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.


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

Posted May 25th, 2015

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

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.

Three hour-long episodes introduce viewers to some of history’s most extraordinary scientists: 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 WVIA Public Media on Wednesday, August 19, 2015 from 8PM to 11PM. (3-1 hour shows airing back to back).  Check your local PBS station for broadcast times in your area.

Author to give June 28 talk on Thomas Cooper, Alien and Sedition laws

Posted May 15th, 2015

Charles Slack

Author Carles Slack, whose new book chronicles the prosecutions of Thomas Cooper and other newspaper editors who wrote articles critical of President John Adams, will speak at Priestley House on Sunday, June 28 at 2 pm in the Pond Building.

Titled Liberty’s First Crisis, Slack’s book examines the political issues and international conditions that led President Adams and other Federalists to enact the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The Federalists controlled the White House, the Congress, and the Supreme Court, and they used these laws to prosecute Cooper and others whose writings they saw as undermining the authority of  the federal government.

All the while, the Federalists readily exercised their right to verbally attack their out-of-power foes, the Democratic-Republicans.

Published by Atlantic Monthly Press, the book describes how Cooper, a close friend of Dr. Priestley and editor of the Sunbury and Northumberland Gazette, was brought to trial in federal court in Philadelphia in April 1800. He was charged with publishing material in 1799 that libeled the president.

Cooper asked the court to subpoena President Adams as a hostile defense witness, but the presiding judge – Justice Samuel Chase of the U.S. Supreme Court – scolded Cooper for thinking that Adams would be called to testify: “Sir, this cannot be permitted,” the judge declared.

Convicted following a one-day trial, Cooper spent six months in prison. He lived in Priestley House following his release.

Other editors targeted by the Federalists included Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of Benjamin Franklin. Bache’s newspaper, the Philadelphia Aurora, frequently attacked President Adams.

Slack’s presentation will take place in the Pond Building beginning at 2 p.m. The author, who lives in Connecticut, has published several other books, including Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century.

Summer History Camp Planned for Priestley House

Posted April 21st, 2015

Summer History Camp Planned for Priestley House

First through sixth graders may now register for Summer History Camp at the Joseph Priestley House in Northumberland.  The Joseph Priestley House will hold its camp from 9:00 a.m. to 12 noon on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, July 22, 23, and 24.  The theme is “Priestley House Childhood Memories.”  Jo Ann Long and Dixie Gavason have planned lots of interesting activities that will allow campers to become familiar with the Priestleys and how children were educated  in early America.  Crafts, games, stories, snack time, and visits with special guest presenters are part of each day’s activities.  The fee is $30.00 per child.


Camp Leader Lindy Witmer talks about the history of Priestley House


All campers must register in advance.
Enrollment is limited to 20 campers and the registration deadline is Monday, July 20.  For more information, please call 570-473-8563.