Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) – A Grand Tour
by Patrick Mason
Joseph Priestley is one of Yorkshires most famous and perhaps most significant scientists. He is best known for discovering oxygen a simplified description of the quite complicated process of producing, identifying and characterising the gas which was undertaken over a number of years with contributions from Carl Scheele and Antoine Lavoisier as well as Priestley. This in itself is reason enough to commemorate him, but it is actually only one of his many scientific achievements and innovations, others of which include:
- Discovery (production and description) of other gases including: carbon monoxide (CO), nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide(NO2), ammonia (NH3), sulphur dioxide (SO2), hydrogen sulphide (H2S), silicon fluoride (SiF4) and nitrogen peroxide (N2O4)
- Statement of the inverse square relationship for the interaction between electric charges (to become Coulombs law more than a decade later)
- The discovery of the carbon cycle (the conversion of carbon-dioxide to oxygen by photosynthesis in plants and the reverse process by respiration in animals)
- The invention of the rubber pencil eraser and indeed, first coining the word rubber
- The invention of artificially carbonated water, a product soon after commercially exploited by Johann Jacob Schweppe.
This impressive list would make Priestley one of Britains most celebrated scientists. However, despite being recognised by his peers (he received the Royal Society Copley Medal in 1772), his distinctly anti-establishment position on politics (support for the American and French revolutions) and theology (a life-long dissenter and one of the founders of the Unitarian Church in England) led to his being despised by many of his compatriots. His full life story is a fascinating insight into almost all aspects of the Enlightenment movement in the late eighteenth century. It is impossible to do justice to his biography in this short article but, an overview of his life can be presented as part of a grand tour of the places that Priestley lived and worked. The following is then a chronological list of the various locations associated with Joseph Priestley. Some of the buildings still exist but the location of many of those that are no longer standing have been marked by commemorative plaques. Enjoy the tour and, if you are passing by any of the sites listed, see if you can find the buildings and plaques mentioned.
Yorkshire 1733-1752Joseph Priestley was born at Fieldhead, Birstall in 1733. The original house no longer stands but a plaque marks the site and a statue of Priestley stands in Birstall town centre.
Joseph, being one of six children, only lived here a short time before being sent away to live with his uncle on a farm at Shafton until the age of four. A few years later, he returned to Fieldhead when his mother died but was soon sent away again to his aunt Sarah at Old Hall, Heckmondwike when his father remarried.
Old Hall in Heckmondwike still stands and is now a Samuel Smiths public house.
A plaque on the front notes that scientist and reformer Joseph Priestley lived here 1742-1752″. Here, he was raised as a Calvinist but, not content with being an ordinary non-conformist, by the time he was sixteen, he had already started to develop his own dissenting theology. His intellectual talent was demonstrated by his ability to master the languages: French, Italian, German, Arabic, Syrian and Chaldean.
Here, he gained the qualifications which allowed him to take appointments to minister at various non-conformist chapels around the country. The building where the academy was housed still stands on 47 Sheaf Street (with a plaque to note Priestleys residence there).
Needham Market 1755-1758
After three trying years in Suffolk, Priestley was offered an appointment in Nantwich, Cheshire.Here, he was much more welcomed and respected. He was able to open a school teaching languages and science. Priestleys house still stands and can be found at the rear of the Elizabethan Sweetbriar Hall on Hospital Street.
While in Nantwich, Priestley also ministered at Newcastle-under-Lyme: a plaque on the wall of Newcastle Unitarian Church notes this. During these years, Priestley wrote a book on grammar, which was one of the first publications in what was to become a prolific writing career.
Priestley then set about writing The History and Present State of Electricity an authoritative work supported with some of his own experiments. In the course of this work, he proposed that the force between two electric charges is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them: the first statement of what was to become known as Coulombs Law after Coulomb proved it by accurate measurement. The site of the later Warrington academy is occupied by a Salvation Army citadel a plaque notes the contribution to physics made here.
In Leeds, Priestley made his first serious researches in to the study of airs (gases). One of his most significant discoveries was made in the brewery next door to his house in Meadow Lane (neither exists now). Here, he discovered that fixed air (what we now know as carbon dioxide CO2) was produced by the fermentation process. Among the many experiments on the gas he performed, one involved dissolving the gas into water: he thus invented artificially carbonated water.This was a discovery that he did not benefit from himself but a few years later J.J. Schweppe was to exploit the commercial potential of soda water.
Also while in Leeds, Priestley went on to show that air was depleted of goodness by burning such that mice could not breathe it. Furthermore, if a small plant such as mint were put in the same air it became, after some days, good enough for mice to breathe it again. This was his first evidence of the carbon cycle and the nature of what was to become known as oxygen. Thus were some truly important discoveries in the history of science made in Yorkshire.
Priestley gained notoriety through his publications and this brought him to the attention of William Petty, the 2ndEarl of Shelbourne who recruited him as librarian and tutor. Shelbournes country house was Bowood near Calne in Wiltshire.
During his years working in Calne, Priestley also produced, characterised and identified many of the other gases including sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), nitric oxide (NO) and ammonia (NH3). The room where he kept his laboratory can be viewed at Bowood House. A plaque placed by the American Chemical Society marks it as a Historic Chemical Landmark.
The job of librarian/tutor for Lord Shelbourne came to an end in 1789 and the Priestley family moved to Fairhill in Birmingham where Joseph had connections in the Lunar Society, a circle of intellectuals and industrialists including Erasmus Darwin, Mathew Boulton, James Watt and Josiah Wedgewood.
Priestley was increasingly involved with and outspoken on political matters and expressed support for American independence and the French Revolution.This, of course, identified him as distinctly anti-establishment. Eventually, as fear of the radical politics of revolution increased in England, Priestley became demonised as a threat to the established church and King. This culminated in the eponymous Priestley Riots in Birmingham in 1791 which resulted in his house at Fair Hill and the New Meeting House being razed. There are now no remains of Fair Hill house but a plaque marks the site near to the street named Priestley Road.
They lived for a two years at a house on the site of what is now 113 Lower Clapton Street (marked by a plaque).
Priestley continued to minister to dissenting congregations, mainly at the Gravel Pit chapel in Ram Place (also marked by a plaque). Having lost all his scientific equipment and many books at Fair Hill, and having to keep a low profile politically led to Priestley making to decision to emigrate to the United States of America.
Northumberland, PA. 1794 1804
Although not as active as in his years in Calne, he managed to add carbon monoxide (CO) to his list of discoveries before retiring completely. He died at his home in 1804. The house is now preserved as a museum and is marked as a Historic Chemical Landmark by a plaque placed by the American Chemical Society.
To find out more:
Norman Beale, Joseph Priestley in Calne, Hobnob Press, 2008
Joe Jackson, A World On Fire – A heretic, an aristocrat and the race to discover oxygen, Penguin, 2005
Steve Johnson, The Invention of Air, Penguin 2009
Joseph Priestley, The History and Present State of Electricity, facsimile copy available from Amazon.co.uk
Joseph Priestley, Experiments And Observations On Different Kinds Of Air, facsimile copy available from Amazon.co.uk
Robert E. Schofield, The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley A study of his life and work from 1733 to 1773, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997
Robert E. Schofield, The Enlightened Joseph Priestley A study of his life and work from 1773 to 1804, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004
Open Plaques (listings of UK hertitage plaques), http://openplaques.org/people/2516
American Chemical Society, National Historic Chemical Landmarks, http://acswebcontent.acs.org/landmarks/landmarks/priestley/
William Dargue, A History of Birmingham Places & Placenames . . . from A to Y (for notes on the location of Fair Hill), http://billdargue.jimdo.com
Joseph Priestley House Museum, Northumberland PA, http://www.josephpriestleyhouse.org/
The Priestley Society, Birstall (a local group promoting information on Priestley), http://priestleysociety.net/
 Photographs by Patrick Mason;  Based on original by Jonathan Kington under Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 licence;  Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons;  Based on original from American Chemical Society, with permission.
Main image: Portrait of Joseph Priestley by Ellen Sharples circa 1794- public domain image from Wikimedia Commons (original: National Portrait Gallery, London).
[Article © Yorkshire Philosophical Society 2012]