Joesph Priestley (born: March 13, 1733 / died: February 6, 1804)
|Priestley was born in Fieldhead, Yorkshire, the son
of a Calvinist minister. Priestley trained as a minister of the Dissenting
church, which comprised various churches that had separated from the Church
Priestley was encouraged to conduct experiments in the new science of electricity by the American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin, whom he met in London in 1766. Priestley wrote The History of Electricity the following year.
|He also discovered that
charcoal can conduct electricity. In 1767 Priestley became minister at Leeds,
where he grew interested in research on gases. His innovative experimental
work resulted in his election to the French Academy of Sciences in 1772, the
same year in which he was employed by William Petty Fitzmaurice, 2nd earl
of Shelburne, as librarian and literary companion.
During Priestley's experiments in 1774, he discovered oxygen and described its role in combustion and in respiration. An advocate of the phlogiston theory, however, Priestley called the new gas dephlogisticated air and did not completely understand the future importance of his discovery. The Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele may have discovered oxygen before Priestley, but did not make his work known in time to be credited with its discovery. Priestley also isolated and described the properties of several other gases, including ammonia, nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide. During his career, Priestley remained opposed to the revolutionary theories of the French chemist Antoine Lavoisier, who gave oxygen its name and correctly described its role in combustion. In 1780 Priestley left his position with Petty because of religious differences. He became a minister in Birmingham. By this time he had turned to Unitarian thinking, and was considered a religious radical. His book, History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), was officially burned in 1785. Because of his open support of the French Revolution, his house and effects were burned by a mob in 1791. He went to live in London, and in 1794 he emigrated to the United States, where he pursued his writing for the remainder of his life. Priestley died in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. His posthumously collected Theological and Miscellaneous Works (25 volumes, 1817-1832) and Memoirs and Correspondence (2 volumes, 1831-1832) cover a wide variety of subjects in science, politics, and religion.