A tale of two Josephs

Birmingham’s fame for the heat of its forges and smithies is, in part, a result of a curious meteorological effect that increases the proportion of Oxygen in the air locally. That their foundries abilities arose through an advantage of nature rather than some regional trade expertise was revealed to the world by Joseph Priestly when he discovered what he dubbed “dephlogisticated air.” This substance is what we now know as Oxygen and was easier to extract from the air in the Midlands because of its abundance. Priestly’s reward for this advance of human knowledge took the form of a rioting mob who evicted him from his house and laboratory on Priestly road, forcing him and his family to ford the fast flowing Spark Brook, and flee to regions with less wrathful and thin-skinned inhabitants. All that was saved from the ensuing fire was a single sheet of Priestly’s original research notes. The page now rests in a museum on the Stratford road, close to Sparkhill swimming pool. Much of the museum’s exhibit space is given over to the police force that grew out of those tragic Birmingham riots of 1791 and the later convictions of many of the “”bunting, beggarly, brass-making, brazen-faced, brazen-hearted, blackguard, bustling, booby Birmingham mob” responsible for the assaults on industrial scientists during July of that year. It is possible that some people were wrongly imprisoned since officers were paid a five shilling bonus for each arrest. Although Priestly’s handwriting was poor (there being little education worthy of the name in Yorkshire where he had spent his childhood) it is clear that he described O2 long before Baum’s seminal paper was released in 1900.


* To “Heiser” is a procedure named for the computer programming pioneer, Sir Joseph Heiser. The possibly apocryphal tale goes that he was called  in to deal with a mainframe malfunction one weekend, back in the days when the handful of machines in the world had a total computing capacity that would hardly suffice to run a microwave oven by the end of the century. After several hours of fruitless investigation, Sir Joe inadvertently disconnected the power by tripping over the huge electric cable that fed the Beast, as that particular room full of tubes and wires was known. He picked himself up off the floor, dusted off his white shirt, and reinserted the electric supply line, and was amazed to find that all traces of the processing error had disappeared. Thus we have a verb, to heiser, meaning to turn a device off and back on to correct a glitch.


The West Midlands Police museum really exists, and (amazing but true) includes a display showing the design evolution of the police whistle. Some of the truths in the above two snippets are not facts, or possibly vice versa, which is a recurring motif in my novel – which is beyond novel; it is unique.


About Ian Whatley

Ian Whatley -- British born, bred, educated, and then deported. His fiction has been published in The Legendary, Lost and Found Times, 3S and so on and so on and...

Posted on September 25, 2010, in Ian W and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Notes:
    Joseph Priestly discovered Oxygen before moving to Birmingham.
    It is most unlikely that the percentage of Oxygen in the air varies by meteorological effects sufficiently to affect the temperature of a foundry.
    His house was burnt in July 1791 by mobs organized by the Church of England.
    Priestly road was named in honor of the local former resident over a century after his death. Spark Brook was a brackish dribble that was later dug out as a canal – either way, fording was not needed or not an option.
    The West Midland Police Museum is on the Stratford road near the Swimming pool where I spent many cold winter nights thrashing the waters.
    The West Midlands was formed as a county in 1974. The Birmingham police were formed in 1839, and arrest bonuses offered so the constables wouldn’t move to the Worcestershire force for their higher base pay.
    The contemporary description of the mob is quoted in Rose, R. B. “The Priestley Riots of 1791.” Past and Present 18 (1960): 68-88.
    No matter how bad his handwriting, Priestly wouldn’t have written Oxygen with the abbreviation O2, nor would it easily be confused with Baum’s 1900 paper, which concerned OZ.

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