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Priestley, Joseph

Category: Scientist

Nitrous oxide was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, nitrogen, and ammonia, and perhaps the greatest chemist to appear since Paracelsus.

Priestley was a Unitarian minister and a philosopher as well as an experimental scientist. He was a student of languages: he studied Chaldee and Syriac, and could read Arabic as well as French, German and Italian.  Priestley is mostly remembered because of his discoveries of oxygen and nitrogen and for laboratory techniques for working with gases, but he also published ten volumes on theology, the history (and corruption) of religion, and metaphysics, as well as several books on colour, light, and electricity. He met Lavoisier on a trip to France, and it was from Priestley that Lavoisier learned how to prepare oxygen.

This portrait of Priestley shows his parting on his right
the sign of a left hander, but his portrait above shows he
had been probably forced to write with his right hand
a common practise of the time, which is probably why
he had a stutter - its advantage is that it would have helped
to make him 'balanced'

Priestley's father lived in Yorkshire, was of the Nonconformist party and raised his son in that tradition. Priestley's whole education was in ‘alternative’ schools. He never attended a university.  In spite of a severe stutter, as a young man Priestley supported himself by teaching school.  He corresponded with Benjamin Franklin and taught his students and  himself electricity and chemistry. He also wrote political tracts, supporting the American Revolutionary cause and later that of the French.

At the age of thirty-four, Priestley moved with his family to Leeds. His house was next door to a brewery, and it was in experimenting with the by-products of the brewery, that he began his career as a chemist.

He collected the gas bubbles coming up from the brewing vats and discovered that they would extinguish a candle flame. He learned to prepare this-"fixed gas" himself and invented soda water, for which he was given a gold medal by the Royal Society.  He invented the pneumatic trough to collect pure gases, and was the first to collect hydrogen chloride gas, bubbling it through mercury instead of water.

It was at Leeds that he conducted the experiments that led to the discovery and  characterisation of nitrous oxide, oxygen, nitrogen , ammonia and hydrogen chloride gas.

 

There is no record that Priestley ever inhaled nitrous oxide, but he did inhale oxygen. He proved that oxygen was the part of air that supported life when he was unable to resuscitate a mouse that had collapsed fifteen minutes after he had placed it in a bell jar, while another mouse in a jar of oxygen remained conscious over twice as long and revived after being rescued from the jar (Priestley warmed it in front of his fireplace).  Priestley deduced that oxygen was richer than common air and correctly worked out that it would be beneficial for cases of morbidity where a person was short of breath. He also sensed that pure oxygen would be too rich to breathe all the time, that one would “live out too fast."

Whilst Priestley was attending a banquet of the Constitutional Society in July 1791, to commemorate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, town reactionaries encouraged by the government and the main stream church, burned down his house and his laboratory, destroying his books, manuscripts and everything he owned. The French offered him asylum, but Priestley finally chose to emigrate to America.

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