Today, we meet the man Ben Franklin called an
honest heretic. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
The Reverend Joseph
Priestley fled from England to America in 1794. The
greatest intensity of our American Revolution, and
of the English Industrial Revolution, were past.
Priestley had played a large role in that great
overturning of the English-speaking world. Those
twin revolutions had been opposite faces of the
same coin, and he bore deep scars from the
political wounds he'd suffered as a warrior in the
Priestley was born in 1733 and raised as a
Protestant, outside the Church of England, in rural
England. He was ordained as a minister when he was
22. For the rest of his life he served as a
preacher, a scientist, an educator, and -- always
-- a revolutionary. He advocated laissez
faire; education to prepare students for
daily life; and democracy as a way to achieve "the
greatest happiness for the greatest number." He
believed that Christianity spoke to material human
need. He was branded as an Antichrist and a
heretic; but his beliefs were nearest those of
He met Ben Franklin in England, and Franklin
encouraged him to finish a book on electricity. By
the time he was 33, that book had led to membership
in the Royal Society. The next year he took a
parish near Leeds, and he also started studying
mercuric oxide. He found that heating it released
the gas that would later be called oxygen. He
thought it was exceptionally pure and breathable
air -- the Aristotelian principle of air. He also
found that after air was killed by burning a candle
in it, growing plants would restore it. Priestley
put others on the road to identifying oxygen in
modern terms -- as a chemical element.
In 1780 he took the parish of a dissident
Protestant group in Birmingham. There he joined a
small cell group made up of the major
industrialists and intellectuals of the day -- men
like Boulton, Watt, Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, and
the astronomer Herschel. These fomenters of the
Industrial Revolution studied science, technology,
and philosophy. And they bred change.
But after 11 good years there, on Bastille Day,
conservative rioters destroyed Priestley's church,
his home, and his laboratory. The mob wanted to
lynch him and his family, too, but they slipped
away with minutes to spare. He lay low for a while
and then moved to Lancashire, Pennsylvania. He died
there in 1804.
Ben Franklin wrote one of Priestley's students in
1788 and sent greetings to this kindred spirit:
"Remember me affectionately to the honest heretic,
Dr. Priestley ... " he said.
I wish I could show you Priestley's American
portrait over the air. It's a good face, an open
face, an intelligent, courageous, and secure face.
He looks so much like Jefferson.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds