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The Invention of Air

3.78  ·  Rating Details  ·  2,399 Ratings  ·  339 Reviews
The Invention of Air is a story of sweeping historical transformation, of genius and friendship, violence and world-changing ideas, that boldly recasts our understanding of the most significant events in our history.

It centers on the story of Joseph Priestley—scientist and minister, protégé of Benjamin Franklin, friend of Thomas Jefferson—an eighteenth-century radical thin
Hardcover, 254 pages
Published December 26th 2008 by Riverhead Books
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May 09, 2009 Trevor rated it it was ok
Shelves: history, science
I would have liked this to have been a much better book. There were parts of it where it showed promise – but those parts were swamped in what was mostly ‘junk polymathism’. That is a new phrase I’ve made up – I think it might even prove handy. I am going to use it as a way to describe someone who has decided to refer to multiple disciplines, but not really use them in a way that shines new light on either the topic at hand or on the discipline referred to. Worst of all was the fact that when he ...more
Jun 27, 2009 David rated it really liked it
Steven Johnson, author of the excellent "The Ghost Map", here takes on the life of Joseph Priestley. The best parts of this book are where he confines himself to the task at hand, and gives us details of that life. Priestley was a fascinating character, a brilliant chemist and one of the most influential scientists of his age. He was also a practicing clergyman, whose nonconformist views ultimately provoked such a storm in England that he had to flee to America with his family. He was friends wi ...more
Jack Cheng
Johnson has good ideas but I don't find him the most fluid author. He's got a great subject in Joseph Priestly, who helped determine the existence of oxygen and the fact that plants create an atmosphere that can sustain a flame (or the life of a mouse). Priestly was also a radical Unitarian minister who wrote treatises outlining all the magical accretions that he thought undermined a purer Christian faith, and was a bit too enthusiastic about the French Revolution (this last part got him driven ...more
Jan 24, 2009 Randy rated it it was amazing
Joseph Priestly did not 'invent' air. Rather, he was instrumental in discovering it. Let alone Joseph's influence on America as a newly born country's political, scientific and faith culture. Regardless, I find this book very well written, and a personal epiphony discovering my family is related to him.

Steve Johnson's writing style is easy to read, entertaining and informing.
Moira Russell
Jul 08, 2013 Moira Russell marked it as to-read
Shit, is this a book ABOUT PHLOGISTON? I became OBSESSED with that stuff at SJC, I must have this soonest immediately.
Elaine Nelson
A lovely review of the life of a (relatively) obscure scientist/philosopher, and the times when science, politics, and religion were much more intercommunicative spheres than they are now. IOW, this guy invented soda water, founded Unitarianism, and corresponded with Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson. Plus interesting digressions into the geohistory of coal!

Johnson makes a fascinating argument for an ecosystem metaphor of human history & civilization throughout, as well, and I think it serves i
May 14, 2010 Dauphne rated it it was ok
"The classic case study for the concept of a paradigm shift is the Compernican revolution in astronomy, but in actual fact, the first extended story that Kuhn tells in 'The Structure of Scientific Revoutions' is the paradigm shift in chemistry that took place in the 1770s, led by the revolutionary science of Joseph Priestly."

Are you freaking kidding me? Who read that sentence and remembered what the first half of it was by the time they got to the end?
Ben Babcock
The Invention of Air has a catchy title, but its subtitle better describes the book itself: A story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. Steven Johnson uses Joseph Priestley as a touchstone for a much larger argument about the relationship among science, religion, and politics and the effects this had on the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. Priestley's role in isolating oxygen and his interactions with Antoine Lavoisier make an appearance in the early half of the bo ...more

"…the ideal of Enlightenment science had instilled in them a set of shared political values, a belief that reason would ultimately triumph over fanaticism and frenzy.”
–page 24

(I wonder how that worked out for them.)

‘The Invention of Air: An Experiment, a Journey, a New Country and the Amazing force of Scientific Discovery,’ by Steven Johnson is an entertaining, very interesting and enlightening tale of science, religion and politics. It is the story of Joseph Pries
Mar 13, 2009 Meg rated it liked it
This is definitely a three-and-a-half-er.

I feel sort of bad not liking this book that much. It starts off pretty strongly, with SBJ spinning stitches and webs all around Joseph Priestley until you're like, holy crap! This guy is going to be a rockstar! I can't wait to read all about the amazing things he did! And then it's almost like the hype overwhelms the man? Because it's not to say that Priestley shouldn't have more name recognition; clearly the guy held his own. And actually SBJ paints Pr
Sep 13, 2009 Chris rated it it was amazing
Shelves: biography
What an excellent book! It goes beyond the usual biography and puts the life of Joseph Priestley into a much broader context. Priestley was an amazing person -- a scientist, historian, and political and religious theorist who collaborated with Ben Frankilin, Thomas Jefferson, and Erasmus Darwin. Great book.
May 25, 2016 Kate rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science
Priestley the eclectic, connected, open-source kitchen-sink hacker should've been the perfect subject for a Steven Johnson biography. Unfortunately this seems to have backfired, resulting in a scrappy scattergun collection of chapters, at once too brief and too loose, veering often into shallow hagiography (not just of Priestley but e.g. in a digression that felt especially cut&pasted from something else, of Thomas Kuhn), ending abruptly on a screechy-preachy (and I'm the choir!) 'Hear Ye, A ...more
Jan 26, 2009 Aurora rated it really liked it
Not only a biographical work about Joseph Priestley, but a great read about how scientific thought and innovation happens - the unpredictable mix of creativity, conversations with others, just plain accidents and coincidences, patience, and risk-taking.
K. Lincoln
Jan 22, 2016 K. Lincoln rated it really liked it
As a non-academic, this book was at times a bit dense on the intersections of the history of natural philosphy, politics, and religion at the dawn of the United States' creation, but presented such an interesting picture of Joseph Priestley that I found myself being swept along with the historic events.

Joseph Priestley is the real focus of the book-- not only the experiments with glass domes and mint where a real concept of the gasses making up "air" started to be divined, but also his mistaken
Oct 12, 2011 Mark rated it really liked it
Joseph Priestly will forever be remembered as the man who discovered and isolated oxygen. It turns out that he was not the first to do so, but the first to recognize the importance of his discovery and to publish his results. He was not the one who named the substance either, but still, he gets the credit. However, his greatest achievement, scientifically, took another two hundred years for anyone to fully appreciate. His discovery that plants refreshed the air and kept an animal alive long beyo ...more
Mar 07, 2009 Tony rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Johnson, Steven. THE INVENTION OF AIR: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. (2008). ***. This is a book about Joseph Priestley, but it is not a biography, per se. I’d have to stick it on one of my history shelves. What I think happened here was that the author’s agenda changed after he had gathered all of the information he needed for a biography. I suspect that he found it lacking in enough excitement to sustain a standard biography. Instead, he choose to place Pries ...more
Todd Martin
Jan 07, 2016 Todd Martin rated it it was ok
I could write my own review, but there is really no reason to when the New York Times has so effectively captured my thoughts about The Invention of Air .
The review can be seen here.

Johnson uses the life story of Joseph Priestly (18th century scientist and one of the discoverers of oxygen) as a means to illustrate connections between the disparate fields of energy, religion, the French and American revolutions, the scientific method and the ways in which paradigm shifts occur (among a host of
Lora Innes
Apr 28, 2009 Lora Innes rated it liked it
Shelves: history-books
This book isn't about the Revolutionary War, but instead the Revolutionary Era. It follows the story of minister/scientist/politician Joseph Priestly, who was a British Citizen and only came to American after the Revolution was over, to escape mobs who had destroyed his home and were coming after his family. Johnson does a good job of showing how these areas (faith, science, politics) are interconnected, despite the modern attempt to isolate them from one another. He shows us that they were esse ...more
Mar 10, 2009 Nick rated it really liked it
Johnson did an excellent job of putting a life and a time period into interwoven context. By modern standards, Priestley would be considered a "talented amateur" in the field of science, basically flinging experiments at a subject until it yielded results. His willingness to experiment with politics and religion as well got him into remarkable amounts of trouble, including a literal mob with torches coming to destroy his home.
My only minor quibbles were that several of his actual discoveries wer
Eileen Daly-Boas
Jan 18, 2012 Eileen Daly-Boas rated it really liked it
This isn't a biography of Joseph Priestley, and it isn't a full historical summary of England and the beginning of America. It's not a scientific monograph, and in some ways, it's not history of science, either. But it is a good, sweeping tale that includes everything from dinosaurs and gigantic dragonflies to the French revolution and the Alien and Sedition Act in the United States. If you read this as something it's not, you won't like it. If you think that Johnson is only promoting the view o ...more
Mar 26, 2011 Jrobertus rated it really liked it
I found this a fascinating read. It centers on Joseph Priestly, the late 18th century scientist, philosopher, and religious dissenter. Priestly was an ordained minister who engaged in scientific studies of electricity and the chemistry of gases (hence the title). He invented soda water, and is credited with the discovery of oxygen, although that is a complex story, made clear by the book. Priestly was involved with some wonderful learned sociecities, like the Royal Society and the Honest Whigs. ...more
Joseph Priestly is not widely recognized, but may as well have been a (British) founding father. A product of a remarkable age, Priestly produced a string of innovations in science, religion, and politics. He was eventually exiled from England for his agnostic views, but he died a respected man in a young United States.

In this book, Johnson has taken an interesting figure and turned him into a metaphor for explosions of progress (like the Age of Enlightenment) and how seemingly separate discipl
Jul 16, 2009 Ryan rated it really liked it
Shelves: science
This was fascinating, and more technical/scientific/philosophical than books I've grown used to reading. Provides a decent mental workout of following the arguments he makes, but not difficult at all. It's interesting to hear Priestley's experiments explained, but I was expecting him to have a little more influence on American Founding Fathers. Definitely interesting he had influence at all, but the contact was essentially a bunch of letters between him and Franklin, and a few between him and Je ...more
Once upon a time there was a guy named Joseph Priestley who was the first person (or one of the first people) to isolate oxygen. He was pals with Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Lavoisier, John Adams (who compared him to Socrates), and Thomas Jefferson. He was a founder of the Unitarian movement. He wrote many works of philosophy and helped found utilitarianism. And he invented soda water.

This guy, an Englishman, was pro-American Revolution, pro-French Revolution, and antimonarchist. He believed in
Lenny Husen
Aug 24, 2016 Lenny Husen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was a whole lot better than I thought after listening to the first disc.
The reader was clear-voiced but robotic (no emotion), and the author is way too enamored of the multi-displinary examination of history which bordered on ridulous and tedious at times.

However--the stroy was very interesting, and I found Joseph Priestly fascinating, as well as his friendship with Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and many others. His story deserved to be told.
Jul 02, 2009 Dennis rated it it was amazing
This was a very good book to read as a follow up to the John Adams book. This book deals with the science, politics, and religion of Joseph Priestly. He was a founder of the Unitarian church as well as an experimenter in chemistry of the day. The book offers much in a short number of pages. Interesting insights. It offers insight about how this person and others end up discovering and doing so much in the lives. This offers a peek into the history of science. Priestly was friends with Thomas Jef ...more
Brian Cookson
This book was really great, but I had to turn to the audiobook to finish. I seem to have a hard time reading nonfiction no matter how interesting it is. :P

Anyway, Joseph Priestly is a really important figure in our history that doesn't get much credit for an impressive body of work. This man not only contributed significant scientific breakthroughs when they were happening the world over, but he also compiled a book that became the educational foundation in such matters for generations to come.
Bill Churchill
Aug 14, 2016 Bill Churchill rated it it was amazing
I just finished the book “The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America,” by Steven Johnson. It was about the life and times of a true polymath, Joseph Priestly, one of the great thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment. He was the original discoverer of Oxygen—though he did not name it--and inventor of Soda Water. As well, he was a founder of Unitarianism and, (with Voltaire and others), one of the chief proponents of the idea that science brings progress to ...more
Mar 27, 2016 Peter rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting and entertaining historical account of Joseph Priestly and his writings. Describes his scientific contributions, books, and interactions with other scientists, such as Ben Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier, as well as politicians such as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. It also explains how he was persecuted in England for his outspoken religious and political views. As a dissenter, he rejected the notion of the divinity of Christ, while accepting the moral teachings. For this, and h ...more
Dec 22, 2015 Morgan rated it liked it
The Invention of Air is a biography of Joseph Priestley, one of the first modern chemists. Along with the discussion of Priestley's life, the book includes many digressions about why some people may be involved in a large number of different discoveries.

Priestley was a prolific scientist, political theorist, and religious scholar. He tended to write about whatever caught his fancy, and his experimental style was similar. When investigating electricity or gases, he would do every experiment he co
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Science, Joseph Priestly, and the “Guys in Lab Coats” 1 10 Jun 23, 2009 11:06AM  
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name.

Steven Johnson is the author of the bestsellers Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, Everything Bad Is Good For You, and Mind Wide Open, as well as Emergence and Interface Culture. He is the founder of a variety of influential websites—most recently,—and writes for Time, Wi
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