Spilling the tea on Priestly’s discovery

Coffeehouse culture is both a physical and mental state in which people are able to come together to discuss new ideas and findings. What makes coffeehouse culture unique is that it creates a very casual environment that allows people to feel comfortable being vulnerable with their thoughts. In the case of Priestley’s discovery of oxygen, Priestly is able to confide in who he believes to be fellow scientists and admirers of such experimentation. However, coffeehouse culture gets the best of Priestly when he “sits down to dinner with the scientific intelligentsia of France and happily spills the beans about his exciting new experiment.” (Johnson, p. 88) The downside of this culture is that it often makes conversations more public than wanted and it is hard to control who hears information both first and second hand. Not unlike the discovery of oxygen, a fellow electrician type, Thomas Edison, is regularly falsely credited with the invention of the light bulb. Heinrich Goebel invented the light bulb thanks to the help of Edison’s experimentation and research that was shared through coffeehouse culture like settings, Goebel was able to benefit from this and thus create a famous product which he profited from. Although Priestly’s discovery of oxygen wasn’t exactly ‘revolutionary’, it was a great catalyst for other discoveries. Coffeehouse culture around small discoveries such as this one allows scientists to test the waters before fully submerging themselves into a lifetime of research. The months of research preceding Priestly’s discovery was fueled by bouncing ideas and finding off of trusted confidants who encouraged and inspired him. Overall, coffeehouse culture created a safe space for the discovery of oxygen to be made and shared with some of the most important researchers and scientists of this time period, thus leading to other important discoveries and relationships later on.  

2 thoughts on “Spilling the tea on Priestly’s discovery

  1. I appreciate how you choose to go into depth on a topic that stood out to me so much as well. It’s interesting how the scientists and scholars so many years ago flourished in not only the same environment, but the same culture. I know that some of my best projects and essays were created with the help of others’ collaboration in the same sort of vulnerability. However, if they had known the value of their discussion I’m sure they would have gone somewhere much more private. Priestly seemed to be the “share the wealth” type that believed the world would like to try their own experiments and could use his information to discover what they could.


  2. I also think that Priestly seems to be the type of person who would rather share information that could hypothetically be more profitable kept to himself for the advance of science as a whole. This entire section got me wondering what life would be like if a lot of the research in today’s world was not so profit based and therefore able to be shared and developed. I also wonder what would happen if we weren’t so specialized, it seems that science today is divided up into these little categories that there isn’t a lot of communication between. It seems like a huge part of coffee-house culture is the interdisciplinary nature of it, that you can test your ideas with people who are best at a part of science in which you lack expertise and therefor the ideas generated have validity in more than just one realm of science but take into account knowledge from other places.


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