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4th year in Biology and The History & Philosophy of Science. Cycling fanatic and film photography enthusiast

Hidden Histories: ‘Hawksbee Air Pump, 1850’- A history of science icon

The 18th century was a wealth of knowledge, investigation and fast growing technology. In the university’s collection is a double-barrelled pump, in the style of instrument maker Francis Hauksbee, representing the ‘state of the art’ of 18th century vacuum technology in Britain. The history of science witnessed a varied range of air pumps, yet Hauksbee’s double-barrelled constructions are of the earliest surviving. More can be found in the Royal Scottish Museum, the Oxford Museum of the History of Science and London’s Science Museum. Despite the dating of this pump (1850), it mirrors Hauksbee’s designs from 1703-1709, as from then on commercial pumps underwent minimal modification.



The vacuum air pump was one of the six instruments invented in the 17th century that had a profound impact on experimental science. Others include the pendulum clock, telescope, thermometer, barometer and microscope. After the news of German scientist Otto von Guericke’s air pump experiments spread through Europe, the first English air pump, an improvement of von Guericke’s, was designed and built by the acclaimed Robert Boyle during 1658-9. With a rack and pinion (small metal wheel) to move the solid piston (component moving up and down to create power), and a single brass barrel, it stood on a strong wooden tripod, mouth turned downwards. Teeth were cut onto the piston-rod, so as to form a rack moved by a toothed wheel, and turned by a handle, as in later air-pumps. The only valve was a hole bored into the side.



In the mid 1670s the commercial market for air pumps developed. In 1676, the double-barrelled air pump arose from the work of Robert Boyle and French inventor Denis Papin, with pistons and self-acting valves in cylinders. Used for experiments, these designs relied on piston-rods suspended at opposite ends of a cord passing over a pulley.

Historian of science Henry Guerlac suggested that after air-pumps became cheaper and more widely available between 1670-1680, Boyle and Papin’s air pump techniques were transmitted to Francis Hauksbee (1660–1713). Hauksbee was an English scientist known for his work on electricity, beginning his research at the Royal Society for Isaac Newton in 1703. In 1704, Hauksbee perfected the double cylinder air pump, combining the rack and pinion of the first and second air pumps, with two barrels, twin pistons, and self-acting valves. As Brundtland asserted, Hauksbee’s competence as an exceptional maker of air pumps developed between 1699 and 1703, as a result of his experience with the construction and manufacturing of cupping-glasses (which created suction on the skin often by heat, by a partial vacuum, to mobilise blood flow). Hauksbee developed a new design, in which syringes were used to evacuate the glasses. These syringes, claimed to be small air pumps, were made larger, allowing a transition from the cupping-syringe to an air pump for Hauksbee’s use in natural philosophy. This design included two cylinders with pistons balanced against each other, driven in opposite directions by the rack and pinion.

How did it work? By setting the pump in motion, air was excavated from the glass bulb, creating what we now consider to be a vacuum. Two pistons were worked by rack and pinion, arranged such that as one descended, the other ascended.

In terms of its use, Hauksbee’s air pumps- with interchangeable glasses depending on the purpose- were mainly for laboratory demonstrations, as well as granting the public access to curious and elaborate experiments. Until Hauksbee perfected his double barrelled air pump around 1704, most of the Royal Society’s experiments were of a mundane nature, with Boyle focusing mainly on the properties of air. Hauksbee was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his skill in conducting experiments with his novel apparatus.


Air pumps made an important contribution to science, but throughout this period they were widely used as a source of entertainment and instruction, as vacuum was a new and fascination subject. Joseph Derby’s 1768 painting An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump depicts people watching, some with horror, the demonstration of an air pump by a traveling scientist. A bird slowly suffocates within. The scientist forms a vacuum by withdrawing air from a glass containing a white cockatoo, yet the painting does not entirely concern scientific invention, instead a human drama in a night-time setting. There is a wide range of reactions, some scared that the bird will die, and others curious and reflecting the coming age of science. Further, this painting illustrates the presentation of 18th century scientific learning, heavily dependent on the techniques of observation. Hauksbee’s air pump, with its transportable size allowing it to reach different settings and locations, most likely aroused a similarly diverse range of reactions. The air-pump became a resource for the ‘business of experimental philosophy.’ Hauksbee’s design was largely maintained for 150 years, with later pumps developed only in their ease of use, and with decreased ultimate pressure.


Notably, historians of science Shapin and Schaffer, in their 1985 influential book Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life, documented the debate between Boyle and Hobbes on Boyle’s air pump experiments of the 1660s. By raising the question of ‘why do experiments lead to truth?’, the two historians investigated the issue of acceptable methods of knowledge production, and the societal factors that led to them. The book also reveals the air pump’s significance as Boyle argued that ‘facts should be manufactured by machines like the air pump, so that gentlemen could witness the experiments, and produce knowledge that everyone agreed on.’ Contrastingly, Hobbes viewed experiments as artificial and unreliable, produced by an exclusive organisation. The air pump was a metaphorical device representing an approach to natural philosophy.


Further, Shelagh Stephenson’s 1999 play An Experiment with an Air Pump, set in 1799, portrayed a house buzzing with scientific experiments (as well as romance and farce). In the world of scientific chaos, Stephenson questioned, at what point does the end result of greater knowledge or the development of a treatment, justify the means used to get there? Highlighting which scientific methods are ethically acceptable, Stephenson drew a link between the bird in the air pump, and human, claiming that we too were reduced to a mere experiment. It is obvious that the air pump was an influential object in the debates over the production of scientific knowledge, and the position of man in natural philosophy, in the 18th century.

In this specific object identified in the University of Leeds History of Education catalogue, Hauksbee is only the style of the air pump. The origins of this replica are a London firm, Horne and Thornthwaite, who also traded in chemistry, photography and optics. However, the use of the air pump can be located back to Bootham School, an independent Quaker boarding school in York, in which many Quaker teachers maintained a keen interest in natural history. Influencing their students, the air pump was most likely used in science lessons. After opening in 1823, Bootham became distinguished for studies in Natural History, its herbarium, and by 1853 its observatory for astronomical studies- thus they placed a heavy emphasis on science. To early Quakers, the physical universe- God’s creation- was infused with religious meaning. The schoolmaster recommended Quaker children should be taught to ‘read the Nature, Use and Service of Trees, Birds, Beast, Fish, Serpents, Insects, Earths, Metals, Salts, Stones Vulgar…’ Moreover, since Quakerism was born in defiance of the Church of England, and Quakers were excluded as ‘dissenters’ from Oxbridge whose curriculum was dominated by classical studies, this allowed Bootham to strengthen their scientific studies. The use of scientific instruments would allow, as Quaker astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell claimed, students ‘to readily revise what you hold to be the truth, as in both Quakerism and science.’ This serious interest in science at Bootham encouraged the production of a number of distinguished scientists in many areas.

From 1850 to the turn of the century, intense activity in the development of vacuum technology emerged, driven by the needs of scientific research and demands of the incandescent lamp industry. This air pump is only a replica, and subsequently we should guard against the notion that because many air-pumps look the same, no improvements have been made since Boyle or Hauksbee’s day.

Esther Lie


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