All right, Joseph Priestly couldn’t invent air, or oxygen. He might have discovered it, but Steven Johnson called his book about Priestly The Invention of Air and that’s a better title than The Discovery of Oxygen.
But the story is more than the oxygen part that you learned in science class. It’s ” A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America.”
I particularly like that the book suggests that Priestley’s most important discovery wasn’t oxygen but rather carbon dioxide.
Plus, I am always looking for the connections, so I was taken in early in this book when Johnson wonders how much of the Enlightenment we might owe to coffee.
We start at the London Coffee House in 1765. Priestley is talking with his fellow scientific thinkers. This was an age of change from pubs and liquor to a coffeehouse culture. Many drunken conversations became sober ones stimulated by caffeine.
Johnson likes to mix historical periods and disciplines. In his book, Everything Bad is Good for You, he mixed studies of the brain and pop culture and argued that things like video games don’t make you stupid; they make you smarter.
In another of his books, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World, he examines the great cholera epidemic of 19th-century London through the lenses of bacteriology, epidemiology and history.
I heard Johnson interviewed and he said he was struck in reading the correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams that there were five references to Benjamin Franklin and three to George Washington, but there were 52 to Joseph Priestley.
There’s an “Intermezzo” section to the book that goes back to 300 million B.C. – to the advent of life on earth during the brief Carboniferous era, when plant life was in its heyday with giant trees and leaves. All of which led to to a rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere and changed our air, and all the subsequent decaying vegetative stored energy became the coal that Priestly literally lived on and that fueled his industrial age. Big circle connected.
The end of the book brings Priestley to America after our Revolution, where he connects science to American politics.
“The American experiment was, literally, an experiment, like one of Priestley’s elaborate concoctions in the Fair Hill lab.
The political order was to be celebrated not because it had the force of law, or divine right, or a standing army behind it. Its strength came from its internal balance, or homeostasis, its ability to rein in and subdue efforts to destabilize it.”
Which brings us to the subtitle of the book – “faith, revolution, and the birth of America.”
Priestley the theologian took his scientific perspective, mixed in some materialism, and wrote tracts about his views. Thomas Jefferson admired his writings and his stand against the worship of saints and the divinity of Jesus. Jefferson gave Priestley credit for developing a Deistic faith that did not include ‘supernatural” beliefs. It had a strong impact on many of the founding fathers.
As President, Jefferson occasionally attended church services, but he was not a member of any Christian church and he refused to proclaim any national days of prayer or thanksgiving.
Jefferson said he was a “Materialist” (letter to Short, Apr. 13, 1820) and a “Unitarian” (letter to Waterhouse, Jan. 8, 1825). Jefferson rejected the Christian doctrine of the “Trinity” (letter to Derieux, Jul. 25, 1788), as well as the doctrine of an eternal Hell (letter to Van der Kemp, May 1, 1817).
Jefferson specifically named Joseph Priestly as one who was “the basis of my own faith” (letter to Adams, Aug. 22, 1813).
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica
“By the end of the 18th century deism had become a dominant religious attitude among upper-class Americans, and the first three presidents of the United States held this conviction, as is amply evidenced in their correspondence.”
Benjamin Franklin was a friend with his fellow inventor, Priestley, and was a Deist who opposed the doctrine of the Trinity. In addition to his work as a scientist and diplomat, Franklin helped to create the University of Pennsylvania, a nonsectarian institution of higher education.
Bringing Priestly into our own Information Age, Johnson emphasizes Priestley’s openness in the way that we talk about Open Source and Open Everything. Priestly shared his work, data and observations to the point that it probably lost him some credit for discoveries because of this belief in the the “free flow of information.”
See also the Russell Shorto review of this book at http://www.iht.com