‘A New Pure Air’: Joseph Priestley and the Discovery of Oxygen

The 1st of August 2024 marks the 250th anniversary of oxygen being isolated in the Laboratory at Bowood House.

Whilst employed by William, 2nd Earl of Shelburne (later 1st Marquess of Lansdowne) Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) undertook some of his most important scientific work on gases. Everyday millions of people benefit from inventions inspired by Priestley’s breakthroughs.

Dr Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)

Priestley had already made several important discoveries before Lord Shelburne employed him to catalogue his library, advise on his sons’ education and act as his personal literary companion. Principally, however, Lord Shelburne was Priestley’s patron guaranteeing him a home, income and time to concentrate on ‘experimental philosophy’ or science.

Image: Priestley Copyright The Royal Society

Permanent place in scientific history

Lord Shelburne and Priestley were complex and multifaceted people; both had inquiring minds and were fascinated by the new ideas of the Enlightened Age. Between 1773 and 1780, Priestley was provided with access to social and political circles he could never have gained on his own, while leaving plenty of free time for the research that would earn him a permanent place in scientific history.

  • Priestley published over 150 books and pamphlets on a range of subjects ranging from grammar and science to religion and politics.
  • He spoke nine languages, including Hebrew and Greek.
  • He was the first to describe the properties of nine common gases including oxygen, nitrous oxide (used later in anaesthesia as ‘laughing gas’), nitrogen, ammonia, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide.
  • He discovered soda water by impregnating water with carbon dioxide, and a vegetable gum which had the ability to erase pencil marks, which he called ‘rubber’.

2024 Exhibition

The 2024 exhibition can be viewed in Bowood House, a day ticket to Bowood House & Gardens will need to be purchased to view the exhibition.