The Famous Drinking Bird
My stepson received an original drinking bird as a stocking stuffer one Christmas, and it was the hit of the party. The Guitar Hero he hinted about for months was abandoned in a corner for hours while our group huddled around the dining table, mesmerized by the dip, dip, dipping bird.
Though it looks like a toy and is often called one, the drinking bird is actually a small, cleverly designed thermodynamic engine. It consists of two glass bulbs joined by a glass tube, which serves as the bird's neck. When the head of the bird is moistened, it repeatedly tips over and seems to be drinking from a glass of water.
Because it resembles a toy, the drinking bird appears harmless. However, there are a few safety concerns to keep in mind. The glass tube is filled with colored dichloromethane (also called methylene chloride) which can irritate the skin and lungs. However, this is a big improvement over some of the highly flammable substances like trichloromonofluoromethane that were used in earlier models!
Err on the side of caution and keep small children and curious cats at a safe distance when the drinking bird is on display. There is no danger as long as the device remains intact. One should never touch or inhale dichloromethane. Once the water source is removed, the drinking bird will cease dipping and can be put away in a safe place until your next gathering. When I'm putting together unique stocking stuffer ideas, the drinking bird is always on the list.
When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading.
Official So Thirsty Drinky Bird
Here's How it Works
The drinking bird looks like a toy, but it’s actually a small heat engine. Here’s how the device works once the head is moistened.
- Water evaporates from the bird’s felt-covered head.
- Evaporation lowers the temperature of the glass head.
- The drop in temperature causes dichloromethane vapor in the head to condense.
- The lower temperature and condensation cause the pressure to drop in the head.
- The pressure differential between the head and base causes liquid to be pushed up from the base.
- As liquid flows into the head, the bird becomes top heavy and tips over.
- When the bird tips over, the bottom end of the neck tube rises above the surface of the liquid.
- A bubble of vapor rises up the tube through this gap, displacing liquid as it goes.
- Liquid flows back to the bottom bulb, equalizing vapor pressure between the top and bottom bulbs.
- The weight of the liquid in the bottom bulb brings the bird back to a vertical position.
- The liquid in the bottom bulb is heated by ambient air, which is a slightly higher temperature than the bird’s head.
Who Created the Drinking Bird?
The drinking bird was invented by Miles V. Sullivan in 1945. It was patented a year later. Sullivan was a Ph.D. inventor-scientist at Bell labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey.
Pop Culture Reference
The drinking bird was featured in an episode of The Simpsons called "King-Size Homer." The Simpson patriarch used one to repeatedly press a computer keyboard key. D'oh!
Dip, Dip, DIP
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