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News

Rare texts reveal the history of oxygen

University Of Wisconsin-Madison : 27 February, 2003  (Technical Article)
Competition and contention were present in abundance in the 'discovery' of oxygen, and two special collections in the University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries tell much of this lively piece of 18th-century history.
Competition and contention were present in abundance in the 'discovery' of oxygen, and two special collections in the University of Wisconsin-Madison libraries tell much of this lively piece of 18th-century history.

In conjunction with the University Theatre production of the drama, Oxygen, and the presentation of a public chemistry symposium on oxygen in spring 2003, the UW-Madison library collections will display some rare chemistry books. The exhibit will run from Feb. 17 through April 30 in the Department of Special Collections, 976 Memorial Library, 728 State St.

The exhibit offers original works of the three scientists who relatively independently and simultaneously discovered 'fire air' Joseph Priestley of England, Antoine Lavoisier of France and Karl Wilhelm Scheele of Sweden. The exhibit places Priestley's ingenious Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1774-1777) alongside an extraordinarily rare first edition of Scheele's treatise (1777) describing his independent discovery of oxygen. Priestley's meeting with Lavoisier prompted the latter to repeat and extend Priestley's experiments, and to place the concept of oxygen at the center of what historians have called the Chemical Revolution.

Lavoisier's own copy of the second edition of his influential treatise on chemistry (1793) will also be on display, together with other rare books and unique manuscripts from the Duveen Collection on alchemy and early chemistry and the Cole Collection of 18th- and 19th-century chemistry.

The library also will display some of the poetry and fiction writings of the contemporary and eminent chemists, Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel laureate, who together wrote the play Oxygen. The play focuses on the culture of science today and in the 17th century when oxygen was discovered.
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