Coming into the home stretch of my Seven Books plan for this summer and I’m really excited to tell you about the fifth book – The Invention of Air by Steven Johnson. I was completely floored by how quickly I was able to read it and how packed with fascinating information it was.
You may not know the name Joseph Priestley, but he’s one of the most important figures in science, political philosophy and the Age of Reason. Priestley quite literally invented air, bumbling around in his amateur’s laboratory in the late 1700’s. Priestley was the first scientist (they were called natural philosophers back then) to figure out that plants converted carbon dioxide into oxygen and that the whole world was a giant ecosystem with all animals, vegetation and chemicals playing a role. He did this with homemade instruments in his kitchen sink, no formal training whatsoever. His discoveries fueled a landslide of scientific breakthroughs which ultimately led to a political revolution across the European continent and eventually across the Atlantic in the colonies.
He became best friends with Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and was a major influence on our Founders, contributing greatly to the philosophy that drove the American Revolution.
The most important takeaway you will come across in the book is the idea that industrialization, natural philosophy and politics are all incredibly interrelated, and that the drive toward liberty took place as a result of a multi-disciplinary approach to discovery. Franklin was the world’s first “electrician”, carrying out his earliest experiments and relaying the results to his friends in an English coffeehouse. Priestley was his confidante and the two would collaborate over the course of a lifetime. The amateur scientist eventually became a political firebrand, and couldn’t separate his burgeoning scientific knowledge from his observations about the need for religious freedom and liberty from tyrants. It would cost him dearly but enrich the entire world.
And the underlying cause that eventually led to America was all chemical.
The south of England is warmer than it ought to be. Geographically, it sits at the same latitude as Newfoundland, which is covered in snowpack for six months out of the year. But something called the gulf stream, which Franklin discovered, changed its climate and made it an agricultural wonderland. The gulf stream takes warm waters from the Caribbean and drives them first north along the North American continent, and then due east across the Atlantic, ending at the shores of the lower half of Britain. This is why southern England was the economic center of the country from the middle ages through the end of the 18th century.
And then something amazing took place. A massive, 300 million year old deposit of carboniferous rock – which we would call coal – is discovered just below the surface of Northern England’s soil. Industrialists begin to put it to work with their steam-powered machines and all of a sudden, the wealth of the European world begins to gravitate up to Birmingham and the surrounding area. This gives rise to a new industrial powerhouse around which a new class of moneyed merchants and machinists begins to coalesce. The agrarian south, which is what largely supports the monarchal classes and traditional power structures of generational wealth, begins to lose sway. The whole center of gravity shifts north, following the coal and, of course, the money.
The newly wealthy don’t give one whit for the old moneyed interests and their various church and state-supported institutions. Revolution is in the air and natural philosophers like Franklin and Priestley find themselves at the center of a whirlwind. The philosophies they will concoct, germinated from science and subsequently bleeding into the very question of mankind’s purpose, will prove strong enough to jump the Channel and influence the French Revolution. And by the time Franklin is being exiled to America for his dangerous ideas, an even bigger powder keg of rebellion is already being lit.
Here’s Steven Johnson:
This is a recurring theme of human history: major advances in civilization are almost invariably triggered by dramatic increases in the flow of energy through society. The birth of agriculture enabled humans to stockpile energy in the form of domesticated plants and livestock, thus enabling the larger population centers that evolved into the first cities. Empires became possible thanks to innovations that captured the energy required to move armies and government officials across large distances, via the muscular energy of horses or the harnessed wind power of ships. Industrialization took the stored energy of Carboniferous rocks and combined it with ingenious new technology that exploited that energy in countless ways. The result of that new energy influx was a nation utterly transformed in little more than a century: a tremendous increase in wealth and innovation, a radical restructuring of the relationship between town and country, and a whole new way of life—industrial labor—with all the terror and trauma that entailed.
Once this new energy source had been discovered and exploited, nothing would ever be the same again.
Priestley ends up running for his life as the concepts he writes about become too much of a threat to the established order of things. He flees before a trail of riots, fires and dead bodies as he makes his way from the old world to the new.
Fifty years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence – to the day (July 4th) – John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both die, within hours of each other. This is one of the most extraordinary stories of our founders and it’s absolutely true. What’s lesser known but of equal importance is that the two ex-Presidents and former rivals had been carrying on a correspondence by mail on regular basis for the fourteen year period leading up to their deaths. And in these letters, they spend the preponderance of time discussing Joseph Priestley – more than they discuss of any other acquaintances of theirs, including George Washington or James Madison.
His influence on both the American Experiment and on the advance of science in general should not be lost to history. Steven Johnson’s amazing book assures that they won’t be.