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First fizzy water

Sparkling water. Mineral water. Soda. This fizzy favourite is available all over the globe and comes in a myriad of bottles, brands and bubble types – but all with carbonation in common. They share an effervescence that has captured the imagination and tastebuds of the world. But when and who first put the sparkle into water?

Carbonated drinks are not a modern invention. Many alcoholic drinks, like beer or Champagne, naturally fizz during fermentation – indeed Christopher Merrett first documented the process in sparkling wine on 17th December 1662 (it’s a good story - read about it here). But what about non-alcoholic liquids that don’t go through fermentation, like the humble glass of water?

Naturally-occurring bubbly water from volcanic springs, usually highly enriched with minerals, was the very first known carbonated water. Since ancient times, people have revered these special springs for their health properties, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that they grew into something bigger. Spa and health resorts (like Spa, Bath, Baden bei Wien and Baden bei Zürich) started springing up all over Europe. Doctors regularly prescribed spa cures, with their health-giving waters, to their rich upper class clients, giving them strict drinking and bathing regimes that helped their metabolism and alleviated indigestion.

It proved a big business, as Théophile de Bordeu, who was the official superintendent of the mineral waters of France, confirmed in 1775 when he wrote, “mineral water has never been so much of an issue as in this century.” So you can see why there was such interest in the bubbly water throughout the century – if the fizz could be scientifically examined or even recreated, then there was a wide and willing market just waiting to enjoy it.

This is where Joseph Priestley comes in. He was a pretty impressive figure in the scientific community in the mid-1700s, but also somewhat controversial thanks to some of his more extreme and unconventional religious beliefs.

Of course, Priestley didn’t invent the bubbles themselves, but he was the first to investigate and discover a method of artificially adding fizziness to water – which essentially led to the birth of soft drinks.

Born in Leeds on 13th March 1733, he was clearly incredibly bright, teaching himself several languages as a child. He eventually became a teacher and a religious minister, practicing as an English Dissenter, which opposed the traditional beliefs of the Church of England.

By all accounts he was a brilliant teacher, and gifted natural philosopher, and his reputation quickly grew. He wrote countless papers on education, and even met and befriended Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, in 1765. Franklin introduced Priestley to the early science and study of electricity, which led to Priestley writing The History and Present State of Electricity with Original Experiments, that so impressed his peers he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society.

Still combining his religious calling and his scientific interests, he returned to Leeds in 1767 to lead his own Unitarian congregation. Serendipitously, his house was beside a brewery, and the wooden fermentation tuns piqued his curiosity every time he walked past on his way to church.

He noticed that what he called “fixed air” (which was later classified as carbon dioxide) was released during the beer’s fermentation. He became fascinated by this new gas and started looking into it more at home, his first experiments finding that it extinguished fire and killed mice exposed to it. He then tried to dissolve the gas in water, noticing that it imparted a flavour not unlike the water from a natural spa. He called this new bubbly drink “artificial Pyrmont water”, named after a naturally occurring spring in Germany.

As a man of science, he documented his experiments “very minutely”, writing a much-admired pamphlet in 1772 (five years after his original discovery) about his carbonation process called ‘Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air’.

To assemble his apparatus, he would fill a bottle with water, put a slip of clean paper or card on it and turn it upside-down. After putting it into another basin of water, he removed the paper from the inverted bottle and added a length of pipe into it “made of leather, sewed with wax thread, in the manner used by shoe-makers”. The pipe connected a watertight animal’s bladder to a second phial full of powdered chalk, some water and held tight with a porous cork.

To force carbon dioxide into the water, Priestley added “oil of vitriol” (later called sulphuric acid) to the phial with chalk and shook the bottle to instantly create a rush of “fixed air”.

When the bladder filled, he pressed the air through the pipe and into the inverted bottle. Eventually, half the bottle would be filled with gas, while water would have been pushed out. Then finally, he shook the bottle until the air and water mixed and was carbonated. In his pamphlet he says by way of an introduction:

“If water be only in contact with fixed air, it will begin to imbibe it, but the mixture is greatly accelerated by agitation, which is continually bringing fresh particles of air and water into contact. All that is necessary, therefore, to make this process expeditious and effectual, is first to procure a sufficient quantity of this fixed air, and then to contrive a method by which the air and water may be strongly agitated in the same vessel, without any danger of admitting the common air to them."

It was revolutionary work, and it started to earn him admiration and recognition at home and abroad. In the same year his pamphlet was published, he was elected to the French Academy of Sciences, and then received the prestigious Copley Medal a year later from the Royal Society of London.

Of course, Priestley was delighted with his work, referring to the creation of soda water as being his "happiest" discovery. But he is modest too. He didn’t try to market the process commercially, saying “if this discovery (though it doth not deserve that name) be of any use to my countrymen, and to mankind at large, I shall have my reward.

One of the slightly odder outcomes of discovering carbonated water was that it was briefly and falsely thought to cure scurvy – a result of it tasting like the health-giving waters of spa resorts. Priestley was asked by the Royal Navy, and by Lord Sandwich directly, who was first Lord of the Admiralty, to prepare apparatus that could be stowed on board his ships.

In fact, he was even asked to accompany Captain James Cook on his second voyage to the Pacific as the ship’s astronomer, only his religious views putting the Admiral off at the last minute. But nonetheless, Priestley sent the necessary equipment, so Captain Cook and the crews of The Resolution and The Adventure became the first regular makers and drinkers of carbonated water in the world.

Fizzy water, later known as ‘soda water’ in the 1800s due the addition of sodium carbonate, instantly became popular. It would most probably have tasted very different to the carbonated waters we know today, as untold chemicals were added to give them a longer shelf-life – but it was the start of a fizzy water boom.

Of course, after Priestley wrote clear and precise instructions on how to carbonate water, anyone could try their hand at it – and they started in earnest. In 1774, a Scottish physician called John Mervin Nooth developed an all-glass version of Priestley’s carbonation apparatus. It meant the pig’s bladder wasn’t needed anymore (which was said to give the water an ‘off’ taste!). This was then marketed to the general public, and by 1777 more than a 1000 had been sold for shop and home use.

The first person to manufacture carbonated water on a more commercial scale was Thomas Henry, an English surgeon, apothecary and fellow of the Royal Society, who followed Priestley’s career carefully. He built a factory in Manchester in the late 1770s to create “artificial Pyrmont and Seltzer waters” that could be contained in 12-gallon casks.

The most famous beneficiary of Joseph Priestley’s discovery was most certainly Johann Jacob Schweppe, whose company is still one of the most famous in the soft drinks industry today. He was an amateur scientist based in Geneva, Switzerland, and became the first person to truly perfect Priestley’s process on a consistent basis. He founded his carbonated mineral water company Schweppes in 1783, developing a unique glass container that could retain the fizziness of the water.

And fizzy water continued to go from strength to strength, taking the world by storm in all its many future guises. Ultimately, it fundamentally changed the way that society drank. Priestley had essentially invented the first mixer, with people starting to add carbonated water to spirits they’d previously taken neat.

And what of Joseph Priestley? He never made any money from his discovery of carbonated water but his name is writ large in the scientific community nonetheless. In his career, he isolated 10 new gases (including oxygen!), noting all their properties, was one of the first to observe photosynthesis and a plant’s respiratory cycle, and the first to confirm graphite can conduct electricity. He was a man of many talents and a member of every major scientific society in the Western world.

He died in Pennsylvania, America, on 6th February 1804, where he is thought of as the father of modern chemistry.


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