusing the sun’s rays on a sample of mercuric oxide, while trapping himself inside of a hermetic environment with only this new air, Priestley discovered that what was inside was purer and better than common air and could have a wide range of use. Over a period of time Priestley refined his studies and started to explore the correlation between blood and air.
Even with this discovery, Priestley remained an outspoken defender of religious dissension, going as far as defending the French Revolution during a time when public opinion on the topic was not favorable. This was almost seen as calling for a revolution within a revolution, which eventually culminated with the Birmingham riots of 1791. Despite pleas from friends and family to tone down his rhetoric, during the throes of the American and French Revolution, Priestley remained resolved to his beliefs. A powder keg of anger erupted during a banquet which led to a mob of rioters confronting Priestley and other groups and eventually burning Priestley’s house, church and laboratory to the ground.
Upon arrival in America in 1794, Priestley and his family eventually settled in Northumberland Pennsylvania. Despite declining numerous vies for political endorsements, as to avoid political discord in America, Priestley staunchly continued his Unitarian beliefs. Settling into this quaint new community in Central Pennsylvania, Priestley was seemingly cut off from the rest of the world. Frustrated, Priestley was unable to keep up with emergent scientific discoveries in Europe, and was no longer able to maintain his status as a pioneer in science. Despite trying to continue his investigations with the help of the American philosophical Society, Priestley eventually focused on defending his theories until his death on February 6, 1804.
The house that the Priestley’s built upon their arrival in Northumberland still stands today. A surviving testament to Priestley’s legacy which was not fully realized or appreciated until after his death. Despite being a member of major scientific societies and praise for his discoveries, you will not find Priestley amongst scholarly household names. His works which were appreciated and lauded as groundbreaking at the time, were often overshadowed by his vehement defending of his theories and philosophical viewpoints.
American Chemical Society. 2017. Joseph Priestley and the Discovery of Oxygen. Accessed May/June 2017. https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/josephpriestleyoxygen.html.
Chemical Heritage Foundation. 2017. Joseph Priestley. Accessed May 27, 2017. https://www.chemheritage.org/historical-profile/joseph-priestley.
Friends of the Joseph Priestley House. 2017. The Joseph Priestley House. Accessed May Various, 2017. http://www.josephpriestleyhouse.org/.
Wikipedia. 2017. The Joseph Priestley House. Accessed May/June Various, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Priestley_House.