Joseph Priestley

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Priestley, Joseph,

1733–1804, English theologian and scientist. He prepared for the Presbyterian ministry and served several churches in England as pastor but gradually rejected orthodox Calvinism and adopted Unitarian views. He settled in London in 1765 and moved to Birmingham some years later. In both cities he became associated with some of the outstanding figures of his day, such as Benjamin Franklin, James Boswell, James Watt, Josiah Wedgwood, and Erasmus Darwin. Priestley's Essay on Government (1768) suggested the idea of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number" to Jeremy BenthamBentham, Jeremy,
1748–1832, English philosopher, jurist, political theorist, and founder of utilitarianism. Educated at Oxford, he was trained as a lawyer and was admitted to the bar, but he never practiced; he devoted himself to the scientific analysis of morals and
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. In 1769 he founded the Theological Repository for critical discussion. In his History of Electricity (1767), he explained the rings (known as Priestley's rings) formed by a discharge upon a metallic surface. His improvements in the manipulation of gases enabled him to investigate the properties of gases and to discover new ones, including sulfur dioxide, ammonia, and what Priestley called "dephlogisticated air," the gas that LavoisierLavoisier, Antoine Laurent
, 1743–94, French chemist and physicist, a founder of modern chemistry. He studied under eminent men of his day, won early recognition, and was admitted to the Academy of Sciences in 1768.
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 named oxygen and made the basis of experiments that were the foundation of modern chemistry. Priestley himself, however, failed to realize the importance of his discovery of oxygen.

Priestley's Examination of Scottish Philosophy appeared in 1774; his History of the Corruptions of Christianity, published in 1782, was officially burned in 1785; and his History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ appeared in 1786. In 1790 he wrote two volumes of a General History of the Christian Church to the Fall of the Western Empire, and four volumes of the later history of the church appeared between 1802 and 1803. In the meantime he pursued his scientific and philosophical studies; opposed orthodox doctrines, the government's colonial policy, and slave trade; advocated the repeal of the Test Act and Corporation Act; and carried on a seven-year controversy (1783–90) with the Rev. Samuel HorsleyHorsley, Samuel
, 1733–1806, English prelate, noted as a scientist. He became bishop of St. David's in 1788, of Rochester in 1793, and of St. Asaph in 1802. Science was the field in which he first became widely known.
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Priestley's sympathy with the aims of the French RevolutionFrench Revolution,
political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789. Origins of the Revolution

Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution.
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 aroused popular prejudice against him, which led in 1791 to the wrecking of his house and the destruction of his library and scientific apparatus. Priestley emigrated to the United States in 1794 and lived at Northumberland, Pa., for the remainder of his life. He became friendly with many of the nation's founders, forming a particularly close tie with Thomas Jefferson, and continued his chemical experimentation, engaging in a controversy on the phlogiston theoryphlogiston theory
, hypothesis regarding combustion. The theory, advanced by J. J. Becher late in the 17th cent. and extended and popularized by G. E. Stahl, postulates that in all flammable materials there is present phlogiston, a substance without color, odor, taste, or weight
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 with leading American chemists. Priestley, who was fluent in seven languages, wrote a total of nearly 500 books and pamphlets.


See his letters, ed. by R. E. Schofield (1966); his memoirs (2 vol., 1806, repr. 1970); L. Kieft and B. R. Willeford, Jr., Joseph Priestley: Scientist, Theologian, and Metaphysician (1979); J. J. Huecher, Joseph Priestley and the Idea of Progress (1987); S. Johnson, The Invention of Air (2008); bibliography by R. E. Crook (1966).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Priestley, Joseph


Born Mar. 13, 1733, in Fieldhead, near Leeds; died Feb. 6, 1804, in Northumberland, Pa. British materialist philosopher, chemist, and public figure. Son of a weaver.

Priestley was ordained after graduating from divinity school. He defended the principle of toleration, spoke out against British colonial domination during the American War of Independence (1775–1783), and welcomed the French Revolution. Persecution forced him to emigrate to the United States in 1794. Priestley was a member of the Royal Society of London (1767) and the Paris Académie des Sciences (1772) and was elected an honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1780.

Engaged in a passionate long-standing debate with proponents of various idealist schools, Priestley believed that nature is material and that the mind, or spirit, is a property of matter. He held that matter obeys its own ineluctable, intrinsic laws and elaborated this theory in his Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (1777). However, adhering to the principles of deism, Priestley believed that these very laws were the product of divine reason. He linked the notion of strictest causal necessity of all phenomena to the principle of the materiality of the world, repudiating the position of theologians who maintained that man, construed as a particle of matter, would no longer be responsible for his actions.

Priestley developed and popularized D. Hartley’s doctrine that all psychic processes, including abstract thought and volition, are governed by laws of association implanted in the nervous system. This doctrine facilitated the widespread dissemination of a materialist outlook on psychic phenomena not only in Great Britain but also in other countries. Priestley opposed the philosophy of the Scottish school.

In 1766, Priestley began research in pneumatic chemistry. In 1771 he showed that air, contaminated by combustion or respiration, becomes suitable for breathing when exposed to the green parts of plants. In 1772 he established that nitric oxide converts to nitrogen peroxide upon exposure to air. In the years 1772–74, Priestley, using a mercury trough for gas collection, was the first to obtain hydrogen chloride and ammonia. Simultaneously with K. Scheele, in 1774, he discovered oxygen and went on to isolate, in pure form, silicon fluoride, sulfur dioxide (1775), and carbon monoxide (1799). Although he enriched chemistry with many new facts, Priestley was unable to explain them properly because of his adherence to the erroneous phlogiston theory.

Priestley is also the author of several valuable works on the history of science as, for example, his studies on electricity and optics. He also wrote on the problems of methodology in scientific research.


The Theological and Miscellaneous Works, vols. 1–25. London, 1817–32.
In Russian translation:
Izbr. soch. Moscow, 1934.
In Angliiskie materialisty 18 v., vol. 3. Moscow, 1968.


Istoriia filosofii, vol. I. Moscow, 1957. Pages 615–19.
Figurovskii, N. A. Ocherk obshchei istorii khimii: Ot drevneishikh vremen do nachala XIX v. Moscow, 1969. Pages 304–10.
Holt, A. D. A Life of J. Priestley. London, 1931.
Gillam, J. G. The Crucible: The Story of J. Priestley. London, 1954.
Priestley’s Writings on Philosophy, Science and Politics. Edited and with an introduction by J. A. Passmore. New York-London, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Priestley, Joseph

(1733–1804) scientist, educator, Unitarian minister; born in Leeds, England. In 1794, already famous as a scientist, teacher, and dissident minister, he emigrated in search of religious freedom and because his defense of the French Revolution had made him so many enemies. Settling in Pennsylvania, he became an early promoter of Unitarianism in America. A pioneer in the physics of electricity and the chemistry of gasses, in America he concentrated on writing his theological works, notably A General History of the Christian Church (1789–1802), but he became a friend and supporter of Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
References in periodicals archive ?
Straaijer, Robin 2009 "Deontic and epistemic modals as indicators of prescriptive and descriptive language in the grammars by Joseph Priestley and Robert Lowth", in: Ingrid Tieken-Boon van
The Enlightened Joseph Priestley. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.
"Joseph Priestley is one of those impossibly accomplished figures that epitomize the late 18th century: author, physicist, linguist, theologian, chemist, revolutionary and yes, the inventor of soda water.
The book's subtitle, Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World, refers to Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles, and a formulator of an early form of the theory of evolution); Joseph Priestley (one of the discoverers of oxygen and a Unitarian leader); James Watt (inventor of the steam engine); Matthew Boulton (the manufacturer and engineer who financed Watt's steam engine); and Josiah Wedgewood (of Wedgewood pottery fame, known for his scientific approach to the craft).
Reid said little in his published writings about his contemporary Joseph Priestley, but his unpublished work is largely devoted to the latter.
1774: English chemist Joseph Priestley announced his discovery of oxygen.
While Enlightenment figures like Joseph Priestley and Adam Smith viewed the history of science as a species of "philosophical history," religiously-minded scholars as diverse as Priestley, Pierre Duhem, and Stanley Jaki used it in the conflict between scientific and religious cultures, and nineteenth-century positivists appropriated it to the justificatory needs of science itself.
67-77) stand side by side with extracts from topical political essays (e.g., Joseph Priestley's 'On the Nature of Government, and the Rights of Men and of Kings', pp.
In 1780 Benjamin Franklin wrote to Joseph Priestley, the chemist, biologist, and minister: "I always rejoice to hear of your being still employed in experimental researches into nature and of the success you meet with.
It is a tribute to the intellectual and polemical achievements of Richard Price and Joseph Priestley that the activities of the rational dissenters of late eighteenth-century England continue to fascinate historians, philosophers, and theologians.
Joseph Priestley, who is not mentioned in Im Hof's book, claimed, in his History of the Present State of Electricity (1767), that recent discoveries of electrical phenomena would extend 'the bounds of natural science....
The careers of William Cullen, Joseph Black, Joseph Priestley, and Humphrey Davy can now be seen as paradigms of a discipline that could only make its discoveries known and accepted by becoming part of public culture.