An ill prepared political science student was sitting for his chemistry exam. For the question define a free radical he wrote, a wild protestor.

Joseph Priestley

Ever had a sip of soda and marvelled at the fact how a little fizz makes it different from fruit juices? Joseph Priestley added fizz in our life with the discovery of soda water and oxygen.

Today everyone knows oxygen is essential for us to breathe. People, animals and plants all need this gas to live. Joseph Priestley was the first person to discover oxygen.  He also invented soda water, the substance that makes soft drinks so fizzy.

The early years

Priestley was the eldest of six children from an English family. He spent his early years living with his grandfather. After his mother died when he was just six years old, in1741 he went to live with his aunt and uncle, Sarah and John Keighley, who educated him. In 1749 he became ill, which left him with a constant stutter. Ten years later Priestley started a school in Nantwich Cheshire. Here, he wrote a book on English grammar.

An electrifying discovery

Documenting the history of electricity was Priestley’s first scientific work. He met many famous experimenters including John Canton, William Watson and Benjamin Franklin.  He became so interested that he started his own experiments in electricity. Priestley discovered certain substances like charcoal that conducted electricity. This changed the belief that only water and liquids were good conductors of electricity. His book on the history of electricity became standard for over a century.

Soda water

When James Cook was to set sail on his second South Sea voyage, Joseph Priestley showed sailors how to create soda water. He thought this would cure Scurvy - a disease caused by lack of Vitamin C, common in sailors. Priestley discovered how to infuse water with carbon dioxide by suspending a bowl of water over a beer vat. He later experimented how to create carbon dioxide gas and infuse it in agitated water.

Experiments on airs and the discovery of oxygen

In 1744, Priestley conducted experiments on isolating air and discovered a new gas. Originally called dephlogisticated air, it was later named oxygen. He produced this by focusing suns rays on mercuric oxide. The reaction that resulted produced oxygen. Priestley’s experiments in air also lead to several discoveries, including nitric oxide, anhydrous hydrochloric acid, ammonia and nitrous oxide.

Studies in photosynthesis

Priestley’s studies and experiments in air also lead to the first discovery of photosynthesis. He showed how a burning candle in an inverted jar used up air and how keeping a plant in that jar could then produces oxygen by photosynthesis.

The American dream

When he was 61 years old, Joseph Priestley moved to America. Here he was welcomed as a contemporary thinker and friend. He was a supporter of both the American and French revolutions.

Tags :     Famous Scientists     Soda Water     Oxygen     Benjamin Franklin     William Watson     John Canton     Joseph Priestly    


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