Seeing The Invisible
August 1, 1774: Joseph Priestly Discovers Oxygen
On August 1, 1774, an experiment conducted by the British clergyman Joseph Priestley focused sunlight on mercuric oxide (HgO) inside a glass tube, which liberated a gas he named “dephlogisticated air”. He noted that candles burned brighter in the gas and that a mouse was more active and lived longer while breathing it.
After breathing the gas himself, he wrote:
“The feeling of it to my lungs was not sensibly different from that of common air, but I fancied that my breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterwards.”
Priestley published his findings in 1775 in a paper titled “An Account of Further Discoveries in Air” which was included in the second volume of his book titled Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air. Because he published his findings first, Priestley is usually given priority in the discovery.
Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele produced oxygen gas by heating mercuric oxide and various nitrates by about 1772. Scheele called the gas “fire air” because it was the only known supporter of combustion, and wrote an account of this discovery in a manuscript he titled Treatise on Air and Fire, which he sent to his publisher in 1775. However, that document was not published until 1777.
Antoine Lavoisier conducted the first adequate quantitative experiments on oxidation and gave the first correct explanation of how combustion works. He used these and similar experiments, all started in 1774, to discredit the phlogiston theory and to prove that the substance discovered by Priestley and Scheele was a chemical element.
In one experiment, Lavoisier observed that there was no overall increase in weight when tin and air were heated in a closed container. He noted that air rushed in when he opened the container, which indicated that part of the trapped air had been consumed. He also noted that the tin had increased in weight and that increase was the same as the weight of the air that rushed back in. This and other experiments on combustion were documented in his book Sur la combustion en général, which was published in 1777. In that work, he proved that air is a mixture of two gases; ‘vital air’, which is essential to combustion and respiration, and azote (Gk. ἄζωτον “lifeless”), which did not support either. Azote later became nitrogen in English, although it has kept the name in French and several other European languages.
Lavoisier renamed ‘vital air’ to oxygène in 1777 from the Greek roots ὀξύς (oxys) (acid, literally “sharp”, from the taste of acids) and -γενής (-genēs) (producer, literally begetter), because he mistakenly believed that oxygen was a constituent of all acids. Chemists (notably Sir Humphry Davy in 1812) eventually determined that Lavoisier was wrong in this regard (it is in fact hydrogen that forms the basis for acid chemistry), but by that time it was too late; the name had taken.
Oxygen entered the English language despite opposition by English scientists and the fact that the Englishman Priestley had first isolated the gas and written about it. This is partly due to a poem praising the gas titled “Oxygen” in the popular book The Botanic Garden (1791) by Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin.