There is no arguing that oxygen is the most important element for all of mankind. Our very life is dependent on it as is numerous other organisms that live on our planet. Our dependence on it is one of the things that limit us from exploring our universe since oxygen is not abundant outside of the Earth.
Knowing this dire connection that human kind has to oxygen, it is surprising that only in the eighteenth century did man actually ‘discover’ oxygen. The use of the word discovered must be put into context of course since the discovery of oxygen is unlike other discoveries, such as that of the Americas or that of Australia. This is because man has always intuited through analysis the existence of oxygen; it’s just that no one was able to isolate it from air until the eighteenth century.
The credit for being the men who discovered oxygen goes to three scientists of that century; three scientists who each claimed the achievement for themselves. Their squabble notwithstanding, each of the three scientists are all worthy of the credit since each one of them pioneered the exploration of the element most important to mankind.
First of the men who discovered oxygen was Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a Swede who, in 1772, isolated oxygen by burning nitrates and mercuric oxides together. Knowing oxygen is a combustible gas, he dubbed the new-found element as ‘fire-air’. Two years later, one of the three men who discovered oxygen, Joseph Priestley achieved the same feat by exposing mercuric oxide to the sun. He described the isolated air as one that makes fire burn brighter and a rodent much livelier. A year later, he published these findings in his books concerning properties of air. The last of the three men who discovered oxygen was Antoine Lavoisier who claimed that he discovered oxygen independently through his own experiments.
If being the sole discoverer meant basing solely on the years on which the each of three men discovered oxygen, Scheele would have been the unequivocal discoverer of oxygen. But since being the first academic publisher concerning oxygen counts a lot, Priestley has always been regarded as the one who discovered oxygen. Scheele and Lavoisier come in second, for their pioneering studies on the elements properties that led to further knowledge concerning oxygen.
Oxygen is the most important thing in the universe for us humans and it is only befitting that we be aware of the men who discovered oxygen labored to understand deeply the very element that we breathe in and breathe out every moment of our life.