Bell Jar

Description (Brief)
Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) used this bell jar in his Northumberland, Pennsylvania laboratory. Priestley, the noted chemist whose accomplishments include the discovery of oxygen, was born in England. He lived and worked in Birmingham for many years, but his views as a Dissenter and an advocate of the French Revolution incited an angry mob into burning down his house and laboratory. In 1794 he fled to America, eventually settling in Northumberland, near Philadelphia. His great-great-granddaughter, Frances Priestley, donated his surviving laboratory ware to the Smithsonian in 1883.
The transparent glass bell jar provided a useful shape for trapping and observing gases. A chemical sample could be suspended in the jar and ignited by passing a beam of focused light or heat through the glass. Any gases emitted from its burning would be collected for further study.
Glassmaker William Parker of 69 Fleet St., London or his son Samuel likely made this bell jar. The Parkers supplied Priestley with laboratory glassware free of charge, even after his move to the United States from London. Priestley wrote in a letter to Rev. Samuel Palmer, of his new home in Northumberland, Pennsylvania: “I have more advantages [in respect to experiments] than you could easily imagine in this remote place. I want hardly anything but a glass house.” Indeed, without a local supplier, getting glassware to Northumberland was quite a challenge. A letter to Samuel Parker dated January 20, 1795 details Priestley’s plan to have his most recent shipment brought from Philadelphia to Northumberland via a sleigh, “which is our best method of conveyance in winter.”
Badash, Lawrence. 1964. “Joseph Priestley’s Apparatus for Pneumatic Chemistry.” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences XIX (2): 139–55. doi:10.1093/jhmas/XIX.2.139.
National Museum of American History Accession File #13305
Priestley, Joseph, and John Towill Rutt. 1817. The Theological and Miscellaneous Works of Joseph Priestley. Vol. I Part 2. [London : Printed by G. Smallfield.
Currently not on view
Object Name
bell jar
used by
Priestley, Joseph
Physical Description
glass (overall material)
overall: 16 1/2 in x 9 in; 41.91 cm x 22.86 cm
ID Number
accession number
catalog number
Science & Mathematics
Science & Scientific Instruments
Joseph Priestley
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Chemistry
Joseph Priestley
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of Miss Frances D. Priestley

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