<< >>
Usage conditions apply
Description (Brief)
Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) used this retort in his Northumberland, Pennsylvania laboratory. Priestley, the noted chemist whose accomplishments include the discovery of oxygen, was born in England. He lived and worked in Birmingham for many years, but his views as a Dissenter and an advocate of the French Revolution incited an angry mob into burning down his house and laboratory. In 1794 he fled to America, eventually settling in Northumberland, near Philadelphia. His great-great-granddaughter, Frances Priestley, donated his surviving laboratory ware to the Smithsonian in 1883.
Retorts are among the oldest forms of glassware used in chemistry. With their bulbs and long necks, they are suitable for distillation-- the separation of one material from another through heating. The bulb containing the sample is heated and the resulting gases travel along the neck to a second collecting vessel.
A 1791 inventory of Joseph Priestley’s lab notes over nine dozen retorts, varying in size from two quarts to one ounce. Priestley likely used these retorts as part of a pneumatic trough, a laboratory apparatus used to trap gases. In it, the neck of the retort is placed into a tank of water. Gases escaping from the retort’s neck bubble up through the water and into a vessel—such as a bell jar—which rests on a shelf with a hole placed several inches below the water’s surface. Gases are trapped in the jar for further study.
Glassmaker William Parker of 69 Fleet St., London or his son Samuel likely made this retort. The Parkers supplied Priestley with laboratory glassware free of charge, even after his move to the United States from London. Priestley wrote in a letter to Rev. Samuel Palmer, of his new home in Northumberland, Pennsylvania: “I have more advantages [in respect to experiments] than you could easily imagine in this remote place. I want hardly anything but a glass house.” Indeed, without a local supplier, getting glassware to Northumberland was quite a challenge. A letter to Samuel Parker dated January 20, 1795, details Priestley’s plan to have his most recent shipment brought from Philadelphia to Northumberland via a sleigh, “which is our best method of conveyance in winter.”
Badash, Lawrence. 1964. “Joseph Priestley’s Apparatus for Pneumatic Chemistry.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences XIX (2): 139–55. doi:10.1093/jhmas/XIX.2.139.
National Museum of American History Accession File #13305
Priestley, Joseph, and Henry Carrington Bolton. 1892. Scientific Correspondence of Joseph Priestley. Ninety-Seven Letters Addressed to Josiah Wedgwood, Sir Joseph Banks, Capt. James Keir, James Watt, Dr. William Withering, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Others. Together with an Appendix: I. The Likenesses of Priestley in Oil, Ink, Marble, and Metal. II. The Lunar Society of Birmingham. III. Inventory of Priestley’s Laboratory in 1791. New York: Privately printed [Philadelphia, Collins printing house].
Priestley, Joseph, and John Towill Rutt. 1817. The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley. Vol. I Part 2. [London : Printed by G. Smallfield.
Currently not on view
Object Name
used by
Priestley, Joseph
Associated Place
United States: New Jersey
overall: 17 3/4 in x 6 in; 45.085 cm x 15.24 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Credit Line
Gift of Miss Frances D. Priestley
Science & Scientific Instruments
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Chemistry
Science & Mathematics
Joseph Priestley
Data Source
National Museum of American History
Nominate this object for photography.   

Our collection database is a work in progress. We may update this record based on further research and review. Learn more about our approach to sharing our collection online.

If you would like to know how you can use content on this page, see the Smithsonian's Terms of Use. If you need to request an image for publication or other use, please visit Rights and Reproductions.


Add a comment about this object