Joseph Priestley, Polymath

3D front cover of The Rudiments of English Grammar by Joseph PriestlyIt was the case a few months ago that Charles Babbage was our only author whose books are reissued in all three CLC colours. But now he is joined at this rarefied level by Joseph Priestley.

Every schoolchild knows (or used to) that Priestley (1733–1804) discovered oxygen in 1774. (At any rate he was the first to publish his discovery – a man called Scheele in Uppsala probably got there the year before, and later had the misfortune to discover various other elements for which Sir Humphry Davy is usually given the credit.) Being (I like to think) one step ahead of the average schoolchild, I also knew that Priestley was a dissenting minister, and that this had probably hindered recognition of his achievements among the eighteenth-century Establishment.

But, to my shame, I had no idea of the full range of his interests, intellectual, theological and political, nor of the vicissitudes of his life. Look at the list of books we have reissued:

The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761)

A Course of Lectures on the Theory of Language, and Universal Grammar (1762)

The History and Present State of Electricity (1767)

An Essay on the First Principles of Government (1768)

Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1775–7)

A Course of Lectures on Oratory and Criticism (1778)

Miscellaneous Observations Relating to Education (1778)

This is a small part of his output (it does not, for example, include any of his theological works, among which were a General History of the Christian Church and Socrates and Jesus Compared).  His NON-scientific works were published in 26 volumes after his death, and his output of tracts, papers, lectures and letters was staggering.

Priestley was brought up (firstly by his grandfather, then by his father’s sister) to be a dissenting minister, though his early formal education was patchy. He seems to have taught himself Hebrew, and later Chaldean, Syriac and Arabic, as well as French and German. As dissenter, he was automatically disqualified from higher education at Oxford or Cambridge, and could not afford to travel to Scotland or the continent. He attended a ‘dissenting academy’ at Daventry, where he encountered David Hartley’s Observations on Man, a lifelong influence. He graduated in 1755, and after an unsuccessful period as a minister in Suffolk and Cheshire, friends (including Andrew Kippis) recommended that he be appointed to the academy at Warrington, as a tutor in languages and belles-lettres.

It was in this post that he wrote his first didactic books. His emphasis in all of them is on utility and against theory: in the Rudiments, he expresses surprise ‘to see so much of the distribution, and technical terms of the Latin grammar, retained in the grammar of our tongue; where thy are exceedingly awkward, and absolutely superfluous’.

But a correct understanding of underlying theory can foster utility: in the Theory of Language, he makes an analogy between the theory of Physic, without knowledge of which the cure of diseases (Medicine) will not be efficient, and the understanding of grammar, the lack of which renders speaking, reading, and (especially) writing less efficient. (There is a typographical oddity in this book: on the few occasions where Priestley uses a Greek word, there is a space in the text. One can only assume that Mr W. Eyres, the printer in Warrington, did not have the Greek font, and the reader (intended to be a lecturer planning his own course of teaching) could readily supply the words by hand.)

Priestley’s own theory of utility resulted in the transformation of the Warrington academy’s curriculum, from aping the traditional university education, designed for men who would go into the ‘learned professions’, to providing the grounding needed in modern languages, mathematics and science for men who would be active in commerce and industry, and partakers in civil life. His Essay on the First Principles of Government (with its vital subtitle, And on the Nature of Political, Civil and Religious Liberty) was hugely influential on later liberal theorists and politicians.

Meanwhile, Priestley had published his first scientific work, on electricity, an overview of historical discoveries together with descriptions of his own experiments and results. He continued to work on scientific topics as time from his other duties (as a minister in Leeds, and as tutor and librarian in the household of the earl of Shelburne) allowed. His first paper on chemistry was an instruction manual on impregnating water with carbon dioxide: it caused quite a stir, and led to the establishment of the fizzy drinks industry.

An odd scientific ‘what if?’ is provided by Sir Joseph Banks’ 1771 invitation to Priestley to accompany him on Cook’s second voyage: this ended in a debacle in which Banks himself was forced to withdraw. Between 1774 and 1777, he published the three volumes of the Observations on Air, including his discovery of five gases, one of which was oxygen. But when his period with Shelburne ended, Priestley moved to Birmingham, where he took up a post as minister and became a member of the Lunar Society, enjoying the company and intellectual stimulation of like-minded men – Erasmus Darwin, Wedgwood, Boulton and Watt.

But the active and fulfilling years in Birmingham came to a disastrous end in 1791, when a riot broke out against a dinner (not attended by Priestley) celebrating the anniversary of Bastille Day. He was known to be in favour of the French Revolution, and widely (and most ironically) believed to be an atheist, and his house and laboratory were destroyed, with the loss of all his papers and equipment. He then spent three years in Hackney, but frustrated by the lack of congenial company, and threatened by the government’s attempts to stifle political dissent, he decided to emigrate to the United States, where a community of dissenting liberals was to be formed in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. (He had to produce evidence that he was not fleeing arrest before being allowed to embark.)

A hearty welcome in the States (which caused a virulent attack by William Cobbett, writing as ‘Peter Porcupine’) and the friendship of Thomas Jefferson were pluses. On the other hand, he was unable to obtain a post as a minister, and the expected exodus of like-minded liberals from Britain failed to materialise after the acquittal of Horne Tooke and other at their trial for treason. Priestley spent the rest of his life quietly in Northumberland, continuing to experiment and to publish on science, but above all on religion and against atheism. It seems likely that, to him, his scientific discoveries were the least important of all his many achievements.


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