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The Invention of Air

Steven Johnson

A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America

(Penguin)

Innovation is often presented as a confluence of brilliance and serendipity. Consider the apocryphal tale of Sir Isaac Newton’s formulation of the theory of gravitation, inspired by an apple falling from a tree. Apples had been falling since the dawn of man, and no doubt Newton had sat under quite a few apple trees in his life, but it wasn’t until that moment, that chance encounter between the colossal intellect and the plummeting fruit, that the spark of innovation caught hold. It’s a story that’s both endearing and a little frightening. Innovation is the engine of human progress, yielding significant advances in science and technology that have generally made the world a more comfortable place in which to live. It’s not something that can blithely be left to chance—it’s something we must better understand in the hopes of tapping into and taking advantage of the resulting benefits.


Steven Berlin Johnson, author of The Ghost Map and co-founder of the late, lamented FEED Magazine, believes innovation springs from the free and unencumbered flow of ideas and energy, and in his new book, The Invention of Air, he focuses on a fascinating 18th century polymath whose story illuminates the discreet, yet vital networks that make progress possible. Joseph Priestley was an amateur scientist, theological scholar, and political pundit with a prodigious mind and insatiable curiosity. Best known for his discovery of oxygen, Priestley’s simple experiments directly resulted in significant breakthroughs in the understanding of respiration, the interconnectedness of ecosystems, and the advent of modern chemistry. Though renowned for his contributions to science, Priestley could not help but apply his faculties for thought and reason to his other fields of interest, religion and politics. His outspoken views on religious tolerance and his fervent support for the French and American revolutions made him a pariah in his native England. After an angry mob demolished his home, he fled to the United States where he was hailed as an Enlightenment hero, and developed relationships with both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. The two founding fathers would be so affected by Priestley’s acquaintance that they would debate the nature of their interactions with him well into their old age.


All the evidence shows that Priestly possessed a great mind, capable of making innovative connections and leaps that led to profound changes in humankind’s understanding of the world. For Johnson, however, that is only part of the story. The Invention of Air argues that Priestley’s work cannot be viewed merely in the context of a single individual. It must be considered at larger and more inclusive scopes, a “long zoom,” which takes into account the myriad factors that aided Priestley in his pursuit of truth and knowledge. Only by examining how Priestley, with his fertile mind, was provided the tools and capabilities to put that mind to use can we better understand how to foster innovation in our own time. These streams of influence take readers on a remarkable journey throughout the intellectual academy of the 18th century, where some of history’s greatest minds ponder the world’s mysteries in bustling London coffee shops, and across vast expanses of time and space, back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean and even 350 million years into the past.


Priestley’s knack for forging important and complementary relationships was key to his success in not only realizing his experiments but in disseminating his results and claiming public success. He managed to simultaneously flatter and impress Benjamin Franklin, earning an invitation to an informal coffee-klatch known as the Honest Whigs. The Honest Whigs were intellectuals, theorists, and amateur scientists, and by joining their ranks, Priestley was tapping into the most potent information network of the age. This was the Internet of its day; each member was a hub and news about new discoveries and proposals spread far and wide between them via post, or were traded openly in London’s coffeehouses, which served as a focal point for the group. Later in his career, another powerful network of notables, known as the Lunar Society, would only expand Priestley’s pool of resources. The Lunar Society was based in Birmingham, England’s industrial capital, and was made up not just of ‘natural philosophers’ but also industrialists and technological innovators. Priestley’s membership provided him the ability to fund his experiments, which the industrial leaders hoped could be applied to their business ventures. The free exchange of information, knowledge, and at times, material support afforded by these networks, multiplied Priestley’s already ample personal capabilities. Without this constant flow of input and the ability to quickly receive advice and feedback regarding output, Priestley’s work would have progressed far slower, if it were ever to develop at all.


When Johnson begins to draw back his scope to tackle the issue of energy flows, The Invention of Air becomes something more than a biography of a single man. It becomes a biography of ideas, and of the very nature of human innovation. In a startling intermezzo, Johnson transports readers 350 million years into the past, to the Carboniferous age, a geological epoch known for its colossal fauna and the substantial coal deposits that were formed from their organic remains. Though it may seem like a tangent from the main discussion of Priestley and the pursuit of innovation, this brief detour actually has a profound impact on the matter at hand. Priestley lived and worked on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, when English society was first learning how to tap into the energy stored in the coal fields that lay beneath their feet. Those coal fields, whose origins date back to the Carboniferous age, are what made the Industrial Revolution possible. Though men like Priestley and fellow ‘Lunar Man’ James Watt were certainly brilliant, their triumphant innovations would not have been possible were it not for the transformative power of these new sources of energy. Johnson’s analysis of the importance of energy resources in innovation should be taken seriously by contemporary readers, as humankind struggles with its dependence on finite, fossil-based fuels.


The Invention of Air succeeds as both popular history and popular science, interweaving a compelling story about a sadly obscured figure with a thought-provoking meditation of humanity’s never ending quest for progress. Though the long zoom approach could, in the wrong hands, have a dehumanizing effect, the wide scope shrinking human participation to an unobservable level and exaggerating the involvement of chance and fate. Johnson avoids such a pitiful conclusion, thanks to the inspirational and unwavering faith of his primary subject. Joseph Priestly never doubted in the capacity for human understanding. His lack of cynicism, even in the face of adversity, is refreshing, and makes The Invention of Air a reassuring read.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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