WHENEVER I SEE a Drinking Bird I’m reminded of those long-ago family road trips to Florida, back in the 1970s, when every souvenir shop and family restaurant along the Eastern Seaboard was selling them. There was usually an unboxed sample Bird on display at the checkout counter… swinging back and forth on plastic legs… as that mysterious colored liquid seemed to defy gravity by climbing the glass tube… until it reached the top… finally pitching the Bird’s felt-lined beak forward into a waiting glass of water.
After a few moments, the Bird would withdraw its beak and the cycle would begin again. And I would continue to watch because it was mesmerizing. But it wasn’t magic. It was a cleverly-conceived “heat engine” disguised as a bird—the famous Drinking Bird!
It’s been around for decades. In fact it’s still on the market. But how much do you really know about this iconic novelty?
Here are the 6 Funtastic Facts I discovered.
The heat-engine concept that makes Drinking Bird possible was actually submitted for patent by separate inventors in 1881. They weren’t thinking about birds when they submitted these designs, but motors. Some years later, however, Chinese inventors were probably thinking about those designs when they created an “insatiable birdie” that worked on the same principle. Albert Einstein was reportedly wowed by this marvel during a trip to China in 1922, and word of his excitement must have gotten back to the United States because in 1945 and 1946, two different American inventors got patents on the Chinese design after making slight alterations.
But all of these early designs required the bird to be attached to the glass or cup from which it would “drink.” In 1947, Detroit inventor Robert T. Plate was granted patent on a freestanding design that looks a lot more like the Drinking Bird we know today.
AMAZINGLY, people have been applying for patents on various versions of this idea ever since. The most recent was submitted as recently as 2009!
It’s dichloromethane, also known as methylene chloride, a volatile natural substance usually used as a solvent. It’s naturally colorless, too, but where’s the fun in that?
Bet you didn’t realize that when you were playing with your Drinking Bird you were studying science!
In a 2003 article in the American Journal of Physics, four physicists applied themselves to understanding what makes the Bird tick. They came up with this step-by-step breakdown of the process:
“If a glass of water is placed so that the beak dips into it on its descent, the bird will continue to absorb water and the cycle will continue as long as there is enough water in the glass to keep the head wet. However, the bird will continue to dip even without a source of water, as long as the head is wet, or as long as a temperature differential is maintained between the head and body.”
This hang-on model, which is based more on the 1944 patent…
A giraffe version…
And a human variation, Dry Dan the Drinking Man.
Creative teachers have for years been using these birds to demonstrate scientific principles in a fun way. There are free lesson guides and suggested experiments available at Educational Innovations and the website of the American Chemical Society.
In the spirit of the original heat engine patents that would eventually give rise to the Drinking Bird, an enterprising YouTuber created a machine that’s powered by one!