Reflections on Reading of Mr Joseph Priestley and M Antoine Lavoisier While Travelling by Air Plane Between Leeds and Paris

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air sparks a delightful reverie on the pivotal role of 18th Century scientist, non-conformist minister and poltical thinker Joseph Priestley.

Living in Leeds, I was vaguely aware of Priestley from local museums and the blue plaque at Mill Hill Unitarian Church on City Square. What schoolchild could fail to be impressed by the tale of Priestley inventing fizzy pop after studying the bubbles in a brewers’ vat on Meadow Lane? He open-sourced the method, leaving one Johann Schweppe to make a fortune.

But until I picked up Johnson’s book I hadn’t grasped that Priestley’s years in our Northern English city included experiments that shaped scientists’ understanding of gases, plant and animal life, and ultimately our planetary ecosystem.

Johnson tells how, after various gruesome experiments resulting in the suffocation of spiders and mice by placing them in sealed containers, Priestley wondered how long it would take a sprig of mint to succumb to the same fate. (Mint grows like a weed in gardens round us!) To his surprise, the mint lived, thrived even. What’s more, a flame could be lit in the sealed container, something that had not been possible in the containers where animals had expired.

Priestley wrote of his discovery to his friend Benjamin Franklin who almost at once made the further leap that, “I hope this will give some check to the rage of destroying trees…”

Serendipitously, I read this section of the Invention of Air on one of my increasingly regular flights from Leeds to Paris. Across southern England and the Channel, I was engrossed in Steven Johnson’s account of how Priestley made his experimental breakthrough, yet got the explanation wrong. He believed that the animals and flames emitted a noxious substance known as “phlogiston” and identified the gas “mended” by the plants as “dephlogisticated air”.

Then, literally as my plane broke through the clouds on the descent to Charles de Gaulle Airport, the action switched to Paris where the English hacker Joseph Priestley shared his discoveries with French aristocrat Antoine Lavoisier. It was Lavoisier who, after absorbing the implications of Priestley’s discovery, proposed a theoretical framework, correctly identified that a gas was used up in burning and respiration, and named that gas oxygen.

The English hacker, the French theorist, the combination of the two in innovation. The thought made my day, so apologies to the various colleagues upon whom I inflicted this convoluted story.

Sadly neither country was eternally grateful: years later Priestley was forced to flee to the United States after a Church and King mob burned down his Birmingham home and laboratory, while Lavoisier was beheaded in the French Revolution.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If there’s one criticism it’s that Johnson sometimes seems a little too pleased with himself to have hit upon a “long view” narrative linking Priestley with Northern England’s Industrial Revolution preeminance and atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous Era. But I guess I would be too, if I’d thought of that. It’s engaging, readable, and packed with thought-provoking ideas.

A final thought provoked: many people read while travelling, yet “airport” has become a perjorative term in relation to books. Can someone create a service that helps match reading to travel and create more srendipitous moments like mine? I’m looking at you, Dopplr bookcampers.

Advertisements

“Why can’t I see it now?” Or why it pays to listen to your most demanding customer


05102008295

Oh the impatience of youth!

The first time one of my sons pressed the button on a non-digital camera, he turned to me and asked “where can I see the picture?”

I knew at once it was a significant moment, but I was all wrong about the reason why.

How cute, I thought, he’s so steeped in the digital age that he expects the image to be displayed instantly, just like on our digital camera.

Yet it turns out that the expectation of photographic instant gratification was not the preserve of the digital natives at all.

The evidence is here in this vignette from the 1940s family life of Edwin Land:

… on a family vacation in California, Land took a picture of a burro for his three-year old daughter, Jennifer. When the little girl impatiently asked, “Why can’t I see it now?”

Clearly Edwin Land was no ordinary father. Where most would have dismissed the request as childish naivity, he set to work on a startling answer: and within an hour came up with a concept that seemed revolutionary to grown-ups the world over…

It took Polaroid scientists nearly five years to make Land’s vision into a reality. By the fall of 1948, the Land 95 camera, priced at $89.95, was ready for the public. On the day after Thanksgiving, a sales and demonstration crew arrived at Boston’s Jordan Marsh Department Store. As astonished customers witnessed the first instant photos being made, cameras flew off the shelves. The demonstration ended early when the entire stock of cameras sold out.

I love the story of the Polaroid camera because it makes me wonder. What other innovations are out there, under our noses, so blindingly obvious that it takes a three-year-old to demand, and an attentive parent to deliver?

The first Great Western

From Simon Thurley’s fascinating Buildings That Shaped Britain we learn that Isambard Kingdom Brunel had only once travelled on a train when he designed the gloriously non-standard Great Western Railway from London Paddington to Bristol.

Now that, for good or ill, is the difference between innovation and design.