Joseph Priestley was born in Leeds, England, in 1733. Priestley was raised by an aunt who was a member of a religious group called the Dissenters.
The freethinking group rejected many of the beliefs of the Church of England and gave Priestley a spirit of rebellion that would stick with him throughout his life.
Priestley studied for the ministry and became a pastor for a small Dissenting church in Leeds in 1766. He might have stayed a country pastor the rest of his life but for a chance meeting with Benjamin Franklin that same year.
Franklin had become world famous for his studies of electricity and his support of the American independence movement.
Priestley was interested in both aspects of Franklin’s life.
The meeting inspired Priestley to conduct some experiments in electricity and write a book called The History of Electricity.
Priestley’s scientific fame, however, would lie in another field, he returned to the ideas of the alchemist Helmont and became one of the founders of modern chemistry.
In 1780, Priestley became a member of the Lunar Society, an organization of the leading scientists of the day. They met on nights with full moons to have light for their trips home. They came to be known as the “lunatics.”
Priestley invented the pencil eraser in 1770 when he discovered that a substance called India gum could be used to rub out pencil writing.