Drinking Bird, 1945. Glass, plastic, feathers, metal, felt, H. 19 cm / 7 ½ in Private collection
Drinking Bird, 1945. Glass, plastic, feathers, metal, felt, H. 19 cm / 7 ½ in Private collection

The bird that fooled Einstein

Our new book, Bird: Exploring the Winged World, includes the toy, nodding birdie that foxed the father of relativity

Bird: Exploring the Winged World shows what can happen, as a former US president once put it, where “wings take dream.” The book presents an incredible array of avian artworks, sharing the beauty and majesty of bird life, as represented in sculptures, paintings, decorative art, photography, film, illustration and other media, throughout history.

Some inclusions, such as Albrecht Dürer’s watercolour painting of a European Roller’s wing, or Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of doves, clearly have a place in conventional art history. Others, like Warner Brothers’ cartoon character Tweety and the toucan illustration used to advertise Guinness, are perfect pop-culture inclusions.

Miles V. Sullivan’s popular toy, Drinking Bird, first patented in 1945, falls into the latter category, while also finding a perch within the history of science. Here’s how our new book characterises this mechanical birdie.

“With no obvious power source, this bizarre-looking bird rocks back and forth, dipping its beak into a glass of water as if taking a drink,” explains the new book. “The classic toy, with its cartoonish eyes, long neck and bulbous bottom, has delighted generations of children and adults alike.

 

Bird: Exploring the Winged World
Bird: Exploring the Winged World

 

“Many have tried to uncover its secret and failed, including Albert Einstein, who spent three and a half months studying it to no avail. Patented in 1945 by the American scientist Miles V. Sullivan, the drinking bird is an example of a heat engine, where tiny differences in temperature are harnessed to produce movement.

“Comprising two glass bulbs joined by a tube, the bird’s body is filled with red methylene chloride, a volatile compound that vaporizes at room temperature. The bird’s upper bulb, or head, is covered with a fabric that absorbs water from the drinking glass. When the water evaporates, the head cools, causing the vapour inside it to condense. The resulting difference in pressure between the two bulbs forces the red liquid up the tube, filling the head so that the bird tips forwards. When the head drains of liquid, it tips back and the process repeats.

“A similar toy named the Insatiable Birdie was produced in China from 1910, but it was Sullivan’s patented design that captured the world’s imagination. Recognized for its educational as well as its entertainment value, it sold in its millions.”

To better understand how this clever bird fits among a wider flock of avian creativity, order a copy of Bird here.