The lunatic who invented fizzy pop.

Darin at PACHS has a nice post about the Anglo-American chemist, educationalist, theologian and historian Joseph Priestley. In his brief description of Priestley’s multifarious activities he left out two of the most fascinating aspects.


The earliest known portrait of Priestley, known as the “Leeds” portrait (c. 1763) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Firstly Priestly was “lunatic” that is he was an active member of possibly the most fascinating scientific society that ever existed, The Lunar Society. This 18th century group of science fans and practitioners centred around Charles Darwin’s maternal and paternal grandfathers, Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, met monthly at full moon to facilitate the members journey home in the dark. Apart from Priestley, Darwin and Wedgwood notable other members, some corresponding, were Boulton and Watt of steam engine fame, Benjamin Franklin, James Hutton, Joseph Banks, William Herschel and a host of other scientific worthies.

Secondly it was Priestley, the chemist, who put the fizz into carbonated water thus laying the foundation for the fizzy pop industry, with his Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air from 1772.




Apparatus used by Priestley’s for making soda water. This figure appeared in ”Impregnating Water with Fixed Air”

It should be pointed out that Priestley’s life not all sweetness and light. Because of his very vocal support of the French Revolution a conservative mob burnt down his house and church forcing him to flee, which is why one of England’s greatest 18th century scientists became am American.


Filed under History of science

7 responses to “The lunatic who invented fizzy pop.

  1. There’s an excellent biography of Priestley that I read recently, Steven Johnson’s “The Invention of Air.” The book makes a very good case for Priestly being a much more influential figure in both science and politics then he is often given the credit.

    • As is often the case in the mythology of science Priestley’s achievements and contributions as a chemist have been sacrificed on the altar of Lavoisier hagiography. If one gives Priestley and others their due then Lavoisier gets deflated!

  2. Thony, thanks for adding the info. Priestley is a fascinating character who deserves more attention than he normally receives. And you are absolutely right that he is crucified on the altar of Lavoisier. I’ll let somebody else right that story….

  3. I just came across an abstract for a dissertation on Priestley: “The studies of Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) on the theory of electricity” by Elisa Cristina Oliosi.

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