The Inventor of Air—Who Knew?


Back in the latter part of the 18th century, amateur scientist, professional minister, and middle class Englishman Joseph Priestley made a discovery that should have given him his own rest stop on the road map of scientific progress. In his homegrown, grassroots-financed lab, Priestley discovered that plants produce oxygen.

This one was a biggie, I think. So I’m wondering, why haven’t we heard of this guy Priestley? Sadly, we live in an era where former 90210 heartthrob Jason Priestley garners greater name recognition, even considering his slide from the A-list (if 90210 was even on the A-list) in recent years.

Perhaps even sadder than Priestley’s relative obscurity is the fact that countless mice lost their lives in Priestley’s pursuit of this foundational chunk of scientific knowledge. You see, when Priestley wasn’t filling his experiment vats with mercury (so shiny and slippery!), he was filling them with water. Then he was putting poor little Mickeys and Minnies in upside-down jars and logging the speed at which they expired in those oxygen-deprived mini-environments. Oddly, Priestley observed, a sprig of mint survived much longer than the mice, as did a lit match in the presence of said sprig. Put the mint and the mouse together, and voila! You’ve got a mouse that survives twice as long before choking on his own carbon dioxide—which isn’t much considering that we’re talking a matter of minutes until death inside the upside-down, underwater jar.

Personally, I’m just glad that Priestley didn’t put the mouse in the jar with the lit match. Considering his affection for the phlogiston theory (which suggested that fire, in burning, infuses the air with the mysterious—and, it turns out, fictional—substance phlogiston), imagine the Mickey Mouse buttons that would have been melted off in the course of those experiments.

Oh, and did I mention that mouse-killing Priestley was a friend (or at least a close acquaintance) of American founding fathers Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams? Imagine a politician today getting involved with someone having such petty disregard for the lives of ordinary rodents. Shameful.

Plus, get a load of these other Priestley factoids: Priestley was one of the founders of the Unitarian church. And he invented carbonated water.

Unholy moley, that guy got around, didn’t he? I’m about to turn 40, and I can’t remember the last time I discovered a significant natural process, developed a personal relationship with a founder of modern democracy, inspired a heretical branch of Christianity, or got in on the ground floor of a new soft drink craze. At least I’m hip to the phlogiston thing. But I must admit, I do leave the mouse extermination to my husband.

What I do have in common with Priestley is something that Steven Johnson (author of The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America, a Priestley biography) describes as essential to innovation in the 18th century. I speak of course, of leisure time. If Priestley was a working man, engulfed daily in the smoke and smog of the Industrial Revolution, rather than a minister available to gather with the members of the Honest Whigs and the Lunar Society to discuss political, religious, and scientific issues of the day, he, as we, might have died not knowing one of the core principles of second grade science. Yup, I’ve got the kind of leisure time necessary to read a bio of Mr. Priestley and to put together this very informative blog post. And you, dear reader, have the leisure time necessary to read it (though some of you probably ought to get back to work!).

Unfortunately, it is close to washed-up actor Jason Priestley who may have more leisure time on his hands than he would like. Well, Jason, I guess there’s always science.



  1. Lorraine said,

    June 12, 2009 at 7:49 pm

    Darn, I’ve been sprung! Honestly reading your posts is so much more relaxing, entertaining and even educational than writing reports! (I’m at home and it’s Saturday morning (9:18 am). Our school network won’t let me look at Scheirmadness!)

    • scheirmad said,

      June 15, 2009 at 3:27 pm

      Glad that I’m providing much-needed diversion! And happy to be so educational!

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