Joseph Priestley

Joseph Priestley

If you’ve never heard of the phlogiston theory, it’s probably because it was discredited a long time ago, due to the fact that phlogiston doesn’t exist. However, that didn’t stop Joseph Priestley from believing in him, betting his career, reputation, and ultimately his life on the idea that a fire-like element must exist within every type of matter .

His tenacious adherence to that fallacy caused Priestley to be branded infamous … well, that and the Priestley riots . As a chemist, he is credited with isolating and describing various gases , including oxygen. What could account for those strange beliefs that caused him so much trouble?

His beliefs, in fact, are at the origin of everything, from his stubborn insistence that things must be this way to the presumed existence of phlogiston, a hypothesis that he defended until the end of his life.

While most scientists make chemistry, physics, or biology their life’s work because they are passionate about science, Priestley embarked on a life of discovery and experimentation to prove religion. His theological education and his fervently devout background led him to conclude that moral and religious facts could not be mere thoughts; they must have a recognizable source or origin.

This British chemist used what he discovered in his laboratory to preach at the pulpit, but his congregation did not accept it. Rather than take the hint and focus on more Church issues, he retired to his laboratory, devoting himself entirely to education and scientific experimentation.

At Warrington Academy, after a few assignments in various churches, he was received with open arms. In fact, thanks to his work to separate English from Latin grammar and having established a successful school of his own, Warrington felt fortunate to have retained it.

They gave him everything he needed to set up a laboratory, where he discovered:

  • Dephlogistized nitrous air (nitric oxide).
  • The deflogistized air (oxygen).
  • Alkaline air (ammonia).
  • Nitric air (nitrous oxide).
  • Acid marine air (anhydrous hydrochloric acid).

Considering the magnitude of his discoveries, it is strange that he is better known for his theses on English grammar than for any of his scientific discoveries .

Furthermore, with such a reputation and a history of discovery , it is difficult to see how Joseph Priestley could be the cause of the Birmingham riots, let alone have to flee for his life.

How those events unfolded is a topic that I would give for a full article … Joseph Priestley

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