Signature mugs: Tragedies of oxygen

Mug with drawing of Joseph Priestly.Mug with drawing of Antoine Laurent Lavoisier.Mug with signature.Different Mug with signature.Mug with drawing of chemistry equipment.Mug with oxygen periodic table tile.Mug with drawing of person.Mug with zinc periodic table tile.

Our second paper focuses on ACT2 mugs highlighting the perplexing story of the discovery of oxygen. Those honored in this story with Signature mugs are Scheele, Lavoisier, Priestley, and Hoffmann.

The first question you are probably asking yourself is what does the 1981 Nobel Prize for “theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions" given to Roald Hoffmann and Kenichi Fukui have to do with the tragedies of oxygen? Hoffmann was born in 1937 Poland to a Jewish family. After Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Hoffmann family was placed in a labor camp. After a few years in the camp, his dad positioned himself as a valued prisoner. This allowed the family to eventually bribe guards and Hoffmann, his mother and three other family members were able to escape and successfully hide for 18 months. By 1949 Roald was able to immigrate to the United States. Unfortunately most of his family had perished in the Holocaust. This tragic beginning didn’t deter Hoffmann. In 1955, he graduated high school in New York and three years later earned a degree from Columbia. He went on to earn his doctorate from Harvard, and by 1965 he was on the faculty at Cornell where he remains affiliated.

In 2001 Drs. Hoffmann and Carl Djerassi (best known for his work with oral contraceptives) released their two-act drama Oxygen. The setting of the play involves a Nobel committee’s decision to award the first "retro-Nobel Prize" to the discoverer of oxygen. The three Signature mug honorees who lay claim to this discovery are Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, considered the "father of modern chemistry"; Reverend Joseph Priestley, a founder of the Unitarian Church; and Carl Wilhelm Scheele, an unassuming Swedish apothecary that Isaac Asimov nicknamed "hard-luck Scheele".

Neither Djerassi nor Hoffmann will admit who came up with the idea for the play, which was written via e-mails between the two. Both authors are quick to point out that they took some poetic licensing took place concerning the topic of a letter “found” in a travel chest, but according to Hoffmann so did other renowned authors, like Shakespeare. Rather than give away the drama, we suggest you read it for yourself keeping in mind the fictitious nature. Teachers can purchase the professionally recorded DVD with teacher guide from Educational Innovations, Inc. — approximately 2 hours in length.

Who discovered oxygen: the experimentalist (Scheele), the theoretician (Lavoisier) or the one to publish first (Priestley)?

In the 1770s the theory of phlogiston was prevalent. Phlogiston was supposedly a “matter of fire” that was released from any combustion reaction. When phlogiston was exhausted, combustion would stop. During this time air was considered an element, but did not interfere with chemical reactions.

It is widely accepted that by 1775, Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786) had discovered oxygen as a result of his work and fascination with air. Scheele described his results in terms of phlogiston theory in Chemische Abhandlung von der Luft und dem Feuer released in 1777 but experienced a two-year delay in publication due to the remoteness of his location. In the article Scheele described “fire air” (oxygen) support of combustion, and “foul air”, an impurity that makes up the mixture “air”. "Fire air" was believed to combine with phlogiston contained within the materials undergoing combustion reactions. These findings were the result of numerous experiments in which metal nitrates, oxides, and carbonates were heated, and the gases released isolated.

The tragedy here was the two-year delay in the publishing of the manuscript. By 1777 both Joseph Priestley and Antoine Lavoisier had already published their experimental data and conclusions concerning what Lavoisier called oxygène. In addition to this joint recognition for the discovery of oxygen, Scheele is thought to have been the first to discover the elements molybdenum, tungsten, barium, hydrogen and chlorine. This led Isaac Asimov to nickname Scheele "hard-luck Scheele" because others — like Davy (mug in next issue) — were given the credit for these discoveries and Scheele never received the credit due.

In 1772 Antoine Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794) having abandoned what was seen as a respectable law career decided instead to pursue science. He quickly turned his curiosity to combustion. His experiments with phosphorus and sulfur and the resulting calx — metallic oxide powder — showed that the calx had gained weight compared to the material combusted. The calx was thought to have captured an amount of air, and this was shown to be true by the liberation of air when the calx was heated. The exact composition of air was still a mystery but at least he had proposed new insight into the element, air.

In 1774 Reverend Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) met with Lavoisier in Paris. The two compared notes on their results. Priestley told how his collected gas from the calx (mercuric oxide) was able to make a candle burn brighter and faster. Priestley believed his "pure air" enhanced combustion because it was free of phlogiston. For this reason, he called the gas that he obtained from decomposing calx “dephlogisticated air” and never totally abandoned the phlogiston theory.

As a result of their years of experiments, Lavoisier was ready to propose theories to the world that excluded phlogiston, but Priestley still focused on defending the "outmoded phlogiston theory against the new chemistry". So what are the tragedies of Lavoisier and Priestley? Turns out that Lavoisier met his death during the French Revolution. Lavoisier was a member of numerous dubious French councils including the hated and corrupt Ferme générale. The political and economic activities of these councils enabled Lavoisier to fund his scientific research, but this also led to accusations of crimes against the people of France and the ultimate punishment at the time, the guillotine.

In 1791 the Priestley family was forced to flee Birmingham England to Pennsylvania due to religiously and politically motivated violence in what has since become known as the “Priestley Riots”. Priestley had accepted the ministerial position 10 years earlier. However, anger toward those seen as religious and political dissenters (the most notable being Priestley) was growing at the time. By 1794 Priestley had fled to Pennsylvania. His laboratory in Northumberland, Pennsylvania is a designated National Historic Landmark and a site frequently commemorated by the American Chemical Society.

Who discovered oxygen? Why not stage your own retro-Nobel Prize committee?