Priestley, Politics, and Air Pumps

Joseph Priestley stated, “The English hierarchy (if there be anything unsound in its constitution) has equal reason to tremble at an air pump, or an electrical machine. In the second half of Johnson’s The Invention of Air, he describes how Priestley’s discovery of oxygen affected not only the American Revolution with military uses, but also the connection between science, politics, and religion. Governments and religions have reason to fear air pumps and electrical machines because of the “rapid process of knowledge, (scientific thinking), that would challenge the explanatory models of religion” (Johnson 148). Priestly, during the American Revolution, wrote about the new chemical techniques that he had developed and how they might be used to improve the explosive power of gunpowder, or make its manufacture more efficient (Johnson 141).

Johnson’s work does shed light on current examples of scientific or technological research that also hold social or political consequences such as technological advances in the military. Nuclear energy is an example that has created political troubles that have yet to be solved today, such as how to deal with nuclear waste to the efforts to reduce the increase of nuclear technology around the globe. Another example is regarding firearms. With the increase in more advanced firearms, there are not only political consequences, but also social consequences such as cases of suicide and gun violence.

1 thought on “Priestley, Politics, and Air Pumps”

  1. I completely agree with everything that you have said in your post. The “new age” technology of firearms that you posed is such an interesting idea that I had not thought about. I think this may be the best example of technology that is both developing in physical structure but also in our society as a symbol of fear. Firearms both bring about governmental and religious implications, but not always to the same end. Unlike Priestley, we are make a separation in this debate of gun control, and I think that there really isn’t a way to refer to Priestley’s methods when looking at our new age issues. This example that you note is quite interesting and provides a stark difference between the nuclear power example because, even despite mass shootings and gun violence, we typically perceive nuclear energy as being a larger threat.

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