When Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) is remembered today, it’s usually for his 1774 discovery, in England, of oxygen. Few know he was a noted theologian, political progressive, and prolific author whose scientific contributions include the development of the modern timeline, the carbonation process, the identification of carbon monoxide and other gases, early experiments in electricity and an early understanding of the inter-relationship of plants and animals mediated by gases: oxygen and carbon dioxide and the role of sunlight in photosynthesis.
He counted Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Watt among his friends. Yet Priestley was also a controversial figure whose views were so odious to some of his countrymen that his house, Fair Hill in Birmingham, was burned in a riot in 1791, and he and his family fled to London and then left England in 1794. Priestley spent the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he continued his work in science, religion, and education. But even in this democratic republic his liberal ideas were frequently received with intolerance, and the peace that he so ardently desired was often elusive.
Joseph Priestley House and laboratory is an historic site that preserves and interprets the contributions and significance to American history of Joseph Priestley. As a National Historic Landmark and National Historic Chemical Landmark, the site features Priestley’s manor house with its laboratory. In the nearby Pond Building can be found the Joseph Priestley Timeline, a series of panels that present accomplishments during different periods of his life.
Posted July 30th, 2014
A child visiting the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland once asked, “What did people breathe before Dr. Priestley discovered oxygen?” The answer, of course, was air that already contained oxygen, which the English scientist isolated and identified while doing experiments in his laboratory in 1774. Some 240 years have passed since Priestley’s accomplishment.
Sunday, Aug. 3, will be Oxygen Day at the Joseph Priestley House, 472 Priestley Ave., Northumberland.
A living history interpreter portraying Dr. Priestley will present free programs on Priestley’s discovery, and Priestley House will be open from 1-4 p.m. with free admission. Joseph Priestley was the renowned scientist, political thinker and dissenting clergyman who lived in Northumberland from 1794 to his death in 1804. Best known for discovering oxygen, Priestley is credited with isolating eight gases.
Oxygen Day will be sponsored by the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House. Dr. Priestley’s program will be conducted twice: at 1:30 and 3 p.m. in the Pond Building on the grounds. The program is suited for all ages, especially youngsters interested in science. Portraying Joseph Priestley will be Ronald Blatchley, a retired chemistry teacher who has been interpreting the British scientist for more than 30 years and who has given presentations on Priestley in the U.S. and England. He will explain and demonstrate chemistry discoveries of the 18th century. Priestley House will be open from 1-4 p.m. with free admission, and visitors may tour the late 18th century Georgian house at their own pace and visit with guides wearing 18th century dress who will greet them and answer questions.
Ronald Blatchley as Joseph Priestley testing for oxygen
Posted June 16th, 2014
Discoveries of Joseph Priestley: Carbon Monoxide – the video
The Friends of Joseph Priestley House have released a video of Priestley’s discovery of carbon monoxide. The video includes a review of his discovery and a demonstration of the discovery process in a modern laboratory. The video concludes with a discussion of the hazards and uses of carbon monoxide.
Partial funding for this video production was provided by the Susquehanna Valley Local Section through an American Chemical Society Local Section Innovative Program Grant (January 2013 round).
Viewers of the video are asked to complete a brief survey here.
This is the first of a series of videos on Priestley’s discoveries. The videos will be used at Priestley House to explain Priestley’s achievements to visitors.
Posted January 14th, 2014
We are searching for the provenance of the plaster statuette of Joseph Priestley in the collection at Priestley House in order to write an informative description for the new display case. What we learn may be useful to others who also have the statuette in their collection.
We believe statuettes were cast from a mold of the modello used the guide FJ Williamson as he sculpted the marble statue of Priestley erected in Birmingham in August 1874 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of oxygen.
The statuette is about 2 feet tall, with PRIESTLEY carved in the base and the artist’s name, studio location and date inscribed in the column: WILLIAMSON, ESHER, 1874.
Inscription on column: WILLIAMSON, ESHER 1874
Base of statuette
Plaster statuette of Joseph Priestley
So far we have located information about these statuettes:
- Priestley House – This copy was given by Eagar Fahs Smith to the Priestley Museum in 1926.
Chemical Heritage Foundation – This copy came from the Chemist Club in New York. The statuette was photographed in the Club in 1923.
Dickinson College – The College has two copies. One was a gift by Edgar Fahs Smith to the Chemistry Department in 1923. The second was acquired later between 1950 and 1960 and is located in the Special Collections Department.
British Museum, Science Research Department – holds the modello used to make the mold to cast the statuettes.
Royal Society of Chemistry at Burlington House – this is a bronzed copy donated in 1920
National Gallery of Victoria, Australia – a statuette is listed in 1880 collections catalogue as presented for the inaugural of the Gallery by Dr. Thomas Aubrey Bowen a great-great grandson of Priestley. Whereabouts of this statuette currently unknown.
- Birmingham Museums – The museum holds in storage the modello for the bronze statue of Priestley erected in 1980. The original marble statue created by Williamson was taken down in 1951. It’s whereabouts is unknown.