18th century Art on Science: Joseph Wright’s “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump”


From Wikimedia Commons

Unlike his self-explanatory “Alchemist discovering phosphorus,” another painting of Joseph Wright of Derby, “An Experiment on a Bird in an Airpump” (right) is an enigma for a 21st-century viewer. Who are people surrounding the table? Why is the parrot in a glass bowl?

What is an air pump?

I don’t think I need to convince you that air has pressure and you can remove air from a vessel leaving a vacuum – or more likely thin gas – inside. But for people in pre-scientific time air was something indivisible like other elements – fire, earth, and water.

The air pump, which can suck the air out of a vessel, was invented by Otto von Guericke in 1650. One of the lucky first possessors of the air pump was “the first modern chemist” Robert Boyle. You may remember him from Boyle’s Law. Boyle conducted experiments with the pump and published a book about it in 1660. One of the experiments describes air removal effect on a bird:

…the Bird for a while appear’d lively enough; but upon a greater Exsuction of the Air, she began manifestly to droop and appear sick, and very soon after was taken with as violent and irregular Convulsions, as are wont to be observ’d in Poultry, when their heads are wrung off: For the Bird threw her self over and over two or three times, and dyed with her Breast upward, her Head downwards, and her Neck awry.

At this point, the pump was too expensive for most individual scientists (or natural philosophers as they were called then) to buy one for personal use. In the 1660s there were around seven pumps in the whole Europe. Think MRI scanner of today – immensely useful but affordable only by institutions.

Then, as it often happens with scientific equipment (re: microwave ovens), it became accessible to a wider circle of people. And just like in Medieval Times there were traveling Punch and Judy puppet theaters 18th century with its increased interest in science had traveling science presenters, who for a price were able to demonstrate the air pump experiment.

The scene

In the middle, you see an air pump – brass cylindrical pipes with a crank connected by a rubber tube to a globular glass bowl containing a parrot. The bird looks distressed, trying to flail a wing and breath.

People present at the scene react differently at the suffering of the bird and in this they resemble an audience at any modern scientific lecture. In the center – the distinguished looking, silver-haired natural philosopher in robes who performs the experiment. If you compare him with a famous picture of Einstein, you’ll see that a public image of a scientist didn’t change much – even the robes.

Young man and woman on the left of him only have eyes for each other. A pre-teen boy and a gentleman with a family resemblance to the boy seem genuinely interested in the experiment. The old gentleman who might be the grandfather of the boy and father of the young gentleman looks pensive as if the worldly goings do not interest him anymore. Two young girls in pink dresses look distressed. While the younger look at the suffering bird, her older sister covers her face with her hand. A middle-aged man points upwards as if admonishing her to look at the experiment.

The Moon

Another small but significant detail – Moon show in the window on the right of the picture. Joseph Wright was a member of enigmatic Moon Society combining gentlemen interested in natural science. We know almost nothing about the society except that it gathered during the full Moon.

The boy opening the curtain looks directly at us, except for the philosopher the only one on the picture breaking the fourth wall.

Wider meaning

“An experiment” has less religious connotations than ““Alchemist discovering phosphorus”(right). The science moved from monastery-like surroundings to a domestic, if Palladian grand home settings.

The scientist doesn’t receive a revelation from above. The experiment relies on a mechanical man-build device and the natural philosopher invites us to understand and participate.

After popular enthusiasm about natural sciences of the 18th and 19th century when ordinary people collected fossils and insects and kept microscopes and barometers at home, went to public lectures, in 20th-century science have retreated into ivory towers of institutions. 21st century sees the return of science as entertainment.

To the 18th century viewer, the painting was showcasing a triumph of science and asking to join in the Scientific Revolution. To me it shows sexism – the boys are attentive, the girls are emotional and a young woman distracts a man of her age from the observation of scientific discovery.


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