Moonraker Probus Club of Devizes
Devizes Moonrakers Probus was delighted to welcome Dr. Norman Beale to give a talk on Joseph Priestley in Calne, but it was more than that is was a thorough biography. Priestley is one of the truly greats of British science yet is little known. Norman’s aim was to restore Priestley to the high esteem in which he was briefly held during his lifetime that is until he found that he had no soul, but we are jumping ahead.
Norman introduced the character of Priestley through a few pictures of well know personalities, for example Ian Paisley (religious fervour) Einstein (for his brain), Geoffrey Boycott (stubbornness).
Priestley was born in Yorkshire in 1733 to Dissenting parents. Religion played a large part in Priestley’s life as he went on to become a clergyman who was interested in science. Whilst he was ill for many years during his early teens with suspected TB and did not attend school, he therefore educated himself. Being a Unitarian dissident meant that he reject the 39 Articles of the Church of England and as consequence could not study at Oxford or Cambridge. He therefore chose the Dissenting Academy in Daventry. After matriculating in theological studies, he went on to be a clergyman, after a spell in Needham Market, Suffolk he went to the Dissenting Academy in Warrington. It was there that he started to experiment with static electricity; became ordained; married Mary Wilkinson.
Priestley through his experiments started to be widely known in scientific circles becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society. Whilst living in Leeds he collected fixed air (aka Carbon Dioxide) from a brewery vat. Fixed air dissolves in water making carbonated (soda) water. Unfortunately, Priestley was not an entrepreneur but a certain Herr Schweppes was.
In 1773, the Earl of Shelburne asked Priestley to serve as a sort of intellectual companion, tutor for the earl's offspring, and librarian for his estate at Bowood House. He took the offer and moved into the Old Parsonage in Calne. It was at Bowood House that, he conducted his famous experiment to discover oxygen. He observed that a flame went out when placed in a jar in which a mouse would die due to lack of air. Putting a mint plant in the jar and exposing it to sunlight would "refresh" the air, permitting a flame to burn and a mouse to breathe. The mouse seemed to require something in the air that the plant gave back; this process became known as photosynthesis. In another experiment, he focused sunlight on mercuric oxide inside a glass container thereby creating what he called dephlogisticated air, now better known as oxygen.
Priestley was a supporter of the French Revolution and continued to correspond with Franklin even though Franklin was now a rebel in Paris, raising funds for the American Revolution. Correspondence with a rebel plus his Materialism view of having no soul (atheist) meant that he was hounded out of society and eventually had to flee the country for America, after his home in Birmingham had been destroyed. He was welcomed in America and died in 1804 in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. Norman also managed to connect the wealthy Harris family of Calne, with Priestley’s wife's friends. She called them to come to Calne from Yorkshire to stay with her, due to her depression caused by Priestley’s lack of child rearing support. Good work Norman you set the record straight.
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