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Joseph Priestly and his Big (writing) Idea

Joseph Priestly, the Englishman we remember as a great scientist and the one who first discovered oxygen, was a writer before he was a scientist. And he was a writer with a Big Idea.

Priestly (1733-1804) lived in an age when interest in “natural philosophy,” what we would call “science” today, had exploded, and people were beginning to notice and discover things about the natural world they had never known before. One of the chief objects of this interest in “natural philosophy” was electricity, and Priestly’s natural curiosity sent his extraordinary mind in that direction.

He read whatever he could find about the subject, and that brought his attention to a group of men who were exploring the natural world in ways that had never been done before. The most eminent of those was Benjamin Franklin, possibly the most well-known non-royal in the Western world. 

In the 1760s, Franklin spent a good deal of time in England and met often with his group of natural philosophers (known as The Electricians).

In 1765, Priestly made his way to London from his home near Leeds, determined to introduce himself to Franklin and his group and propose his Big Idea.

In his reading about the group, Priestly had been frustrated by what he didn’t know. Most of what this group had discovered and the ideas and theories they had generated were confined to letters and papers they had shared among themselves. Priestly’s big idea was to change that by writing a book about them and their experiments.

To do that, however, he needed their help and cooperation.  So, on December 19, 1765, Priestly showed up at the London Coffee House next to St. Paul’s Cathedral where the group met. Franklin was there and so was John Canton and William Watson.

Priestly was warmly welcomed — and so was his idea.

They promised to share their correspondents and papers with him. They also encouraged Priestly to undertake and record experiments himself — advice that Priestly took to heart.

The result was a book published in 1767 titled The History and Present State of Electricity: With Original Experiments. It was a great success, going through five editions and translations into French and German.

The book changed the world’s view of science. In the words of Steven Johnson, author of a high readable biography of Priestly, The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America:

He had invented a new way of imagining science: instead of a unified Newtonian presentment, Priestly recast natural philosophy as a story of progress, a rising staircase of enlightenment with each new innovation building on the last. (p. 34)

Science, in other words, was a narrative, not an argument with conclusions.

It was a brilliant formulation and typical of the type of creative thinking that Priestly engaged in during his life, not only in science but also in theology, politics, education, and grammar. (Yes, grammar, which we’ll explore in another post.)