Reading 28

The following passage is adapted from an article that originally appeared in American History magazine (© 2009 by Steven Johnson).

Franklin/Priestley

  1. This is a story that begins—like so
  2. many tales of innovation and
  3. controversy in 18th-century culture
  4. —with a coffeehouse. The
  5. Enlightenment-era coffeehouse
  6. was the Internet of its day: a hub
  7. of conversation, news, shoptalk and
  8. public debate. Whole industries
  9. were invented in these new social
  10. environments, fueled by the buzz of
  11. caffeine and the intellectual energy
  12. of different professions gathering
  13. together to share ideas. Lloyd’s of
  14. London, the first insurance
  15. business, was created in Lloyd’s
  16. Coffeehouse. And while merchants
  17. and ship owners made insurance
  18. deals at Lloyd’s on Lombard Street,
  19. profound ideas about science,
  20. faith and politics took flight among
  21. the gentlemen who frequented a
  22. busy establishment just north of
  23. St. Paul’s Cathedral: the London
  24. Coffeehouse.
  25. The most famous denizen of the
  26. London Coffee­house was,
  27. ironically, an American: Benjamin
  28. Franklin. Franklin had a regular
  29. clan in the coffeehouse, a band of
  30. fellow iconoclasts that he would
  31. later dub “The Club Of Honest
  32. Whigs.” The club “consists of
  33. clergymen, physicians and some
  34. other professions,” wrote
  35. biographer James Boswell.
  36. “Conversation goes on pretty
  37. formally, sometimes sensibly and
  38. sometimes furiously.”
  39. Franklin relished his time with the
  40. Honest Whigs. He would write
  41. mournful letters from America in
  42. the last years of his life,
  43. reminiscing about the many days
  44. and nights he spent with the
  45. “honest souls” at the London
  46. Coffeehouse. But of all those over-
  47. caffeinated sessions in the shadow
  48. of St. Paul’s, one stands out as
  49. particularly significant. In late
  50. December 1765, he met a young
  51. minister and author named Joseph
  52. Priestley. It was the beginning of a
  53. friendship between intellectual soul
  54. mates who would revolutionize our
  55. understanding of the natural world.
  56. Franklin was already recognized as
  57. one of the great scientists of the
  58. century. At thirty-two, Priestley
  59. was at the beginning of his career,
  60. but he was soon to embark on a
  61. series of experiments that would
  62. ultimately give him claim to the
  63. title of the man who “discovered
  64. oxygen.”
  65. While Franklin is renowned for
  66. advancing mankind’s knowledge
  67. of the basic laws of electricity,
  68. his role in encouraging Priestley’s
  69. experiments and in helping make
  70. sense of what he discovered has
  71. been almost entirely ignored by
  72. both scientists and historians.
  73. Priestley initially set out to answer
  74. a chemistry question: What is air?
  75. But it was Franklin who helped
  76. Priestley understand that he was
  77. grappling with an even more
  78. profound mystery: why we have air
  79. to breathe in the first place.
  80. Priestley’s experiments revealed
  81. that the air we breathe is not some
  82. unalienable physical
  83. phenomenon, like gravity or
  84. magnetism, but is rather something
  85. that has been specifically
  86. manufactured by plants. In turn,
  87. Franklin recognized that the
  88. manufacture of breathable air is
  89. itself part of a vast, interconnected
  90. system that links animals, plants
  91. and invisible gases. And the choices
  92. we make as humans can have a
  93. dangerous impact on that flow, if
  94. the core participants in the system
  95. aren’t properly appreciated and
  96. protected.
  97. In discovering how Mother Nature
  98. had invented our atmosphere,
  99. Franklin and Priestley were
  100. inventing something just as
  101. profound: the ecosystems view of
  102. the world. Priestley engineered an
  103. audience with Franklin and his
  104. fellow Honest Whigs because he
  105. had concocted an idea for a
  106. book on the history of electricity.
  107. As a small-town minister and
  108. teacher with a hobbyist’s passion
  109. for the new discoveries of
  110. “natural philosophy,” Priestley
  111. knew that no other field had
  112. generated so much innovation in
  113. such a short amount of time. But
  114. no one had written a popular
  115. account of these world-changing
  116. discoveries. So he set off to
  117. London, hoping to meet the
  118. “electricians” and to persuade
  119. them to let him tell the story of
  120. their genius.
  121. Franklin, naturally, was
  122. immediately supportive of the
  123. idea, and promised the young
  124. Priestley open access to his
  125. library. But he and his friends
  126. took one additional step that
  127. proved crucial: They encouraged
  128. Priestley to conduct his own
  129. experiments while writing his
  130. history. Hearing his idols urging
  131. him to write about his own
  132. investigations opened up a whole
  133. new field of possibility for the
  134. young man. Priestley had arrived
  135. in London as a dabbler in natural
  136. philosophy, tinkering in the
  137. provinces with his electrical
  138. machine and his air pump. By the
  139. time he left, he was a scientist.