The Discovery of Oxygen by Joseph Priestley
7 August 2000, Bowood House, Calne, Wiltshire, UK
On Monday 7 August 2000, the Royal Society of Chemistry and the American Chemical Society unveiled an 'International Historic Chemical Landmark' at Bowood House, Calne, Wiltshire to commemorate the discovery of oxygen by Joseph Priestley on 1 August 1774. The Landmark recognises the importance of Priestley's work at Bowood in laying the foundations for modern chemistry.
Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) was a Unitarian minister, teacher, author and natural philosopher from Yorkshire. From 1773 to 1780 he was employed as librarian and literary companion to the Earl of Shelburne, owner of Bowood House. This role gave Priestley the time and facilities to pursue his groundbreaking experiments in 'pneumatic' chemistry.
In one of these experiments, Priestley used a magnifying glass to focus the sun's rays on a sample of the compound mercury (ll) oxide. He discovered that heating this compound produced a gas in which a candle would burn more brightly and a mouse could live four times as long compared to the normal atmosphere. This gas was oxygen. Although Priestley could not accurately interpret these results using the scientific knowledge of the time, his work was later used by Antoine Lavoisier to construct the theories that now underpin modern chemistry.
Priestley was a prodigious scientist who also discovered laughing gas, was the first person to carbonate water and did much of the early work on electricity. He inspired a generation of scientists with his theoretical ideas, but was a radical political and religious thinker. His support for the American and French revolutions made Priestley unpopular in England in his later years. He sailed to America in 1794, where he settled with his family in Northumberland, Pennsylvania before his death in 1804. It was at a commemorative meeting of American scientists a few years after his death that the American Chemical Society began.
The photo shows (l-r) Tony Ledwith - now Past-President of the Royal Society of Chemistry -Lord Lansdowne, owner of Bowood House, and Dr Edel Wasserman, Immediate Past-President of the American Chemical Society.
Read Oxygen by Carl Djerassi & Roald Hoffmann
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