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    Priestley marries—Is ordained—His Essay on Education—Lectures on History and General Policy—His Chart of Biography—Becomes a Doctor of Laws of the University of Edinburgh—His visits to London—Makes the acquaintance of Dr Price, Canton and Benjamin Franklin—Writes the History of Electricity—Is elected into the Royal Society.

Priestley’s entrance into the Warrington community affected his career in more ways than one. In the first place, the improvements in his worldly prospects enabled him to marry; and in the second he was led to turn his attention to Natural Philosophy, to which, as we have seen, he was already predisposed. The selection of his wife and of his studies influenced the subsequent course of his life profoundly. Why he should have left the sprightly, witty “Nancy Aikin, with the blue and laughing eyes,” to be “carried off to Palgrave by that queer little man” whom she had to “honour and obey” as a school-mistress, is one of those inscrutable dispensations which the hymeneal god delights in. That they were the best of friends and had pleasure in each other’s society is abundantly evident. Priestley warmly admired her genius: she confessed, indeed, that he first encouraged her to try her ’prentice hand at poetry. She was about eighteen when Priestley first appeared at Warrington, and about ten years his junior, a girl of many personal attractions and, as demonstrated by her writings, of great mental ability and accomplishments. She had been carefully educated by her father, had a considerable knowledge of modern literature, and 46 was fairly well-read in that of Greece and Rome. Her first volume of poems was printed at Warrington in 1773 and ran through four editions in a year. It was said of her that she roused the admiration of Fox and Johnson, the envy of Rogers and Wordsworth, and the jealousy of Goldsmith; Scott declared she made a poet of him; Brougham eulogised her in the House of Lords, and Mrs Oliphant has paid her a beautiful tribute in her Literary History of England.

Miss Lucy Aikin, in her edition of her aunt’s collected works, gives a charming description of her as she appeared in early womanhood:—

    “She was at this time possessed of great beauty, distinct traces of which she retained to the latest period of her life. Her person was slender, her complexion exquisitely fair, with the bloom of perfect health; her features were regular and elegant, and her dark blue eyes beamed with the light of wit and fancy.”

Not less charming is the testimony of Henry Crabb Robinson, who, in 1805, wrote:—

    “Mrs Barbauld bore the remains of great personal beauty.[7] She had a brilliant complexion, light hair, blue eyes, a small, elegant figure, and her manners were very agreeable, with something of the generation then departing.... Mrs Barbauld is so well known by her prose writings that it is needless for me to attempt to characterise her here. Her excellence lay in the soundness and acuteness of her understanding, and in the perfection of her taste. In the estimation of Wordsworth she was the first of our literary women, and he was not bribed to this judgment by any especial congeniality of feeling or by concurrence in speculative opinions. I may here relate an anecdote connecting her and Wordsworth, though out of its proper time by many, many years; but it is so good that it ought to be preserved from oblivion. It was after her death that Lucy Aikin published Mrs Barbauld’s collected works, of which I gave a 47 copy to Miss Wordsworth. Among the poems is a Stanza on Life, written in extreme old age. It had delighted my sister, to whom I had repeated it on her deathbed. It was long after I gave these works to Miss Wordsworth that her brother said, ‘Repeat me that Stanza by Mrs Barbauld.’ I did so. He made me repeat it again. And so he learned it by heart. He was at the time walking in his sitting-room at Rydal with his hands behind him, and I heard him mutter to himself, ‘I am not in the habit of grudging people their good things, but I wish I had written those lines.’”[8]

Priestley’s choice fell upon Mary Wilkinson, who was of about the same age as Anna Letitia Aikin. She was the daughter of a well-to-do ironmaster at Wrexham, with whose family he had become acquainted in consequence of the youngest son, William, having been a pupil at his school in Nantwich. He certainly had no reason to regret his choice, whatever Mary Wilkinson might have felt at times in the “cloudy weather” she was destined to go through. It is, of course, idle to speculate “on what might have been if things had been otherwise.” The world, at all events, was the richer for the Hymns in Prose and the Early Lessons, on which Mr Rochemont Barbauld’s young charges and many succeeding generations of children were nurtured.

From a worldly point of view Priestley’s marriage was not without its advantages to him, immediate and prospective. Mary Wilkinson had all the force of 48 character, and much of the mental and intellectual ability of her father and her brother John, both of whom had a considerable share in the development of the iron industry in this country. Of them Miss Meteyard, in her Life of Wedgwood, writes:—

    “John Wilkinson and his father Isaac played no unimportant part in the vast industrial movement of their time. Isaac invented and first brought into action the steam-engine blast at his iron works near Wrexham. John, at the same place, as also at Bradley Forge, in Staffordshire, executed all the ponderous castings for the steam engines required in the Cornish mines, as well as those for Boulton and Watt when they first commenced business.”

The father was ruined in one of the commercial crises of which the times were fertile. Of the son we shall hear more as this history proceeds. He was one of the truest and staunchest of the many true and staunch friends Priestley possessed.[9]

Priestley was married in 1762, Mr Threlkeld, one of the students at the academy, who subsequently became a well-known Presbyterian divine, notable for his linguistic attainments and his extraordinary power of memory, being his groomsman. Whatever might be Mr Threlkeld’s faculty of recollection it went wholly astray on this occasion, for he became so absorbed in the study of a Welsh Bible he found beside him in the pew that he became quite oblivious to the onerous duties of his office.

Of his marriage Priestley characteristically writes:—

    “This proved a very suitable and happy connection, my wife being a woman of an excellent understanding, much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of mind, and of a temper in the highest degree affectionate and generous; feeling strongly for others, and little for herself. Also, greatly excelling in everything relating to household affairs, she entirely relieved me of all concern of that kind, which allowed me to give all my time to the prosecution of my studies and the other duties of my station.”

All accounts we have of Mary Wilkinson are to the same effect. Her great-granddaughter, Madame Belloc, writes:—

    “It is a tradition in the family that Mrs Priestley once sent her famous husband to market with a large basket, and that he so acquitted himself that she never sent him again! Mrs Priestley was extremely intelligent and original. Lord Shelburne once found her sitting on the top of a pair of steps, clad in a great apron, and vigorously pasting on a new wallpaper. She received him with calm composure. There is a good portrait of her as an elderly lady in a cap, curving her hand round her ear to assist her hearing. She must have herself insisted upon being painted in this unusual attitude. She looks like a person of excellent understanding, whose mind has been much improved by reading.”

Before he committed himself to matrimony Priestley took another step hardly less momentous.

What it was may be gleaned from the following extract of a letter dated May 1, 1762, to Seddon, who was away at the time on one of his frequent begging expeditions on behalf of the Academy:—

    “I am seriously preparing for ordination. As all things in this world are uncertain, I think it a point of prudence not to omit anything that may possibly be of advantage to me, if ever it be my lot to be obliged to have recourse to the ministry for the whole or any part of my subsistence, particularly as I am 50 going to have a dearer and more important stake in this world than I have ever yet had in it. I can sincerely say I never knew what it was to be anxious on my own account, but I cannot help confessing I begin to feel a good deal on the account of another person. The hazard of bringing a person into difficulties which she cannot possibly have any idea or prospect of affects me, at times, very sensibly.”

The earliest known portrait of Priestley is of this period. It represents him as a slender young man with sloping shoulders, with a keen, intelligent eye and an expression not unlike that caught by Fuseli at a later time; his long neck is swathed in the ample folds of a white neck-cloth, and he wears a full-bottomed wig.[10] During Priestley’s residence at Warrington an artist was employed in making silhouettes of the principal inhabitants. Many of these were published by Dr Kendrick in his Profiles of Warrington Worthies. In that of Priestley the features are delicate and almost feminine: the full-bottomed wig is very much in evidence.

Priestley brought his young bride to “the good dwelling-house neatly filled up, handsomely sashed to the front, with a flight of five steps to the entrance, three storeys high, four rooms on a floor, cellared under, with convenient kitchens, yards and out-offices,” over which she was to preside for the next five years. To add to her responsibilities she was promptly charged 51 with the care of the gay but improvident Mr Ben Vaughan and his brother Bill, and “received the very moderate compensation of fifty pounds a year for each son.”

Priestley’s house in Academy Street still remains, and the fact that he occupied it until his removal in 1767 is commemorated by a bronze tablet affixed to its walls by the members of the Warrington Society on the hundredth anniversary of his death.

There is a local tradition that an adjoining building was used by him as a laboratory, although it is difficult to find any grounds for the belief. There is no mention of experimental work at this time in his memoirs or correspondence, and whatever he might have done in this direction for his own amusement or the instruction of his pupils needed no special apartment.[11]

Lectures on chemistry were, however, given at the academy by Matthew Turner, who is believed to have first turned Priestley’s attention to that science. Turner, who practised medicine in Liverpool, although an eccentric man, applied his knowledge of chemistry to industrial purposes, and he is credited with having revived the art of glass-painting.

Priestley was now wholly engrossed in the business of teaching, and although nominally tutor in the classical languages and in the belles lettres, there was practically no department of education in which at one time or other during the half-dozen years of his sojourn at Warrington he was not called upon, or did not offer, to instruct. He enlarged and published the Grammar to which reference has already been made, and began a 52 treatise on “The Structure and Contemporary State of the English Language,” the material for which he eventually gave to Croft of Oxford for the compilation of his Grammar and Dictionary.

But what particularly impressed him as a practical educationist was that whilst most of his pupils were designed for situations in civil and active life, every article in the plan of their education was adapted to the learned professions. There was hardly any medium between an education for the counting-house, consisting of writing, arithmetic and merchants’ accounts, and a method of instruction in the abstract sciences. He proceeds to trace how this came about:—

    “Formerly none but the clergy were thought to have any occasion for learning. It was natural, therefore, that the whole plan of education, from the Grammar School to the finishing at the University, should be calculated for their use. If a few other persons, who were not designed for Holy Orders, offered themselves for education, it could not be expected that a course of studies should be provided for them only. And, indeed, as all those persons who superintended the business of education were of the clerical order, and had themselves been taught nothing but the rhetoric, logic and school-divinity, or civil law, which comprised the whole compass of human learning for several centuries, it could not be expected that they should entertain larger, or more liberal, views of education; and still less that they should strike out a course of study for the use of men who were universally thought to have no need of study, and of whom few were so sensible of their own wants as to desire any such advantages.

    “Besides, in those days, the great ends of human society seem to have been but little understood. Men of the greatest rank, fortune and influence, and who took the lead in all the affairs of State, had no idea of the great objects of wise and extensive policy, and therefore could never apprehend that any fund of knowledge was requisite for the most eminent stations in the community. Few persons imagined what were the true 53 sources of wealth, power and happiness in a nation. Commerce was little understood, or even attended to; and so slight was the connection of the different nations of Europe that general politics were very contracted. And thus, men’s views being narrow, little previous furniture of mind was requisite to conduct them.”

These paragraphs constitute the introduction to an Essay on Education which Priestley published in 1764, with the object of drawing attention to the necessity for a reform in our educational system. Although written nearly a century and a half ago, Priestley’s main contention that the education of youth should be directed and adapted to the circumstances and needs of the time in which they live is just as valid now as then, and needs the same insistence. He points out that “the severe and proper discipline” of the Grammar Schools, which are subservient to the Universities, is become a “topic of ridicule.”

    “This is certainly a call upon us to examine the state of education in this country, and to consider how those years are employed which men pass previous to their entering into the world; for upon this their future behaviour and success must, in a great measure, depend. A transition, which is not easy, can never be made with advantage; and therefore it is certainly our wisdom to contrive that the studies of youth should tend to fit them for the business of manhood; and that the objects of their attention, and turn of thinking in younger life, should not be too remote from the destined employment of their riper years. If this be not attended to they must necessarily be mere novices upon entering the great world, be almost unavoidably embarrassed in their conduct, and, after all the time and experience bestowed upon their education, be indebted to a series of blunders for the most useful knowledge they will ever acquire.”

    “That man is a friend of his country who observes and endeavours to supply any defects in the methods of educating youth.”


At the risk of being called “a projector, a visionary, or whatever anybody pleases,” he proceeds to show “how to fill up with advantage those years which immediately precede a young gentleman’s engaging in those higher spheres of active life in which he is destined to move.”

It will be observed that Priestley is not dealing with any scheme of national or universal education adapted to every youth in the community. He is concerned only with the young man who is destined for a station in which his conduct may considerably affect the liberty and the property of his countrymen, and the riches, the strength and the security of his country; and who is within the influence of an honourable ambition to appear as a legislator in the State, or of standing near the helm of affairs and guiding the secret springs of Government—in a word, that class which the universities thought they alone were specially concerned with.

    “That the parents and friends of young gentlemen destined to act in any of these important spheres may not think a liberal education unnecessary to them, and that the young gentlemen themselves may enter with spirit into the enlarged views of their friends and tutors, I would humbly propose some new articles of academical instruction, such as have a nearer and more evident connection with the business of active life, and which may therefore bid fairer to engage the attention and rouse the thinking powers of young gentlemen of an active genius. The subjects I would recommend are ‘Civil History,’ and more especially the important objects of ‘Civil Policy’; such as the theory of laws, government, manufactures, commerce, naval force, etc., with whatever may be demonstrated from history to have contributed to the flourishing state of nations, to rendering a people happy and populous at home and formidable abroad; together with those articles of previous information, without which it is impossible to understand the nature, connections and mutual influences of those great objects.”

He then gives plans and detailed syllabuses of three 55 distinct courses of lectures subservient to this design. The first is on the “Study of History in General”; the second on the “History of England,” and the third on the “Present Constitution and Laws of England.” This scheme is so daring an innovation on the established order of things 150 years ago, that Priestley then proceeds with care to anticipate, examine and rebut the objections which may be urged against it. There is no necessity to dwell upon them now. Much water has flowed under the Folly Bridge or past the “Backs” since Priestley’s essay was penned, and everything for which he contended, and even more, now finds its proper place in the educational schemes of all our universities, ancient and modern. But it is significant of the condition of things in the older seats of learning in the middle of the eighteenth century, that he should have to urge his project apologetically and to labour points which to-day appear almost axiomatic. The essay is characteristic of the author in the breadth and liberality of its tone, in its declaration of the real functions and objects of government, and in its note of true patriotism. Of course it was fiercely attacked, among others, by Griffiths in the Monthly Review, but it enlisted Josiah Wedgwood’s sympathy with its author and formed the basis of a friendship as cordial and enduring as it was useful.

The lectures on “History” and on “General Policy” were subsequently published, with a dedication, as already stated, to Mr Benjamin Vaughan. It is interesting at this juncture to learn the views Priestley inculcated on the youth of Warrington concerning other matters which, like the education problem and the poor, are always with us.

In the 51st lecture on “General Policy” we read:—

    “The gain of the merchants, it is said, is not always the gain of the country in general. If, for instance, a merchant imports foreign goods by which the consumption of national manufactures is hurt, though the merchant should be gainer by those goods, the State is a loser. As, on the other hand, a merchant may export the manufactures of his own country to his own loss and the nation’s gain. But if the merchants be gainers, the consumers, that is those for whose use manufactures are established, having a power of purchasing or not at pleasure, must be so too. And if, after sufficient trial, it be found that merchants importing foreign goods can sell these cheaper than the manufactures can be bought at home, it is an indication that it is not for the interest of the nation at large to encourage such manufactures.

    “Though exportation makes a nation rich, we are not to judge of the quantity of riches which a nation gains by trade from exportation only, but the importation must also be considered. If these exactly balance one another nothing can be said to be gained or lost, just as a person is not the richer for selling a quantity of goods if he buy to the same amount. Nay, though the exportation be lessened, if the importation be lessened more than in proportion, it proves an increase of gainful trade, notwithstanding the decrease of exportation. This, however, is estimating the value of commerce by the mere increase of money. But a nation may flourish by internal commerce only, and what is external commerce between two nations not united in government would be internal if they should come under the same government. In every fair bargain the buyer and the seller are equally gainers, whether money be accumulated by either of the parties or not.

    “It is a great mistake to confound the king’s revenue with the gain a nation makes by its trade. No man would presume to say it is more for the public benefit that the nation should expend a million or more every year with foreigners, in order to raise a hundred thousand pounds to the revenue by the customs, than to save that million or more within ourselves and to raise only the hundred thousand pounds the other way. But Ministers of State are apt to estimate the value of everything to the country by the gain it brings, and that immediately to themselves....

    “The legislature of any country has seldom interfered in the affairs of commerce, but commerce has suffered in consequence to it, owing to the ignorance of statesmen, and even of merchants themselves, concerning the nature of trade. And indeed the principles of commerce are very complicated and require long experience and deep reflection before they can be well understood....

    “Most politicians have injured commerce by restricting, confining or burthening it too much; the consequence of which has been that by aiming at great immediate advantage they have cut off the very springs of all future advantage. The inconveniences which have arisen to a nation from leaving trade quite open are few, and very problematical in comparison of the manifest injury it receives from being cramped in almost any form whatsoever....

    “Mr Colbert, a man of great probity, knowledge and industry ... would have done better to have listened to the advice of an old merchant, who being consulted by him about what he should do in favour of trade, said, ‘Laissez nous faire.’”

In another place he says:—

    “The happiness of all nations, therefore, as one great community, will be best promoted by laying aside all national jealousy of trade, and by each country cultivating those productions or manufactures which they can do to the most advantage; and experience, in a state of perfect liberty, will soon teach them what those are. In this state of things the only advantage will be on the side of industry and ingenuity, and no man or nation ought to wish it to be anywhere else.”

With regard to questions of political and civil liberty, the theory of the progress of law, the influence of religion on civil society, the connection of modes of religion with forms of government, the teaching is precisely what we should expect in such a hot-bed of liberal dissent as the Warrington Academy. With regard to the connection between civil government and religion he says:—


    “The principal sufferer by this alliance between the Church and the State is religion itself, that is, the members of society as professors of religion and deriving advantages from it. For when it is thus guarded by the State, if it be faulty or wants reformation, it must long continue so. The professors of it, being interested in its support, will do everything in their power to prevent any alteration, though it should be ever so much wanted....

    “It is alleged, in favour of these establishments, that religion has an influence on the conduct of men in this life. No doubt it has, as it connects the hopes of a future life with good behaviour in this. But this is done in all sects of Christians, and as much in those which are reprobated by the State as those which are encouraged by it. Besides, if this was the true cause of attachment to Christian establishments, the friends of them would be much more jealous of unbelievers than they are of sectaries, which does not appear to be the case.... One would think that Christian Governments might content themselves with establishing the Christian religion in general without confining themselves to any particular mode of it. But so far is this from being the case, that by the present laws of this country a man who denies the doctrine of the Trinity, which has no more imaginable connection with the good of the State than the doctrine of Transubstantiation, is deemed a blasphemer and sentenced to suffer confiscation of goods and imprisonment....

    “In all other countries the established religion is that of the majority of the people, and the writers in defence of it vindicate it on this principle, viz., that it is the religion of the majority, whatever that be. But in Ireland we have a most remarkable exception to this rule. There the established religion is not that of the majority but of a small minority of the people, perhaps not more than that of one in ten of the inhabitants. That so flagrant an abuse of power should exist, and under a Government pretending to justice, and even to liberality, is barely credible.”

Here again much water has flowed under the bridges since these words were penned, but the bread which Priestley cast upon the stream, as well as that upon 59 which he nurtured the young gentlemen of the Warrington Academy, has, we recognise, not been wholly wasted. In regard to what he considered other anomalies, the State still takes upon itself a “great, dangerous and unnecessary burthen” by undertaking the care of religion. From the remains of superstition the clergy are still considered as a distinct order of men in this country, and they are in a manner represented in Parliament by the bishops having seats in the House of Lords. “From which,” he says, “if they had a just sense of the nature of their office, and consulted their true dignity, they would retire of their own accord. At present their seat in the House only flatters their pride and gives the minister so many votes.”

In regard to other items of political and social development, it is noteworthy that Priestley was a consistent opponent of national education as we understand it to-day, on the ground that in his judgment it was inimical to liberty and the natural rights of parents. His position, in fact, was very similar to that taken up by a considerable and influential section of Liberal Dissenters prior to 1870.

Whilst at Warrington he also gave lectures on the “Theory of Language,” on the “Laws and Constitutions of England,” and on “Oratory and Criticism”—all of which were subsequently published, and which may still be read with profit, despite Lord Brougham’s sneering allusion to the adventurous tutor afflicted with an incurable stutter who, having never heard any speaking save in the pulpits of meeting-houses, promulgated rules of eloquence and of jurisprudence to the senators and lawyers of his country. The adventurous tutor with the incurable stutter even taught Elocution, also Logic 60 and Hebrew for a time, and one year he gave a course of lectures on Anatomy.

Whilst at Warrington he published a Chart of Biography, exhibiting by lines and spaces the succession of the eminent men in every age and of every profession, with the relative length of their lives, and in such manner that at any given epoch it could be seen not only who flourished in it, but how all their ages stood with respect to one another, who were a man’s contemporaries, how far any of them was before him, or how far after him, in the order of their births or deaths.

The Chart of Biography procured for its compiler the degree of Doctor of Laws of the University of Edinburgh.

It has been said of Priestley that he was not a man who made friends. If it is meant by this that he was essentially a self-centred recluse, who sought his relaxation in change of occupation, or only within his own family circle, the statement gives a wholly imperfect idea of the man and is very wide of the truth.

In reality he was one of the most gregarious and most easily approachable of individuals, a man of strong, active human sympathies and of much social charm. There is abundant evidence of this in the testimony of his contemporaries; it is illustrated by numberless anecdotes, and is reflected in almost every letter of his correspondence.

It was, doubtless, under the impulse of the social instincts of his nature that, whilst at Warrington, he was led to begin the practice of spending one month in every year in London. This, remarks his son, was of great use to him. He saw and heard a great deal. A 61 new turn was frequently given to his ideas. New and useful acquaintances were formed, and old ones confirmed. London then, as now, was the centre of the intellectual life of the kingdom and the Royal Society the seat of its scientific activity. To a man of Priestley’s versatility and eagerness, whose curiosity ranged practically over every department of human knowledge, these annual visits were a sort of intellectual tonic and gave a powerful stimulus to his activity.

On the first of them he made the acquaintance of men who, in their several capacities, proved to be true and valuable friends, notably, Dr Richard Price, Mr Canton, and Dr Benjamin Franklin.

Dr Price, a philosopher, and an eminent nonconformist divine, and one of the leading Arians of his time, is best known by his work on morals, and by his writings on financial and political questions. Among these, his papers in the Philosophical Transactions on “Life Insurance” and on the “Proper Method of Calculating the Values of Contingent Reversions,” are specially noteworthy. His pamphlet on the National Debt is said to have influenced Pitt in establishing the Sinking Fund for its extinction, and that on the “Policy of the War with America” to have contributed to the declaration of independence by the Americans. His liberal opinions gained him the friendship and patronage of Lord Shelburne. The acquaintance with Priestley soon ripened into a lasting friendship, which was in nowise disturbed by the controversy on materialism and necessity in which they subsequently engaged. Price and Priestley held similar views as to the French Revolution, and both were denounced with equal 62 fierceness by Burke. Price died in the spring of 1791, and his funeral sermon was preached by Priestley, who succeeded him in the care of the Gravel Pit Meeting at Hackney. He was a man for whom Priestley ever entertained the warmest feelings of friendship on the ground of his amiable simplicity, his truly Christian spirit, disinterested patriotism and true candour.

John Canton, a notable schoolmaster in his day, is best known for his electrical inquiries and for his work on the compressibility of water, and his name is associated with the phosphorescent substance first obtained by him by calcining oyster shells with flowers of sulphur.

Among the Canton papers in the possession of the Royal Society is a letter from Seddon to Canton introducing Priestley, in which the latter is described as the author of A Chart of Biography and of an Essay on Education, and in which the writer says of the bearer:—

    “You will find him a benevolent, sensible man, with a considerable share of learning. Besides the studies which belong to his profession, he has a taste for Natural Philosophy which will not render him less agreeable to you.”

That Priestley greatly enjoyed and profited by his Christmas in London is evident from the terms in which he refers to it in a letter to Canton under date February 14, 1766.

    “The time I had the happiness to spend in your company appears upon revision like a pleasing dream. I frequently enjoy it once again in recollection, and ardently wish for a repetition of it. I wish, but in vain, that it may ever be in my power to return in kind your generous communication of philosophical intelligence and discoveries.”

He concludes the letter by expressing a desire to become a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Benjamin Franklin, journeyman printer and journalist, statesman and diplomatist, was about sixty years old when Priestley, then a man of little more than half his age, first made his personal acquaintance. The Royal Society, which had formerly ridiculed the discoveries which have given Franklin his undisputed position as one of the most eminent natural philosophers of his time, had paid him, although still a British subject, the distinguished compliment of making him an honorary fellow. At the time of Priestley’s coming to town he was occupied with the great struggle on behalf of the American Colony which ended in the defeat of the Stamp Act, and his famous examination before a Committee of Parliament had made him an object of great popular interest. During the eight or nine succeeding years in which Franklin remained in England his acquaintance with Priestley grew into the closest friendship, and there can be no question that the friendship reacted powerfully on Priestley’s work as a political thinker and as a natural philosopher. Indeed, it may be truthfully said that Franklin made Priestley into a man of science.

As the result of this intercourse with Canton and Franklin, Priestley offered to compile what he called “a distinct and methodical account” of the history of discoveries in electricity, provided he could be supplied with the necessary books. Franklin warmly seconded the proposal, and undertook, with the assistance of friends, to furnish all existing literature on the subject. As a matter of fact almost the whole of the historical account in Priestley’s book is taken from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, which was then the chief source of information concerning electrical 64 science, inasmuch as the English electricians of that period, in addition to their own original papers, which were both numerous and important, introduced into the Transactions detailed accounts of all the principal books on electricity published abroad. In putting together his work, Priestley, having, as he says, a pretty good machine, was led to endeavour to ascertain several facts which were in dispute, and was thus led by degrees into a large field of experimental inquiry, in which he spared no expense that he could possibly afford. One of the most important of his discoveries is that charcoal is a good conductor. He describes coloured circles produced by receiving discharges from 21 square feet of glass on metal plates. When an electrical battery is discharged light bodies placed near the electric circuit are moved. Priestley ascribes this motion to what he calls the force of the lateral explosion, and he conceives it to depend upon the sudden elasticity given to the air. He found that a long circuit conducts much worse than a short circuit, even when the conductors are the same; also, that when the circuit contains an imperfect conductor a spark passes to bodies near, no electricity being communicated.

The work necessitated much correspondence with Franklin and others of his philosophical friends in London, and much of his leisure was devoted to his own experimental observations. Nevertheless, the book was completed in less than a year. Hasty and imperfect as it was, “The History and Present State of Electricity. With Original Experiments, illustrated with Copperplates,” was well received and ran through five editions in its author’s lifetime. Its publication at once stamped Priestley as a man of science; it secured him recognition 65 as such in scientific circles at home and abroad, and was the immediate cause of his election, on June 12, 1766, into the Royal Society. The growing interest in the subject induced him to put together a Familiar Introduction to the Study of Electricity, which had also a considerable measure of success and was the means of popularising a knowledge of the main facts then known concerning Frictional Electricity. Priestley was instrumental in reviving the use of large electrical machines and batteries. The first of the large machines for which Nairne became famous was constructed in consequence of a request made to Priestley by the Grand Duke of Tuscany to procure for him the best machine that could be made in England. One of his machines, which figured in his History, and also in his Familiar Introduction, is in the possession of the Royal Society.


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