PRIESTLEY, Joseph, letters, autographs, documents, manuscripts



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The Doctrine of Phlogiston

PRIESTLEY, Joseph (1733-1804). Discoverer of oxygen.
Fine scientific Autograph Letter Signed to Dr [Benjamin Smith] Barton in Philadelphia, 3 pages 4to (split at central fold professionally repaired) with address, Northumberland, 16 June 1796.
An important letter written from the town in Pennsylvania where Priestley and his wife lived from 1794 until his death. The recipient, Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) was one of the central figures in Philadelphia's scientific establishment and the author of several influential works including New Views of of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America , 1798) to which Priestley alludes in the present letter.
 
'I wrote to you some time ago to inform you that I found the Russian Nomenclature 2 Vols 4to at Harrisburgh, and that the Inn keeper (Chaffer) promised to forward them to you immediately, and to request that you would tell me whether you had received them or not. Lest that letter should have miscarried, I mention it again. I also requested that you would be so good as to correct the press for a pamphlet I wished to publish on the subject of the doctrine of phlogiston. By this post I have sent the MS to Mr Dobson, with directions concerning it. I wish you would inform him that my name must be put in the title page as in my other publications, the running title should be The doctrine / of Phlogiston.
 In the MS I have used the following constructions
dd for dephlogisticated
pd for phlogisticated
pn for phlogiston.
The Motto Qualem commendes etiam atque etiam aspice [
sic]. - Horace.
 As you are a botanist, I wish you would get me, if you can conveniently, some seeds of the
Epilobium hirsutum, as I wish to make some experiments upon it, and I cannot find it here. If I remember right, it flowers late in England.
 Is your ingenious paper on the
Indian Antiquities printed. When you will, please to send me any news you can collect. Ask Mr Vaughan whether he has any letters etc for me from Europe. I have had none these three last months.
 I ordered by Mr Russell some
glass balls and tubes, to be made at Mr Nicholson's Manufactury, and to be joined by Mr Gatti the glass blower, who was to send with them some articles of his own. If you would be so good as to make inquiry about them, and hasten their being sent to me, you would lay me under a great obligation. But I fear it will not be in my (po)wer to return it. ... [PS] I beg to be remembered to Dr & Mrs Rittenhouse and his daughters.'
A theologian (a dissenting clergyman), educator and scientist, Priestley is generally credited with the discovery of oxygen, which he called 'dephlogisticated air'. There were, however, other claims to this discovery, notably that by Antoine Lavoisier. Priestley also discovered a number of other gases, but it was his determination to continue with the phlogiston theory or 'doctrine', namely that an element phlogiston was released during combustion, that left him somewhat isolated from the general scientific community. His political beliefs rather than his scientific standing had led to his self-imposed exile to America towards the end of his life. It is evident from the present letter that his scientific enquiries, experiments and publications continued unabated in the rather isolated surroundings of Northumberland, about 150 miles from Philadelphia.
 Scientific letters from Priestley very rarely appear on the market.
[No: 24159]


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