Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

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.


Oxygen Day at Priestley House

Posted July 30th, 2015

Benjamin Franklin interpreter to visit Joseph Priestley House Visitors to the Joseph Priestley House, Northumberland, on Sunday, Aug. 2, will be able to meet Benjamin Franklin and hear first-hand how he invented the lightning rod and once flew a kite during a thunderstorm to demonstrate that lightning was a form of electricity. Dr. Franklin will be portrayed by Mile (Mike) Kochan, a living history interpreter who has specializes in the technology of the 18th century.


Franklin’s visit will occur during special Oxygen Day activities that commemorate Priestley’s 1774 discovery of oxygen. The English scientist isolated and identified the gas while doing experiments in his English laboratory. Franklin’s presentation will be repeated at intervals throughout the afternoon. Ronald Blatchley, a retired chemistry teacher, will also portray Dr. Priestley, the renowned British 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. Dr. Priestley’s program will be conducted twice: at 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. in the Pond Building on the grounds.

Franklin’s and Priestley’s programs are suited for all ages, especially youngsters interested in science. Born in Boston in 1706, Franklin was 27 years old when Priestley was born in England in 1733. The two met in London and became friends despite the difference in their ages. Both men were deeply interested in electricity. Joseph Priestley’s 1767 book, titled “The History and Present State of Electricity,” contained a detailed description of Franklin’s famous 1752 kite experiment. Scholars believe that the book contained details that Priestley probably obtained directly from Franklin. Franklin died in 1790, four years before the Priestleys emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1794.

Oxygen Day will be sponsored by the Friends of the Joseph Priestley House. 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. Guides wearing 18th century dress will greet them and answer questions.




Joseph Priestley on PBS – Wed., Aug. 19 at 8pm

Posted May 25th, 2015


The Mystery of Matter: Search for the Elements is an exciting PBS series about one of the great adventures in the history of science: the long (and continuing) quest to understand what the world is made of—to identify, understand and organize the basic building blocks of matter.

Patrick Page, Ava Deluca-Verley and Hugo Becker
as Joseph Priestley, Marie Anne and Antoine Lavoisier

Three hour-long episodes introduce viewers to some of history’s most extraordinary scientists: Beginning in episode 1 with Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier, whose discovery of oxygen—and radical interpretation of it—led to the modern science of chemistry; Humphry Davy, who made electricity a powerful new tool in the search for elements; Dmitri Mendeleev, whose Periodic Table brought order to the growing gaggle of elements; Marie Curie, whose groundbreaking research on radioactivity cracked open a window into the atom; Harry Moseley, whose discovery of atomic number redefined the Periodic Table; and Glenn Seaborg, whose discovery of plutonium opened up a whole new realm of elements, still being explored today.

The Mystery of Matter shows us not only what these scientific explorers discovered but also how, using Broadway-caliber actors to reveal the creative process through the scientists’ own words, and conveying their landmark discoveries through re-enactments shot with working replicas of their original lab equipment. Knitting these strands together into a coherent, entertaining whole is host Michael Emerson, a two-time Emmy Award-winning actor.

Mystery of Matter:  Search for the Elements will be shown  on Wednesday, August 19, 2015 from 8PM to 11PM. (3-1 hour shows airing back to back on these PBS stations – WVIA Public Media (Scranton- Wilkes Barre), WITF (Harrisburg) and WPSU (State College).  Check your local PBS station for broadcast times in your area.

Discoveries of Joseph Priestley: the videos

Posted June 16th, 2014

Discoveries of Joseph Priestley:  videos on Carbon Monoxide and Ammonia

The Friends of Joseph Priestley House have released videos of Priestley’s discoveries.  The videos include:  a review of his discovery  a demonstration of the discovery process in a modern laboratory   a discussion of the hazards and uses of the gas.

Viewers of the videos are asked to complete a brief survey

Carbon monoxide discovery here

Ammonia discovery  here.

Partial funding for the carbon monoxide discovery video was provided by the Susquehanna Valley Local Section through an American Chemical Society Local Section Innovative Program Grant (January 2013 round).   Partial funding for the Ammonia discovery video was from a Merck Cherokee Neighbor of Choice grant. These videos  are used in the museum to explain Priestley’s achievements to visitors.