Making History

A footnote in many other tales, Joseph Priestly finally gets his own book.

Joseph Priestley invented soda water, discovered that plants emit oxygen, co-founded the Unitarian Church in England, wrote what was possibly the first popular science book, befriended Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, had breakfast with George Washington, influenced the writing of the Jefferson Bible, became a target of the Alien and Sedition Acts, and indirectly ignited the Jefferson/Adams letters — one of the great American political discourses. “This guy just keeps popping up at all these turning points in history and has such a great impact,” says Steven Johnson, author of The Invention of Air.

It’s exactly that Forrest Gump-like quality of Priestley’s life that piqued Johnson’s interest in the somewhat forgotten scientist/theologian/political thinker, who often ended up residing in historical footnotes. “I was going to write a broader book on innovation and discovery, and I stumbled on this story of Priestley’s oxygen experiments and the American connection,” Johnson says. “There was one turning point where I read that Jefferson said Priestley had the single biggest effect on his religious beliefs and had even kept him a Christian. I thought, ‘This is a side of the Founding Fathers I hadn’t heard. I’m going to write a whole book on this guy.’”

Johnson will discuss and sign the book tonight at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Avenue; admission is free. For more information, call 303-322-7727 or go to www.tatteredcover.com.
Mon., Jan. 19, 7:30 p.m., 2009

 
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