Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Priestley And History

Compiled by Derek A. Davenport
Department of Chemistry
Purdue University

“In order to facilitate the advancement of all the branches of useful science, two things seem to be principally requisite. The first is, an historical account of their rise, progress, and present state; and the second, an easy channel of communication for all new discoveries. Without the former of these helps, a person every way qualified for extending the bounds of science, labours under great disadvantages; wanting the lights which have been struck out by others, and perpetually running the risk of losing his labour, and finding himself anticipated in the discoveries he makes, which is a great mortification and discouragement.”
-The History and Present State of Discoveries relating to Vision, Light, and Colours

“It will be seen, in the preface to the first edition of the History of Electricity, that I then considered the history of all the branches of experimental philosophy as too great an undertaking for any one person; but like the fox with respect to the lion, a nearer view has familiarized it to me, and I now look upon it not only without dread, but with a great deal of pleasure; considering it not only as a very practicable business, but even as an agreeable amusement.”

“I have adopted the historical method, because it appears to me to have many obvious advantages over any other for my purpose; being peculiarly calculated to engage the attention, and to communicate knowledge with the greatest ease, certainty, and pleasure. Moreover, the recital of the labours of philosophers in an historical method gives a writer a better opportunity than a systematical method would do, of transmitting them to posterity in such a manner as will operate most powerfully on the minds of the readers…”

“These connections of man are every day growing more extensive. The most distant parts of the earth are now connected: every part is every day growing still more necessary to every other part; and the nearer advances we make to general happiness, and the more commodious our circumstances in this world are made for us, the more intimately and extensively we become connected with, and the more closely we are dependent upon one another.”
-JRC p. 78

“We scruple not to plant trees for the benefit of posterity. Let us likewise now sow the seeds of truth for them…I do not write this from a persuasion that everything I have myself contended for is indisputably true. On the contrary, I have for the sake of discussion, hazarded many things, and shall probably hazard many more; and I have actually changed my opinion, theological as well as philosophical, which I have advanced since I was a writer.”
-JRC, p. 80

“Because common sense is a sufficient guard against errors in religion, it seems to be taken for granted, that common sense is a sufficient instructor also [for children]; whereas, in fact, without positive instruction, men would naturally have been mere savages with respect to religion; as, without similar instruction, they would have been savages with respect to the arts of life and the sciences.”
-JRC, p. 67

“There are many things in the system of nature, as tempest, lightening, diseases and death, which greatly terrify and annoy us, and which are often the occasion of much pain and distress; but these evils are only partial; and when the whole system, of which they are a part, and a necessary consequences, is considered, it will be found to be, as far as we can judge, the best, and the most friendly upon the whole, and that no other general laws, which should obviate and exclude these evils, would have been productive of so much happiness.”
-JRC, p. 74