World’s Super Scientists – Priestley Joseph

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Discoverer of Life Gases – Priestley Joseph

Joseph Priestley (1733 to 1804) born near Leeds, England, Physical scientist, clergyman and political theorist.

At Scientist Priestley Joseph’s young age he mastered French, Italian, German, Arabic, and English. He got over a slight speech impediment, however, which acted as a trigger to trim him up. He was troubled with ill-health in childhood.

In 1758 Scientist Priestley Joseph was employed in a school. In 1761 he wrote Rudiments of English Grammar. In 1765 Edinburgh University conferred LL.D. on him.

Scientist Priestley Joseph met Benjamin Franklin, the roving ambassador of the American colonies who inspired him to write the book, the History and Present State of Electricity in 1766 which work earned him a membership of the Royal Society.

In 1767 he was appointed Minister of Mill Hill Chapel in Leeds.

Scientist Priestley Joseph studied gases and “airs” as they were then called. He observed “fixed air” (carbon-di-oxide) as it effervesced from vats of fermenting liquors; a burning splint of wood was extinguished in this “air”.

Scientist Priestley Joseph dissolved some of it in water and invented soda water which sprang up into an industrial bonanza, the billion-dollar soda water industry offering ice-­cream, soda, Cola drinks, ginger ale, etc., to please the palate; this venture earned him a gold medal.

Scientist Priestley Joseph was elected to the French Academy.

Scientist Priestley Joseph wrote a book on description of gas experiments, On Different Kinds of Air (1772). Nitrous oxide, later called “laughing gas” was experimented upon.

Later Humphry Davy got quite a good bit of kick out of it, on inhalation.
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Impressed by his success which led to the flourishing soda water industry, Lord Shelburne offered him financial assistance and a good laboratory.

On August 1, 1774 he did an experiment: a candle will burn in a colourless gas with a vigorous flame which was called by Lavoisier “dephlogistinated air”, i.e., “Oxygen” (phlogiston was thought to be linked with burning and combustion — idea prevailing in the 18th Century chemistry).

In 1775-80 Priestley did lot of experimentation to arrive at the fact that oxygen was the active principle of the atmosphere and realized its role in combustion and respiration. May we call him ‘the Father of Oxygen’?

Scientist Priestley Joseph discovered other gases in the atmosphere, ammonia, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen and carbon monoxide.

Scientist Priestley Joseph established the fact that light is important to plant growth; photosynthesis in plants described; green plants gave off oxygen to the atmosphere. He placed a plant in a chamber devoid of oxygen; 10 days later a candle burned in the chamber denoting that the plant contributed oxygen into the surroundings.

During 1774-86 he wrote a book, Experiments and Observations in Different Kinds of Air — 6 volumes.
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From 1779 onwards he spent his life in Birmingham, the industrial city. He wrote a book on religion and theology, History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), on which lot of religious uproar was created.

Scientist Priestley Joseph was attacked and opposed; though not on strict orders of execution like Rushdie, the Iranian poet.Priestley never bothered to patent his discoveries. The Lunar Society named “Lunatics” consisting of stalwarts like James Watt, Erasmus and Darwin undertook to subsidize Priestley’s experiments.

The year 1791 turned out to be a bad year for Priestley. A mob in the second anniversary of the French Revolution smashed his library and laboratory, set fire to his house — an irreparable loss which Priestley continued to lament till his death. Priestley was branded a traitor and blamed as anti-Christ.

Scientist Priestley Joseph fled to the United States. He was respected in the alien land. The triumphant trio — Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington gave him asylum.

In Pennsylvania he isolated the useful, but deadly gas, carbon monoxide; useful. in the sense that it cooks your food, deadly in the sense that it asphyxiates.

The carbon monoxide in automobile exhausts and cigarette smoke is virtually “death in small doses”.

Joseph died in 1804 at the age of three score years and ten.

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