Last Friday was the 176th birthday of Rev. Joseph Priestley. Rev. Priestley has been credited (sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly) as the man who discovered the implications of oxygen, invented soda water, founded modern day Unitarianism, tore apart the friendship of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, was a seditious alien, and as Benjamin Franklin said, “an honest heretic.”

I just read an excellent new book about Rev. Priestly called, The Invention of Air, by Steven Johnson.

Below is a very good interview of Johnson on the Colbert Report last week.

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We have a lot to thank Joseph Priestly for. Not only did he set the basis for the faith we share, his isolation of oxygen from plants sparked the first major environmentalist movement of the modern western world.

His invention of soda water, allows for one my favorite vices–namely carbonated beverages.

His involvement in the American and French Revolutions through his political writings helped shape early American culture.

But in my book, what I really appreciate about Priestley is his willingness to share ideas. Johnson writes that Priestly was an unapologetic over-sharer. He had no problems with sharing his ideas, bouncing new thoughts off of friends, and publishing his extremely detailed notes of handmade instruments. In the enlightenment era he lived in, property rights were just starting to incorporate creative and intellectual products. Many of Priestley’s intellectual enemies profited directly from his own lack of intellectual discretion.

But in many ways, Priestley’s proclivity to sharing ideas and his vast and prolific publications led to the open source, creative commons, and DIY movements of today.

Just as Priestley would spend hours in London’s coffeeshops distributing and collecting ideas from his peers, we have seen people do the same today. Believing that intellectual freedom breeds innovation and advancement; makers, crafters, programmers, etc. have blown open the old paradigm of intellectual property rights through the Internet.

People like Lawrence Lesig have innovated the way we think about political lobbying through his Open Congress Initiative. Linus Torvalds started a movement to make computer operating systems built by users for uses through Linux. Movements like Maker Faire and unconferences allow many people to come around a theme but work unrestricted by schedules to be creative and open to new possibilities.

So happy birthday Rev. Priestley! We celebrate your life and mind! I lift my fizzy water to you while tinkering over my crafts and gadgets I share with my friends and peers.

About the Author
Alex Winnett


  1. Alex Winnett

    Thank you for the edit!

    The names have been changed to reflect the edits.


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