The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson

by Derwood Hunsdale-Talbot on September 25, 2009

the-invention-of-airUpon finishing this book, you might wonder why a portrait of its subject, Joseph Priestly, isn’t seen on some piece of American currency. He was that important. He was also a good friend of a number of folks who did eventually get their faces on money, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.

Oh, and he also discovered the constituent parts of air and how animals consumed oxygen and gave off carbon dioxide and how plants did the opposite. His observation of mist in a nearby brewery led to the identification of carbon dioxide. He established many of the fundamental techniques of scientific experimentation. He studied and added to the knowledge of electricity, the Gulf Stream and blood circulation. He founded the Unitarian Church. He took full advantage of that all-too-rare circumstance: being a genius with spare time.

He was also a man of principal, who held in low esteem many of the elite. For example, he observed, “Thus far, radical increase in energy have led, almost without exception, to two long-term trends: an overall increase in wealth, and an increase in social stratification. (Most people improve their standards of living eventually, but the elites benefit disproportionally.) And this: “I find the conduct of the upper so exactly like that of the lower classes that I am thankful I was born in the middle.”

It was this egalitarian attitude that drew him to the grand experiment then happening in America in the late eighteenth century. (Well, that, and the fact that a mob burned his house down.)

The author, Steven Johnson, has done a fine job of framing the life of Priestly in a way that is structured as a well-told story. The fact that all of it is true makes it more remarkable. Anyone interested in the history of science and the important personalities and politics of that tumultuous time of so much birth would find this a satisfying read.

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