1st August 1774. Oxygen: ‘ites’ and ‘ates’.

Welcome to August.

August for the people and their favourite islands W.H. Auden 1936.

Blue air- casting shadows.bubbles in water

Blue air-bubbles in water casting shadows.

The notion of the old scientists quietly working away in their laboratories would seem to be erroneous when we find that Priestley, a brother-in-law of ‘Iron Mad Wilkinson’, was made homeless in Birmingham by the mob, as he supported the French Revolution.(1)


Attacking Priestley’s house in riots in 1791 Birmingham.

Like most discoveries, the highly reactive oxygen, the most abundant element on Earth, was discovered by ‘scientists’ working independently as a side-line to their other professions.

One of these in the 18thc was Joseph Priestley, who was natural philosopher, liberal political theorist and church minister.

It was Today in 1774 that Priestley conducted his most famous experiment, using a 12 inch-wide glass ‘burning lens’, which focused sunlight on a lump of reddish mercuric oxide in an inverted glass container, placed in a pool of mercury.

However Oxygen does not react with the Noble Gases, or with gold, aluminium or platinum.

Phial of superpure oxygen.

Phial of superpure oxygen.

The result was his unwitting discovery of oxygen as ‘dephlogisticated air’ (from the Greek meaning ‘burned-up’). The gas emitted he found was ‘five or six times as good as common air’.

Oxygen, (not found to be an element until 1775), is extremely important in everyday life, with uses in many fields including smelting metals from ores, welding, rocket-fuel and comprising 21% of the atmosphere in life itself.

When we come across words such as sulfate, ‘ate’ means with Oxygen (O): SO4 (sulfate).

Sulfite where the ‘ite’ means less Oxygen (O): SO3 (sulfite). Hyposulfite has even less Oxygen (O). On the other hand Persulfate has most Oxygen.

All are salts of sulfuric acid.

(1) In Birmingham there is a bronze of Joseph Priestley (13.3.1733-6.2.1804) unveiled on the 1874 centenary  and shows him with his mercuric oxide and lens. See Picture.

Statue by Francis John Williamson (1833-1920). Originally in marble but recast in bronze in 1951.

Statue in Birmingham, by Francis John Williamson (1833-1920).
Originally in marble but recast in bronze in 1951.

A bronze image exists in the main Square at Leeds by Alfred Drury, near where he was Unitarian Minister at Mill Hill Chapel.

Frances Darlington sculpted a statue (1912) in his native Birstall.

Ref: images-of-elements.com/Images of phial.

Ref: 123rf.com/image of air bubbles.

Ref: answers, yahoo.com/questions re ide, ite and ate.

Ref: chemwick.ucdavis.edu.

Ref: victorianweb.com/image of statue.


About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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