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The Invention of Air

Steven Johnson

(Steven Johnson is an outstanding science writer: this, and The Ghost Map are two of the most readable histories I've ever come across)

Ben Franklin deduced basic principles of electricity, coining words battery charged and conductor. By 1750 he had worked out that lightning struck church towers, not because God had a strange bent towards burning down buildings erected in his honour, but because lightning was electricity, and it needed a lightning rod to conduct that electricity safely to ground.

Joseph Priestly was a country clergyman and amateur scientist keenly interested in the new 'natural philosophy' of electricity. He got an introduction to the freethinkers at the London Coffee House, who got behind his idea of writing a book to bring together a history of all the recent innovations and happy to contribute their diaries and letters as resources.

1767 Priestly published book The History and Present State of Electricity which was a completely new way of describing science. Instead of presenting it as a pronouncement from a superior authority, Priestley cast it as a story of progress; a staircase of innovations, each building on an earlier discovery. In his prologue, he discussed the advantage of this approach. Whereas most 'natural science' books of the day described things or events, they lacked the definitive movement toward clarity and understanding of his approach.

This new approach was a fundamentally new way of looking at the world. Almost every other society had seen itself as fixed - either as the peak of achievement or as some fallen version of perfection which cd never be regained. Looking back over the history of electricity enabled him to see science as an engine of progress and improvement, and realise that it wd only continue. This is only the beginning!

Priestley got a promotion to position in Leeds but bc house not ready, family took temp lodgings next to a brewery. CO2, then known as 'fixed air' had recently been discovered, and the fermentation vats produced large quantities of this. Priestley found that pouring jars of water back and forth while holding them above the vats quickly added an agreeable fizz to the water: Priestley had invented soda water. (He didn't bother trying to patent it - a guy named Johan Schweppe patented a method of carbonating water in 1783, for the long term benefit of his descendants)

More books on Inventions
The impact of the introduction of coffee into Europe during the seventeenth century was particularly noticeable since the most common beverages of the time, even at breakfast, were weak "small beer" and wine...Those who drank coffee instead of alcohol began the day alert and stimulated, rather than relaxed and mildly inebriated, and the quality and quantity of their work improved .... Western Europe began to emerge from an alcoholic haze that had lasted for centuries

More books on Drink
Importance of advances in measurement. Priestley benefited by having thermometers and scales that were far more accurate than tools available to previous generations. His scales were a 1000 times more accurate than ones da Vinci used 3 centuries earlier. Made poss to measure the very small changes in weight when plants or animals put in sealed containers.

Priestley moved to Birmingham, where he was supported by a group of prominent businessmen (Thomas Wedgewood, James Watt, toymaker Thomas Boulton) and intellectuals (Erasmus Darwin) who called themselves Lunatiks from their group the Lunar Society. They held their meetings every full moon, so that they wd have no trouble finding their way home after a long boozy night discussing science.

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