Erasmus Darwin’s Artificial Bird

Erasmus Darwin's Artificial Bird. Pen sketch of a mechanical bird.

Contributor: Alice Rhodes

Location: Erasmus Darwin House, Lichfield, UK

Description: Although best known for his careers as poet and doctor (or perhaps for his grandson Charles, who would go on to lay claim to the Darwin name in the public consciousness) Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) was also a prolific inventor proposing apparatuses of every kind from systems of canal locks to a steam powered chariot. Many of these, like the “Artificial Bird” pictured above, can be found in the commonplace book which Darwin kept between 1776 and 1787, now housed at Erasmus Darwin House in Lichfield. There is no record of the bird leaving the pages of the commonplace book until its reconstruction by Erasmus Darwin House in 2013, yet Darwin’s bird is more than a flight of fancy. Nor was it a mere toy or curiosity. It can be read as an instrument or experiment through which Darwin gained knowledge of both physics and avian physiology, and it hatched from a long European history of creating such mechanisms.

The bird, Darwin proposed, was to be made from both organic and inorganic material, comprising feathers, watch-springs, wheels, and “a wing, like a bats-wing, or like a ladies fan” attached to a “porcupine quill or fine steel-wire”. The machine would then be propelled by gunpowder, theoretically enabling the bird to fly (Commonplace Book, 33-38). Darwin’s accompanying notes cover both the mechanical and the biological, including the topic of pulleys and weights and the function of the placenta in animals.

The notion of the artificial or mechanical bird was well established in Europe by the end of the eighteenth century. As John W. Yolton writes “mechanical beasts, planned or fancied, have a long history,” particularly in France (Yolton, 29). Automata provided fertile ground for French Materialists, from Descartes to La Mettrie, allowing them to draw comparisons between the workings of bodies and machines. It was with this mechanical view of the natural world that Darwin’s science became associated, particularly in the conservative press which began to equate his supposed materialism (i.e. the belief that life and mind are physical as opposed to immaterial) not only with French philosophy but with French revolutionary ideals. The Anti-Jacobin’s satirical and anti-revolutionary poem “The Progress of Man” (1798), for example, cites Darwin alongside “All the French Encyclopedists” in a note to lines describing materialism of the mind (Anti-Jacobin, 524-528) and Darwin himself exclaimed in a 1790 letter to James Watt that he felt himself becoming “all French both in chemistry and politics”.

But science did not always take precedent over spectacle in Romantic era animal automata. Among the most renowned mechanical birds to be exhibited in Europe in the period were Jacques de Vaucanson’s provocative yet ultimately fraudulent Canard Digérateur or “Digesting Duck” which purported to replicate biological process in metal and wood, and the elaborately decorated Silver Swan automaton built by Anglo-Belgian automaton maker and exhibitor John Joseph Merlin, now on display in the Bowes Museum. First displayed in 1739 and 1774 respectively, these mechanical waterfowl drew crowds well into the nineteenth century. Theatrical artificial birds, which either attempted to pass off illusion as science or were built primarily for amusement, demonstrate the way in which some automaton birds were simply made to be seen, rather than to further knowledge of the natural world.

Indeed, even for Darwin, there are limits to the knowledge that mechanical birds can provide. In his posthumous 1803 poem The Temple of Nature, Darwin writes:

Self-moving Engines by unbending springs
May walk on earth, or flap their mimic wings;
But Reproduction, when the perfect Elf
Forms from fine glands another like itself,
Gives the true character of life and sense,
And parts the organic from the chemic Ens. (TN, canto II, l.21-30)

Despite his reputation as a materialist, Darwin knows that the artificial bird is not a real one and maintains that living things cannot be fully understood by the construction and observation of machines alone. It is through the study of the organic world, not the mechanical, that the “true character” of animal life can be identified.

Romanticism’s most canonical birds, however, are neither seen nor known. John Keats’s nightingale is not seen and is only conjecturally heard, while Percy Shelley, who read and admired Darwin’s writing, presents the bird at the centre of “To a Skylark” as both unknown and unknowable. Far from being empirically understood, the skylark is “unbodied” and “unseen”. Yet, like Darwin’s mechanical bird, the nightingale and the skylark are also artificial – products of the poets’ imaginations, constructed on the page in paper and ink. And, as Shelley writes of the skylark “what thou are we know not” but “bird thou never wert”. We don’t know what Shelley’s skylark is but, as with Darwin’s assemblage of watch-springs and wheels, it is not a bird.

Date: c.1776-1787

Creator: Erasmus Darwin

Subject: Erasmus Darwin

Media rights: Erasmus Darwin House

Object type: sketch/machine

Format: paper and ink/clockwork, feathers, porcupine quill

Language: English

Publisher: Erasmus Darwin House


Coleman, Deidre and Hilary Fraser. Minds, Bodies, Machines, 1770-1930. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Darwin, Erasmus. Commonplace Book. Lichfield: Erasmus Darwin Foundation, 2016.

Darwin, Erasmus. The Temple of Nature. London: J. Johnson, 1803.

Shelley, Percy. “To a Skylark” in The Major Works ed. Zachary Leader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Yolton, John W. Thinking Matter. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.

“POETRY.” The Anti-Jacobin : Or, Weekly Examiner. no. 15 (Feb 19, 1798): 524-528.