The connected book (and how to make soda water)

Ed Note: Boingboing's current guest blogger Steven Johnson is the author of six books, most recently The Invention Of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution and the Birth Of America, for which he is currently on book tour. He's also the co-founder of the hyperlocal community site

priestley-flap.jpg One of the major themes of The Invention of Air, and one that will have special appeal to BoingBoing readers, is how committed Joseph Priestley and the American Founders (particularly Franklin and Jefferson) were to the open flow of ideas. Priestley used every available information network of the day to share his discoveries and insights: he published nearly five hundred books and pamphlets over the course of his life, and wrote endless correspondence to his colleagues, documenting in exhaustive detail the techniques behind his experiments.

When you read through those original documents and letters, there's a distinctly open source vibe to the approach that they all took. Franklin argued for sharing his scientific discoveries--sometimes before he was even convinced of their accuracy--because releasing early and often would "attract the attentions of the ingenious" who would then go on to improve his original discoveries. Priestley famously invented soda water during experiments at a neighboring brewery, and then happily gave away his formula to anyone who would listen. (Anticipating Cory's wonderful OpenCola project by a couple of centuries.)

I've been talking about this quite a bit on the various stops on the book tour, and it's naturally caused some people to ask about my own research method. And it turns out there's a pleasing symmetry between the story the book tells and the information networks of our own time, because this is the first book that I have written where Google Books played an absolutely indispensable role. An amazing number of Priestley's original writings (along with other texts from that period) are available from Google as downloadable PDFs, with scans of the original page design and typography, along with full-text searching. Many of these are texts that would be very hard to find even in a major research library, and of course, even if you could find them, you wouldn't be able to search them. (You'd barely be able to turn the pages, given how old the books are.) There are also some fantastic archives of correspondence available online, most notably the site, which has a searchable database of every surviving letter Franklin wrote or received.

One thrilling thing about these Google Book resources is that you can now link directly to an individual page of a book that has potentially been out of print for centuries. We need to think a bit more about how to standardize these links, given multiple editions and multiple library sites that might have digital copies. But what you can see happening, slowly but surely, is the Memex and Xanadu and the Information Superhighway -- all those inspiring dreams of information utopia -- finally crossing crossing over into the vast universe of books. Slowly, over time, a page typeset in 1771 might start to get a whole new life, thanks to the growing authority we grant it through that elemental gesture of making a link.

So to bring things full circle, I offer up a link to the page where Priestley describes his discovery and technique for manufacturing soda water. I think he'd be delighted to know his words were still in circulation more than two centuries later.


  1. From _The First American; The LIfe and Times of Benjamin Franklin_ by H. W. Brands
    New York: Doubleday, 2000

    page 167: Franklin didn’t patent his Franklin stove, although he was offered one by Governor Thomas of Pennsylvania. “His was not a patenting personality, one that perceived knowledge as the property of its discoverer. Rather he saw philosophy – broadly construed, as it was in those days – as a collective undertaking. What one investigator unearthed ought to become the common property of all. As it applied to patents, he explained, ‘That as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.'”

  2. I cannot see the word “Oregonian” without thinking of Dave Barry’s column The Unkindest Cut of All in which he used the words “oregonian” and “post-dispatch” to refer to certain portions of the male anatomy.

    Dave’s revenge is complete, I guess. Never anger a bard!


  3. I like Prieftley’s conclufion, namely that while he doefn’t want to profit, he would like credit. Early form of attribution licenfe. And fince we’re fitting here in the 21st century talking about him and hif difcovery, it appears to have been very fuccefsful.

  4. My Granfather used to fill the soda siphon with water and a little bicarbonate of soda and a little cream of tartar.

    Then screw on the silver top with its valve handle, nozzle and stem that protruded down into the glass siphon.

    It was instantly filled with fizzy water for drinks that rushed out at a touch of the handle.

    The glass was cut in a diamond pattern and wired with a gold wire mesh – presumably as a safety measure in case of explosion.

    Pretty easy way to make soda water for pennies at home from bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar.

    I looked on the Ggl but couldn’t seem to find the recipe only a 10 to 9 part bicarb to tartar mix for bath salts.

  5. That Priestly guy was an idiot. Just think how rich his descendants would be if he had patented Air.

  6. Priestley’s work Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air was a giggle to read in its original format. All the letters of S have been replaced with F.

    An honest-to-god quote from Priestley’s book: the brifknefs and fpirit of frefh fring water.

  7. “f” back then, was “s” in cursive script. It’s OK, every fact needs to be learned at least once.

  8. As a Unitarian Universalist I greatly admire Priestly as one of our founding fathers. How many other religions can count such a genius as one of it’s founders?

  9. The Lucretius (c 54 BCE) quote (“Ita res accendunt lumina rebus”) is also pretty appropriate to the article topic – loosely, it’s ‘thus one thing throws light upon others’..

  10. @EOS47: I too am a UU, and I have to admit that many religions (including some of the worst) can count geniuses among their founders, evangelists, and administrators. Whether those geniuses are sincere and well-meaning is another story, though.

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