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The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  3,011 ratings  ·  396 reviews
From the bestselling author of Where Good Ideas Come From, The Ghost Map and Everything Bad Is Good for You, a new national bestseller: the “exhilarating”( Los Angeles Times) story of Joseph Priestley, “a founding father long forgotten”(Newsweek) and a brilliant man who embodied the relationship between science, religion, and politics for America's Founding Fathers.

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Paperback, 304 pages
Published September 1st 2009 by Riverhead Books (first published December 26th 2008)
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Start your review of The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America
May 09, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
This short book is partly a biography of Joseph Priestley, a prolific and divisive 18th century figure who made influential discoveries in science (including discovering that plants replace carbon dioxide with oxygen, though he didn’t put it in quite those terms), helped found the Unitarian church, and was a bit of a political firebrand. Priestley’s life and work are interesting subjects, and with his eternal optimism, chaotic experimental procedures and determination to keep nothing – whether s ...more
Johnson is an interesting author. On the surface, he's straight-up science history, but he often takes extended detours into the philosophy of science and politics. Some people might find this unexpected, but I really like it because the questions that he grapples with are ones that I've also thought long and hard about, and his approach to thinking about these issues are so closely aligned with my own.

The book explores some very interesting topics, not least of which is in his "intermezzo" chap
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 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Shit, is this a book ABOUT PHLOGISTON? I became OBSESSED with that stuff at SJC, I must have this soonest immediately. ...more
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 in mo
This book is ostensibly a biography of Joseph Priestley, one of the central figures in the eighteenth century movement known as the Enlightenment, which included fundamental changes in science, politics, and religion. And Priestly was involved in all aspects of those changes. It is a fascinating, well-written book, a short quick read. I like Johnson's style, but not everyone does. He frequently strays from the strict subject of Priestley's life to discuss more general topics like the need for in ...more
Apr 12, 2010 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
"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?
Kara 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
Lora Innes
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
Jan 06, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Tom N
Mar 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book covers the life and career of Joseph Priestly--the radical 18th century scientist, theologian, and politician--who discovered oxygen, and founded the Unitarian Church--as well as being a close friend of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. His controversial viewpoints caused him to flee Europe and to eventually settle in central Pennsylvania--at a time when the American colonies were seeking their independence from Great Britain. Historically enlightening, and at times theologically ...more
K. Lincoln
Nov 01, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 07, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, science
From my readings in the history of science and of religious controversy I was familiar with Priestley's significance before reading this book, but Johnson succeeds marvelously in delineating Priestley's importance to not just his own historical era, but in the grander scheme of intellectual and cultural history leading up to our present. Johnson's best chapters are the most sweeping, such as the discussion in the Intermezzo of the interrelatedness of the Carboniferous Age, Priestley's residence ...more
Mar 26, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Todd Martin
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
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
Eileen Daly-Boas
Jan 15, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 10, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 13, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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, Ameri ...more
May 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I finally found the sort of book I've been craving! This book had an excellent balance of interesting narrative and true blue history. It describes the scientific, political, and religious adventures of Joseph Priestley and how they relate to basically everything we hold dear in the modern age. This all includes democracy, religious tolerance and freedom, and the rise of science, rationality and technology. It is the perfect length for the interested layperson who wants a whirlwind tour of the i ...more
Lenny Husen
Aug 10, 2016 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.
Sep 03, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
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Steven Johnson is the bestselling author of twelve books, including Enemy of All Mankind, Farsighted, Wonderland, How We Got to Now, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Invention of Air, The Ghost Map, and Everything Bad Is Good for You.
He's the host of the podcast American Innovations, and the host and co-creator of the PBS and BBC series How We Got to Now. Johnson lives in Marin County, California,

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“In the popular folklore of American history, there is a sense in which the founders’ various achievements in natural philosophy—Franklin’s electrical experiments, Jefferson’s botany—serve as a kind of sanctified extracurricular activity. They were statesmen and political visionaries who just happened to be hobbyists in science, albeit amazingly successful ones. Their great passions were liberty and freedom and democracy; the experiments were a side project. But the Priestley view suggests that the story has it backward. Yes, they were hobbyists and amateurs at natural philosophy, but so were all the great minds of Enlightenment-era science. What they shared was a fundamental belief that the world could change—that it could improve—if the light of reason was allowed to shine upon it.” 1 likes
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