the history of itinerant glassworkers

Tag: cartesian divers

This Dutch glassworker used a Cartesian diver as a magic trick

As early as the 1670s, itinerant glassworkers were touring Europe demonstrating lampworking techniques to curious onlookers. A Dutch glassworker used this handbill to advertise his show in Wrocław, Poland, where he demonstrated at the Golden Sword (likely an inn or tavern). There, in the afternoons, the glassworker made glass eyes, weather-measuring devices, pots, bottles, and figurines.

handbill with text and two images of glassworkers blowing glass and using a cartesian diver

Dieser Hollaendische porcellain-glass-blaser, 1670? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112252.

Show highlights

He also displayed a relatively new scientific experiment: a Cartesian diver. The diver, seen in full on the right above, was created to demonstrate the relationship between density and buoyancy. But the Dutch glassworker didn’t explain the science behind the Cartesian diver to his audience. Instead, he treated it as a magic trick, in which the demonstrator commanded the figures in the bottle to move up and down by calling out orders. In reality, he used his hand to add or remove pressure from the air-tight membrane at the top of the vessel.

Woodcut images of a man pressing down on the top of a Cartesian diver to create pressure

The glassworker presses down on the membrane covering the top of the Cartesian diver to create pressure and cause the figures in the bottle to move. Detail of Dieser Hollaendische porcellain-glass-blaser, 1670? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112252.

The glassworker included several figurines in his bottle: a toasting man, a queen, and what looks like perhaps a bear or a devil. (Cartesian divers were also know as Cartesian devils, water devils, and bottle imps.)

Tools of the trade

The handbill shows that this glassworker used a lamp similar to the one described by Johannes Kunckel in his 1679 translation of L’Arte vetraria (The Art of Glass). The flame was likely fueled by oil or tallow pulled through a cotton wick and the glassworker could shape and direct the flame using forced air (either supplied by the use of bellows hidden under the table or by blowing into a pipe directed at the flame). This glassworker also used a small blowpipe to make his products.

The glassworker offered to demonstrate at private residences upon request, and sold his products to interested observers. There is no price listed to see the show, which matches with other known advertisements from the period.

John Tilley’s wonderful mechanisms

To be seen in a neat Sitting Room, at 141 Broadway: the wonderful mechanisms of fancy glass blower John Tilley. This early American broadside, ca. 1820, enumerates the delights New Yorkers could observe if they paid the 25-cent admission fee to Tilley’s glassmaking and scientific exhibition.

handbill describing the show of John Tilley

Wonderful Mechanism J. Tilley, Fancy Glass Blower, from London. New York: J. Robinson, 1820. Collection of the Rakow Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 163866.

John Tilley, originally from London, was the first known itinerant glassworker to bring his exhibition to the United States.1 Eighteenth-century Americans, influenced by their Puritan backgrounds, often shunned traveling entertainers and educators of any sort, some going so far as to outlaw circuses, traveling menageries, and acting troupes. Once those restrictions were lifted, Tilley and others found success touring cities along the East Coast.


Tilley may have been the first glassworker to demonstrate in New York City, but he certainly wasn’t the last to make the city, and specifically Broadway, his home. Later artisans such as Lawrence Finn, W. Belzoni Davidson, and the Woodroffe brothers set up exhibitions in rented rooms and at museums including Barnum’s American Museum at the intersection of Broadway and Ann Street. Like it is today, the street was a center for entertainment.

Even in 1820, New York City (then confined to Manhattan) was bustling. The city’s population had grown to more than 123,000 people, close to 30,000 more than just a decade before.2 William Cobbett, a British farmer, journalist, and politician who lived on a Long Island farm from 1817 until 1819, described the city as resembling “an English town, in point of manners and customs, much more than any other place that I have seen in America.”3 He comments on the low prices and high quality of everything from the food to the household furnishings available to residents.

On women’s fashions, he states, “The most gay promenades in and about London, and even the boxes of our licenced and degraded theatres, are, in point of female dresses, perfect beggary compared with the every day exhibition in the ‘Broad way’ of New York; where the very look of every creature you meet gives evidence of the existence of no taxation without representation.” Based on Cobbet’s description, it is easy to imagine crowds of well-dressed women and men patronizing Tilley’s exhibition.

Show highlights

Like many 19th-century itinerant glassworkers, John Tilley offered his audience a range of enticing entertainments. These included “Spinning and Reeling Hot Glass round a Wheel, with the astonishing velocity of a Mile in less than two minutes” and “Blowing Glass to different degrees of thinness and forming it into various Articles, such as Writing Pens, Smelling Bottles, &c. &c.”

In addition, Tilley explained scientific properties and principles using glass models such as a Cartesian diver and a “Hydro Pneumatic Fountain.” One curious demonstration involved Tilley blowing a “small Globe,” which he said would form “nearly” a vacuum and would fall to the floor “with apparent great weight.”

While John Tilley’s exhibition was “to be seen for a few Days only,” records of his shows and innovations are still available more than two centuries later.

A version of this post was originally published on the Corning Museum of Glass blog on December 19, 2016.

How it works: Cartesian diver experiment

What is a Cartesian diver?

cartesian diver illustrated

Source: Elementary Treatise on Natural Philosophy Part I, A. Privat Deschanel, 1872, p. 108

A Cartesian diver is an experiment used to demonstrate the relationship between density and buoyancy.

Density describes how much matter is in a certain volume. Imagine filling two measuring cups, one with vegetable oil and the other with water. Now imagine placing those cups on a kitchen scale. You would find that one cup of vegetable oil has a mass of 223 grams and one cup of water has a mass of 240 grams. Vegetable oil has less matter in one cup than water, so vegetable oil is less dense than water.

Buoyancy is the ability of an object to float in water. If you poured the vegetable oil and water into the same container, the vegetable oil would be buoyant and float on the water.

You can change the density and buoyancy of a Cartesian diver at will, making it float or sink (hence Cartesian “diver”).

Cartesian divers are thought to be named for René Descartes. You may know them by another name, such as Cartesian devils, water devils, water dancers, or bottle imps. A Cartesian diver is made up of several parts: a bottle or vessel filled with water, a lid or an air-tight membrane, and a “diver” (often a piece of a straw or a flameworked glass object).

How does it work?

gif of glass cartesian diver in use

On the table in front of you sits a Cartesian diver. The diver is floating because it is less dense than the water. If you apply pressure to the vessel, the gas within the diver is compressed, and the diver’s density increases to the point that is no longer able to float in the water. Thus, the diver lives up to its name and sinks to the bottom. However, if you release the pressure, the gas expands to its original volume and the Cartesian diver becomes a Cartesian floater!

How did itinerant glassworkers use Cartesian divers?

Today, you might make a Cartesian diver in science class, but for hundreds of years they were made and used by itinerant glassworkers. These artisans made all sorts of models and contraptions to entertain their audiences, including Cartesian divers.

handbill with text and two images of glassworkers blowing glass and using a cartesian diver

Dieser Hollaendische porcellain-glass-blaser, 1670? Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 112252.

One of the earliest known records of these glassworkers is an advertisement for a demonstration in Poland circa 1670. On the right-hand side of the handbill, a Dutch glassworker is using a Cartesian diver with three figures, or “divers,” inside. Based on the description below the image, the glassworker promoted the experiment as a magic trick rather than a science experiment. He claimed he could command each figure to move up or down in four different languages and the figure would obey.

Cartesian divers remained a popular part of itinerant glassworkers’ shows, whether billed as magic or science. During the 1800s, many middle-class Americans wanted to be educated while they were entertained, and went to scientific demonstrations, lectures, and museum exhibitions in droves. Glassworkers accordingly included a growing number of experiments and lectures in their shows, and Cartesian divers were often shown alongside pulse glass circulators, philosopher’s hammers, cryophorus deception glasses, and hydro-pneumatic fountains.

a black and white photo with a man in a white coat and beret seated and flameworking at a table. on the table are a cartesian diver, a glass steam engine, and several other small models

John T. Backman Flameworking Glass Ship, McCroskey Studio, 1930s. Collection of the Rakow Research Library, The Corning Museum of Glass, CMGL 152150.

Itinerant glassworkers continued to perform into the 1900s, but the advent of mass entertainment drew audiences away from itinerant performers of all types. Glassworkers looked for alternative options, like starting their own stationary tourist attractions or joining a circus as a side show. Cartesian divers remained popular elements of their demonstrations.

How do you make a Cartesian diver?

gif demonstrating how a diy cartesian diver worksYou can make your own Cartesian diver with things you probably already have around the house and these step-by-step instructions.

This post was co-written by Kathryn Wieczorek; both Cartesian diver gifs are provided by her. A version of this post was originally published on the Corning Museum of Glass blog on April 4, 2017.

Curiosity highly gratified: 6 weird and wonderful things to see at an itinerant glassworker’s show

Come one, come all, to see amazing feats of glassworking! For more than 300 years, talented, traveling glassworkers entertained and educated crowds on the art, science, and skill of glassmaking and the dizzying array of wonders that could be made of glass. Add in a dancing competition or a beauty pageant and the event was a guaranteed hit. Intrigued? Here are six weird and wonderful things you might have seen at an itinerant glassworker’s show.

1. Working glass steam engines

Functional steam engines made of glass were the stars of the 19th-century itinerant glassworker’s show. Made of hundreds of small pieces, these dazzling engines fascinated audiences. They were both a feat of glassmaking and a method of demonstrating how steam power functioned during a time when real steam engines powered machinery and many modes of transportation. Soon after the first engines became popular, every traveling glassworking troupe had at least one of their own.

These glass engines were not simple models, but colorful, inventive delights. Their names alone conjure a sense of whimsy: the Fairy Queen, Excelsior, Queen of Beauty, the Australasia, the Crystal Gem. Troupes gave prizes to those who composed the best poems about their engines, and fans did not disappoint. Here are a few lines from a poem by William Somers:

When will wonders cease, we may justly enquire,
When we see a Glass Engine, complete and entire…
Incredulity starts, in most utter surprise,
We can hardly believe the plain sight of our eyes…
The steam from the boilers sends life to the heart,
And life it goes bounding throughout every part.

Video of a glass steam engine in motion.

Several contemporary artists have been inspired by the glass steam engines and their makers, including Bandhu Dunham. His kinetic sculptures series includes The Crystal Gem, seen in motion here. Collection of The Corning Museum of Glass.

2. Glass thread spun at thousands of yards per minute

Today the word “fiberglass” brings to mind insulation, boats, and bathtubs. It’s manufactured in large quantities and used in all sorts of practical applications. But for many hundreds of years glass fibers were an integral part of itinerant glassworkers’ shows. As early as the 1600s, one glassworker advertised that he could spin “10,000 yards of glass in less than half an hour.” A century or two later, glassworkers were claiming they could spin a pound of glass into millions of yards of thread at the rate of thousands of yards a minute. The end result was “infinitely finer than silk and equally as elastic and flexible.”

Itinerant glassworkers made this glass thread using a special spinning wheel. Some went a step farther and wove the threads into neckties, bonnets, shawls, and dresses. One bonnet was so famous it went on its own tour of post offices across the United States.

3. Scientific experiments

The earliest known itinerant glassworkers incorporated scientific experiments like Cartesian divers into their demonstrations. Often, they would describe the movement of the “divers” as magical – the glass figures would supposedly respond to the commands of the glassworker (rather than to the pressure applied to the top of the glass tube). One glassworker claimed the figures in his glass container would obey commands in four different languages!

By the mid-1800s, audiences were hungry for scientific knowledge, and some glassworkers centered their entire shows around science and natural philosophy. Professor S. Owen gave a lecture on natural philosophy, all while demonstrating the “action of water in vacuum” with a philosopher’s hammer, the “principle on which thunder is produced” using vacuum bulbs, and the “elasticity of the air” with balloons. Other popular experiments included pulse glass circulators, cryophorus deception glasses, and hydro-pneumatic fountains.

gif of glass cartesian diver in use

Glass Cartesian diver. Source: Kathryn Wieczorek.

4. The celebrated Glassoblowoprestitwistidigitator

He’s positively supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Actually, this title was used by at least two different glassworkers in the 1800s: William Woodroffe and W. Jerome Earl. It’s uncertain what these men did to merit this mouthful of a title, but it certainly sounds exciting.

5. Ships, trains, fire engines, and … skeletons?

Beyond glass steam engines, itinerant glassworkers built all sorts of models and machines from glass. Just a few examples include: models of famous ships, well-known monuments and bridges, and carriages pulled by teams of horses.

Scott, a British glassworker, displayed a “beautiful Hydraulic Skeleton, in Glass, which is kept in continual motion by itself, showing how the blood passes through the different channels of the human frame.” It was so spectacular that it was “patronized by the Royal Family, and every Family of distinction in England.”

Illustration of a glass engine in the shape of an old-fashioned fire engine

The Columbia, a hand fire engine, could shoot water 15 feet into the distance. CMGL 112113.

The Woodroffe brothers displayed a steam-powered glass train that ran around a track “eight feet in diameter.” The train carried two cars and a coal car and was able to move at a speed of six miles per hour. The Woodroffes called it “one of the wonders of the nineteenth century.”

Madam Nora’s Original Troupe of Glass Blowers, Glass Spinners, and Glass Workers promoted the Columbia, a glass hand fire engine that reportedly spouted a stream of water 15 feet into the distance. It’s one of the few models and machines that has survived until today — you can see Columbia (and the glass steam engine Excelsior) in the Lightner Museum.

6. Beautiful babies, homely men, and talented dancers

During the 1800s, many glassworking troupes added other entertainments to their shows. These included everything from lectures and dances to competitions with glass prizes. The homeliest man and the best male dancer won Turkish pipes at one show in Massachusetts, and troupes led by the Woodroffe brothers gave prizes to the “best comic singer,” “best jig dancer,” “best lady dancer,” and the “handsomest lady,” among others.

Perhaps the oddest add-on was the baby beauty pageant or, as one advertisement put it, the “Grand Carnival of Croesus and Contest of Infantile Beauty.” Both the Woodroffes and Madam Nora’s troupe held these competitions at their shows and gave cases of their best glass to the winners and runners up.

These are only a few of the curiosities audiences could see when they attended an itinerant glassworker show. Learn more about their shows, their lives, and the world around them on this site. Keep up with new posts by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.

version of this post was originally published on the Corning Museum of Glass blog on September 15, 2017.

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