Categories: Chemistry in History , Trips |  Comments
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, 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. (more…)