Jospeh Priestley For Kids!

Who is he?

Joseph Priestley was a famous chemist (someone who studies the structure of the universe) who discovered carbonated water. Carbonated water is the “bubbly” part of your favorite sodas! [1]

Map of Leeds


Early Life

He was born on March 13, 1733 in Leeds, England. His father was a wool-cloth dresser and his mother came from a farming family. Priestley was the oldest of 6 children (3 brothers and 2 sisters). Unfortunately, his mother passed away early on in Priestley’s life. At age 6, he moved to live with his aunt, Sarah Priestley Keighley, after the passing of his mother. Joseph Priestley was of ill health, so he was not educated in normal school. Instead, he was educated by a nonconformist minister and studied on his own.

Quick Facts!


Joseph Priestley loved to learn (just like many of you!) and he was encouraged to study the ministry (religion). He went to local parish schools where he learned languages, math, and philosophy in addition to his private lessons. However, Priestley became sick causing him to change his plans and prepare to become a clerk. He said that he knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew, a little Syriac and Arabic, French Italian and German (WOW!) in addition to studying math, but he later confessed to relearning German and not being very good at math. [1][6]


Marriage and Family

In 1762, Joseph Priestley married Mary Wilkinson whose family were great ironmasters in England. They met when Priestley taught Mary’s brother, William. He moved to Birmingham in the early 1780s and described those as some of the happiest years of his life.

Ministry and Religion

Joseph Priestley was not always the famous scientist we know today. In fact, he actually was not very well-versed in his knowledge of chemistry. Before he began pursuing science, Priestly was a minister in his local chapel. His job as a minister allowed for him to travel around all of England even establishing a school in Cheshire. He faced a few financial hardships asa result of deals and promises falling through, but nonetheless Priestley showed immense perseverance and continued to teach and preach his way through life. Growing up in a religious home, he carried his devotion with him through his adult life. However, Priestley believed in an idea called unitarianism. Unitarianism is a set of beliefs that incorporate the idea of a unified God.[1]

Discovery of Soda Water

One of Priestley’s best known inventions is his discovery of injecting carbon dioxide (CO2) into water.

How did Priestley develop this idea? 

Originally, Jospeh Priestley worked as a unitarian minister which is what led him to move to Leeds, England. His home in Leeds was located next to a brewery, a place where drinks are made, which gave him easy access to carbon dioxide. The brewery released many different types of “air” which allowed Priestley to become very curious on what these “airs” would do. The more he looked into the bubbles in beer (drink for adults), he realized that they have similar properties to the ones found in natural mineral spring waters. During at the 17th century, these natural spring waters were being used by doctors to cure certain sicknesses, similar to how you may drink ginger-ale during a stomach ache. This caused Priestley to wonder if there was a way to make the bubbles himself. [2]

The development of carbonated water 

Since Jospeh Priestley lived next to a brewery, he observed the effects of carbon dioxide which he called “fixed air”. The more he saw the effects of the “air” he became more and

more interested in the properties of gasses such as oxygen. He created a tool that allowed him to keep the gases from his experiments (learn more about his tool here). The same tool could have been used to see if a flame could stay lit or if the gas could sustain life. He did these experiments by placing the container in a pool of water or mercury (element 80 on the periodic table). During these experiments, Priestley noticed that if he placed a mouse and a flame in a jar the mouse would die when the flame went out due to lack of air. [3]

Science at Home!

Try this!

Ask an adult to light a match for you. Then, place the match in a closed container. What happens to the flame? Does it keep burning or will it go out?

Using what Priestley had learned from his experiences with gases, he created an apparatus (a tool, machine, or form of equipment that can be used to do a specific task) which allowed him to impregnate (word Priestley used to describe how he injected the bubbles) the water. He did this by burning glass that had calcine iron in a cup with oxygen. The gas then flowed into the water allowing it to have the bubbles we feel when we drink sodas! After his discovery, he published a journal titled Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air which was awarded the Copley Medal in 1772 (read more about the medal here) from the Royal Society. The fizzy water was then titled soda water and gained a lot of popularity. Other than its fun a tasty qualities we know today, soda water’s popularity actually was a result of its use on long trips by boat. This is because it tasted better than stored regular water and it was often times seen as a way to relieve certain diseases. [4][5][7]


Use of Soda Water Today

Soda water as a drink

The widespread use of soda water occurred after the concept was passed on from Joseph Priestley to J.J. Schweppe. He later founded Schweppes Company in 1783 in Geneva, Switzerland selling carbonated water. This company certainly has not gone out of the soda industry as it is the same company that produces ginger-ale today! As more and more soda water companies emerged, they began adding flavors to distinguish themselves from competitors. This is why we have soft drinks today of every flavor imaginable! [8]

Works Cited

  1. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
  2. Hartog, P. J., et al. “The Bicentenary of Joseph Priestley.” Journal of the Chemical Society (Resumed), 1933, p. 896., doi:10.1039/jr9330000896.
  3. “Invention of Carbonation and History of Carbonated Water.” History of Carbonated Water – Invention of Carbonation,
  4. “Joseph Priestley.” Science History Institute, 7 Aug. 2018,
  5. “Joseph Priestley, Discoverer of Oxygen National Historic Chemical Landmark.” American Chemical Society,
  6. “Joseph Priestley.” World of Chemistry, Gale, 2006. Biography In Context, Accessed 30 June 2019.
  7. Milanovic, Vesna D., and Dragica D. Trivic. “The Historical or the Contemporary Context: Which of the Two Ensures a Deeper Understanding of Gas Properties?” Chemistry Education Research and Practice, vol. 18, no. 4, 2017, pp. 549–558., doi:10.1039/c7rp00027h.
  8. “The Origins of Soda Water.” Office for Science and Society, 17 May 2018,


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