An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

One of the numerous candlelit scenes painted by Derby artist Joseph Wright during the 1760s is An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, a 1768 oil-on-canvas work. Since 1863, the painting has owned the National Gallery in London, where it is widely considered a masterpiece of British art.

This artwork depicts the artwork of an early natural philosopher, a progenitor of the modern scientist Robert Boyle‘s air pump experiments. A bird is deprived of oxygen in front of a diverse audience of people. There is a wide range of reactions from the group, but scientific interest triumphs over compassion for the bird for the vast majority of the audience. But what is the backstory of “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump?”

A “scientist” — most likely a traveling lecturer — in a flowing red robe and glowing long, white hair raises a large glass bubble.  There’s a gorgeous white bird within the bubble, and the bubble is sealed with a cover to keep the bubble airtight. In order to pump out the air, the experimenter spins a crank that is coupled to a vacuum pump attached to the jar. The bird appears to be in distress. Two tiny girls sitting at the round wooden table where the lecturer sits are scared! One can’t stare because she has her face covered. Their granddad attempts to calm them.

On the other hand, a youthful pair glances at one another. It seems they’re not paying any attention to the scientific experiment, and they’re madly in love with one other. The most curious of the ten onlookers, dressed in a green jacket, is holding a large watch in his hands, and he is aware of how long it will take for the bird to succumb to suffocation.

It’s all part of a scientific investigation. They’re looking into the properties of air. The year 1768 marked the beginning of the Enlightenment, a period marked by empirical observation, experimentation, technology, and, yes, show business. The older man isn’t a true scientist in the traditional sense. He and hundreds like him work as showmen and entertainers in the entertainment industry. These gentlemen would travel around and offer demonstrations in people’s homes as a form of outreach. That was how they made a living for themselves. As a result, the cockatoo couldn’t die because they were so valuable. The pseudoscientist may lose money by replacing them. As a result of the vigil, the release, and the bird’s return to the large air-filled bubble.

If you like An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, you should check Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky’s Painting: Mental Arithmetic.

Ali Kaya


Ali Kaya

This is Ali. Bespectacled and mustachioed father, math blogger, and soccer player. I also do consult for global math and science startups.

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