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The Invention of Air(!)

March 31st, 2009 No comments

Reading about the Revolutionary War, the “Founding Fathers,” and the political insights and courage of those times can be numbing. The creaky mythologies that surround our forebears’ efforts (on our behalf, naturally) can become suffocating to the point that one only wants to hear about, or visit, the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, or even the very cleverly designed, state-of-the-art Constitution Center when there’s some independent reason for doing so: out-of-town visitors, educating your young children — whatever.

Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air is a mostly successful effort to, well, breathe new life into these men (women rate barely a mention, even for Johnson). Focusing on a (now) little-known polymath of the period, Joseph Priestley, Johnson cheerfully illuminates the intellectual vigor of the time. Priestley was a rock star in three areas: science; politics; and religion. But, of course, his more famous contemporaries also straddled fields — Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin come to mind as men whose contributions to science and invention rivaled their importance in our political history and development.

But by homing in on Priestley, Johnson encourages us to take a fresh look at this period and the climate that fostered the political developments that we now tend to look at in isolation. In so doing, the author reveals himself to be a master at synthesis of seemingly unrelated developments. For example, the introduction of coffee supplanted the centuries-old preferred drink — alcohol. When people move from booze to caffeine, they tend to get smarter. And Starbuck’s and its jealous imitators are but distant (dismal?) echoes of the coffee-house societies that sprang up soon after coffee reached London. The Club of Honest Whigs that counted both Priestley and Franklin among its members was the best-known of these, and was fertile ground not only for the sharing of scientific information but also for spirited debates about religion.

So, what did Priestley actually accomplish? Well, you’ll have to read the book to get a full sense of his field-hopping genius.1 But, among other things, Priestley was:

  • an amateur scientist who wrote a book on electricity that popularized the field and became the standard reference work (he also was largely responsible for the mythological status granted Franklin’s kite-flying experiment)2
  • a theological “heretic” who questioned the divinity of Christ, the existence of the Trinity, and founded the Unitarian Church;
  • a politician so vocal that he was first driven out of his native England and then, because of his strong political opposition to John Adams (both before and after the signing of the evil Alien and Sedition Acts), once again a political pariah.

Well, so what? Johnson is a gifted enough writer that he can deliver insight without (too often) being blatant about doing so. And there are several good take-away points here. First, I think the Priestley story, seen within the context of the fragile liberty in the early day of the Republic, is a reminder that patriotism assumes its highest form when it is critical of government — not when it moves slavishly behind it.

Second, the tendency towards ever-greater specialization comes at a cost: These intellectually curious men of the time were effective and influential in a number of fields at the same time, and the cross-fertilization doubtless helped their thought processes.

Third, the protection of intellectual property comes with a price. Priestley and other scientists of the time were the spiritual forebears of the open-source internet, freely sharing information for the collective benefit.

If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on these times, this is a book I’d recommend.

  1. I recommend the book highly. Johnson is an engaging writer, if not an especially disciplined one, who isn’t shy about tying his observations about his subjects to broader conclusions about how social trends and technological advances enable the flowering of intellectual virtuosity at different points in history.
  2. Did he also “invent air”? Read the book and find out!
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