Joseph Priestley

Who was Joseph Priestley?

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was an English scientist, political theorist, and clergyman. He spent most of his life in England however he did move to America later in his life. Priestley was born Fieldhead in the parish of Birstall, near Leeds, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where the modern day Priestley Society is based, and was brought up in nearby Heckmondwike. He would later move to to Birmingham, London and eventually Northumberland, Pennsylvania. He attended Batley Grammar School, England.

He is most famous for his discovery of oxygen on the 1st of August 1774. A lot of every day substances are also atrributable to Priestley's work. Without Priestley we wouldn't have Carbonated Drinks and might not have the eraser (Indian gum). We wouldn't have hydrochloric acid, nitrous oxide (laughing gas), carbon monoxide or even sulphur dioxide. Priestley also did experiments with electricity and his associates included Benjamin Franklin and even Thomas Jefferson. He even encouraged James Watt towards chemical research.

Priestley was also a Unitarian Preacher and political theorist who wrote over 150 books that advanced liberal, political and religious thought at the time. He oppposed slavery, promoted religious tolerance and universal civil rights for minorities. He also played a significant role in formulating the written constitutions of the United States and France and wrote many works on theology, which were well based on his remarkable knowledge of ancient languages.

His religious and political beliefs were very controversial and his house was burnt down in the 1791 Birmingham 'Priestley Riots'. Priestley moved to Northumberland in Pennsylvania USA, fleeing those who opposed his views.

More Information

For a light introduction to Joseph Priestley you can listen to our 2005 radio broadcast here.

For an overview of why Priestley is worth such special attention you can see this article.

If you have any questions that our site does not address then feel welcome to contact us.