At the weekend I was off on a country jaunt to visit family. We went out to a delightful little pile in Wiltshire called Bowood House. However, despite all the science documentaries I’ve watched over the years that covered, among other things, the history of the elements I was taken by complete surprise when I walked into one of the rooms in the house: this was where oxygen was discovered.
Bowood House, Wiltshire

Bowood House, as it turned out, was where Joseph Priestley spent some of the most productive years of his scientific life in a tiny room-cum-lab only a little larger than a child’s bedroom. While working there in 1774, Priestley used a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays on mercury(II) oxide and liberated oxygen from it, naming the gas ‘dephlogisticated air’. This was because the prevailing theory of the time – phlogiston theory – held that substances that could be burned contained the mysterious substance phlogiston, while those that had been burned were dephlogisticated. Priestley was a life-long advocate for phlogiston theory and continued to defend it long after other scientists had concluded it was a dead end. Perhaps giving oxygen a name linking it with phlogiston meant that the theory still held some romantic associations for him.

Sadly, there’s little to show that this room was once one of the most exciting labs in Europe. Now, it merely looks like any other in a stately home with wood panelling, a fireplace and rows of bookcases (one of which is false and leads to the kitchen – a health and safety issue?!). The lab equipment has all gone to science museums, but a few artefacts remain.

RSC & ACS Plaque at Bowood House

RSC & ACS Plaque at Bowood House

Interestingly, there’s a few letters to Priestley’s chief benefactor of the time, Lord Shelburne. In one, Priestley wrote of a magnificent orrery he had seen costing £1600 (£100,000 in today’s money – science wasn’t cheap way back then either). He then just casually slips in that a sum less than this would fund his lab in its entirety. It seems begging letters for cash for research don’t go out of fashion – plus ça change.

In the former lab you can find a plaque donated by the RSC and ACS, describing it as an international historic chemical landmark. It does, however, rather gloss over his later years, merely saying that he left for the US 20 years after discovering oxygen at Bowood. The truth is a bit sadder. Priestley was living at the time of the American war of independence and the French revolution and was a fan of some of the ideas being codified by these nations, including improved education and personal liberty. This got him labelled as a dangerous agitator in Birmingham, where he was living at the time. In 1794 an angry mob burnt him out of his home and church (Priestley was a Unitarian minister as well as a scientist). It would be more apt to say he fled to the US. Even in Pennsylvania, where he spent his remaining years, his progressive politics were not well received and he spent his time defending himself from scurrilous accusations about his views and home life. Such is the life of dissenter.

Patrick Walter

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