Priestley's first work in science (1769)


The history and present state of electricity, with original experiments.

Published: London, J. Dodsley, J. Johnson and J. Payne

Date: 1769

4to, pp. [6], xxxii, 712, iii, [11], eight folding engraved plates; fine in recent full calf with gilt calf lettering-piece.

Also see Anne Holt, Life of Joseph Priestley (1970), pp. 38-40; Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air, pp. 18-61; and T. E. Thorpe, Joseph Priestley (1st edition), pp. 61-65. Ekelöf I, 36; Mottelay, 227; Ronalds, 412; ESTC, T36345.

Priestley's (1733-1804) History and present state of electricity was first published in 1767, making it his first scientific work (he had already published extensively in theology, history and other subjects). Priestley had met Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) and a group of other scientists interested in electricity (then known as electricians) in London in 1765 and was inspired by them to pursue his plan for a work on the history of electricity and to start conducting his own experiments. 'These included observations on ice, on common air and various forms of "mephitic air" (air unfit for respiration), and on the effect of pressure on the electrification of air in different conditions.' (F. W. Gibbs, Joseph Priestley, p. 27) He proved that there is no electric force inside a hollow charged sphere, and went on to suggest that electricity obeys an inverse square law, like gravity, a theory that was fully developed later by Charles-Augustin Coulomb (1736-1806). He also demonstrated the conductivity of charcoal thus overturning the long-held notion that only water and the metals could conduct electricity. His work got him elected to the Royal Society in 1766. After publishing the first edition of the present work in 1767, Priestley followed it up the following year with a popular edition, the Familiar introduction to the study of electricity (1768), and then the present enlarged addition of the 1767 work. 'At the end of his History, he added a number of queries and hints as Newton had done before him … The most interesting was one that showed that he was already thinking about the age-old problem of the resemblance between the calcination of metals and the respiration processes of plants and animals. It was to occupy him in various ways for the next twenty years. His views on the connections between electricity and chemistry also reveal the cast of his thinking at this time. Both these subjects, he said, have to do with the latent or less obvious properties of bodies; and yet their relation to each other had received little attention and hardly anyone had ever tried to use them together, partly because few electricians were sufficiently well versed in chemistry. Light, he thought with Newton, would prove the key to electrical phenomena "and other, at present, occult properties of bodies".' (Gibbs, Joseph Priestley, p. 29) Priestley was quickly caught up by his many other interests, and while he published on optics in 1770 and 1772, his later scientific work was mostly in the fields of chemistry and pneumatics, beginning with his Directions for impregnating water with fixed air (1772) (a recipe for soda water, which became something of a craze) and then his major multi-volume work on gases, the first volume of which was published in 1774, which among other things outlined his discovery of oxygen (or 'dephlogisticated air' as he insisted on calling it). Nevertheless the present work remained the standard history of electricity for over a century. Third and fourth editions were published in 1775, and then a fifth in 1794.


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