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Joseph Priestley was born in Yorkshire, the eldest son of a maker of wool cloth.His mother died after bearing six children in six years.Researchers had distinguished no more than two dozen or so elements, depending on who was doing the counting. Nobody knew what it was, and researchers kept finding that it could be converted into such a variety of forms that they routinely spoke of different "airs." The principal method for altering the nature of air, early chemists learned, was to heat or burn some compound in it.
Rutherford dubbed it "noxious air" because it asphyxiated mice placed in it. But none of those revelations alone tells the whole story.
The next major discovery would come from a man whose early life gave no indication that he would become one of the greatest experimental chemists in history.
Before long, he was encouraged to study for the ministry.
And study, as it turned out, was something Joseph Priestley did very well.
Young Joseph was sent to live with his aunt, Sarah Priestley Keighley, until the age of 19.
She often entertained Presbyterian clergy at her home, and Joseph gradually came to prefer their doctrines to the grimmer Calvinism of his father.He found a way to produce artificially what occurred naturally in beer and champagne: water containing the effervescence of carbon dioxide.The method earned the Royal Society's coveted Copley Prize and was the precursor of the modern soft-drink industry.Among them was the colorless and highly reactive gas he called "dephlogisticated air," to which the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier would soon give the name "oxygen." It is hard to overstate the importance of Priestley's revelation.Scientists now recognize 92 naturally occurring elements-including nitrogen and oxygen, the main components of air.An Englishman by birth, Priestley was deeply involved in politics and religion, as well as science.When his vocal support for the American and French revolutions made remaining in his homeland dangerous, Priestley left England in 1794 and continued his work in America until his death.Back to top In 1767, Priestley was offered a ministry in Leeds, Englane, located near a brewery.This abundant and convenient source of "fixed air” — what we now know as carbon dioxide — from fermentation sparked his lifetime investigation into the chemistry of gases.Some 2,500 years ago, the ancient Greeks identified air — along with earth, fire and water — as one of the four elemental components of creation. But it made excellent sense at the time, and there was so little reason to dispute it that the idea persisted until the late 18th century.It might have endured even longer had it not been for a free-thinking English chemist and maverick theologian named Joseph Priestley.