Priestley Discovers Oxygen
One of the fathers of modern chemistry, Joseph Priestley , explored the nature of gases in his work, as a by product creating what we now know as soda water; discovering the euphoric properties of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), but most significantly of all isolating oxygen and showing its significance in combustion and its life-giving properties.
Priestley, like many of the pioneering scientists of his day, benefited from having a great patron, in his case the 2nd Earl of Shelbourne, for whom from 1772 to 1780 he worked as librarian, and tutor to the Earl’s sons, at Bowood House near Calne in Wiltshire. It was in the laboratory provided for him off the library that he conducted his experiments: and on August 1 1774 he made his greatest discovery, separating oxygen from mercury oxide. He quickly found that what he called dephlogisticated air made a candle burn more brightly than it would in atmospheric air; and that it sustained a mouse trapped in a closed container four times longer than air would.
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