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When Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen in 1774, he answered age-old questions of why and how things burn. An Englishman by birth, Priestley was deeply involved in politics and religion, as well as science. He emigrated to America when his vocal support for the American and French revolutions made remaining in his homeland untenable. The American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society, designated Priestley's Pennsylvania home a National Historic Chemical Landmark in 1994. ACS joined the Royal Society of Chemistry in designating Bowood House, the site of Priestley's English laboratory, an International Historic Chemical Landmark in 2000.

In a series of experiments culminating in 1774 conducted

with the kind of equipment on display in his Pennsylvania home Priestley found that "air is not an elementary substance, but a composition," or mixture, of gases. Among them was the colorless and highly reactive gas he called "dephlogisticated air," to which the great French chemist Antoine Lavoisier would soon give the name "oxygen." It is hard to overstate the importance of Priestley's revelation. Scientists now recognize 92 naturally occurring elements-including nitrogen and oxygen, the main components of air. They comprise 78 and 21 percent of the atmosphere, respectively. ..

As luck would have it, Lord Shelburne was setting off on a trip to the continent, and took Priestley along. In France, Priestley met Lavoisier and described his discovery. It turned out to be the clue Lavoisier needed to develop his theory of chemical reactions the "revolution" in chemistry that would finally dispel the phlogiston theory. Burning substances, Lavoisier argued, did not give off phlogiston; they took on Priestley's gas, which Lavoisier called "oxygen" from the Greek for acid-maker.

Oxygen is produced industrially by fractional distillation of liquefied air, use of zeolites to remove carbon dioxide and nitrogen from air
The credit is usually shared between the Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele, and the British clergyman Joseph Priestly. Scheele heated mercury oxide and various nitrates, and obtained a colourless gas that supported combustion around 1772. he called the gas "fire air". Priestly heated mercury oxide through focused sunlight in 1774, and also obtained a colourless gas that supported combustion, made a mouse very lively, and made his chest feel lighter once he breathed it himself. He published his findings first, so he is usually credited.

. (Shown on Chemicools carbon page.)

Totally unexpectedly, the hot mercury oxide yielded a gas that made a candle burn five times faster than normal. Priestley wrote: But what surprised me more than I can well express was that a candle burned in this air with a remarkably vigorous flame. I was utterly at a loss how to account for it. (1)

In addition to noticing the effect of oxygen on combustion, Priestley later noted the new gass biological role. He placed a mouse in a jar of oxygen, expecting it would survive for 15 minutes maximum before it suffocated. Instead, the mouse survived for a whole hour and was none the worse for it.(2)

Antoine Lavoisier carried out similar experiments to Priestleys and added to our knowledge enormously by discovering that air contains about 20 percent oxygen and that when any substance burns, it actually combines chemically with oxygen.

Lavoisier also found that the weight of the gas released by heating mercury oxide was identical to the weight lost by the mercury oxide, and that when other elements react with oxygen their weight gain is identical to the weight lost from the air.

This enabled Lavoisier to state a new fundamental law: the law of the conservation of matter; matter is conserved in chemical reactions or, alternatively, the total mass of a chemical reactions products is identical to the total mass of the starting materials.

In addition to these achievements, it was Lavoisier who first gave the element its name oxygen. (2a)

Before it was discovered and isolated, a number of scientists had recognized the existence of a substance with the properties of oxygen:

In the early 1500s Leonardo da Vinci observed that a fraction of air is consumed in respiration and combustion.(3)

In 1665 Robert Hooke noted that air contains a substance which is present in potassium nitrate [potassium nitrate releases oxygen when heated,] and a larger quantity of an unreactive substance [which we call nitrogen].(3)

In 1668 John Mayow wrote that air contains the gas oxygen [he called it nitroarial spirit], which is consumed in respiration and burning.(3),(4)

Mayow observed that: substances do not burn in air from which oxygen is absent; oxygen is present in the acid part of potassium nitrate [i.e., in the nitrate - he was right!]; animals absorb oxygen into their blood when they breathe; air breathed out by animals has less oxygen in it than fresh air.
Classification: Oxygen is a chalcogen and a nonmetal

Color: Atomic weight: State: Melting point: Boiling point: Electrons: Protons: Neutrons in most abundant isotope: Electron shells:

colorless 15.9994 gas -218.3 oC, 54.8 K -182.9 oC, 90.2 K 8 8 8 2,6

The major commercial use of oxygen is in steel production.Carbon impurities are removed from steel by reaction with oxygen to form carbon dioxide

Oxygen is also used in oxyacetylene welding, as an oxidant for rocket fuel, and in methanol and ethylene oxide production. Plants and animals rely on oxygen for respiration. Pure oxygen is frequently used to help breathing in patients with respiratory ailments.


Uses: Oxygen was the atomic weight standard of comparison for the other elements until 1961 when the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry adopted carbon 12 as the new basis. It is the third most abundant element found in the sun and the earth, and it plays a part in the carbon-nitrogen cycle. Excited oxygen yields the bright red and yellow-green colors of the AuroraApproximately two thirds of the human body and nine tenths of the mass of water is oxygen.

Element Classification: Non-Metal