Spark Tube

Description (Brief)
Joseph Priestley (1733–1804) used this object 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.
This object has been variously identified by historians as a eudiometer (an instrument for measuring change in gas volume) or a kind of Leyden jar (an instrument for storing electricity.) Perhaps the most convincing identification comes from the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. In the spring of 1983 the Smithsonian loaned the object to the Franklin Institute for an exhibition entitled, Joseph Priestley, Enlightened Chemist. Curators noted that it could be screwed into an air pump of Priestley’s in the Franklin’s collection. They speculate that Priestley may have used the tube as part of electrical demonstrations to entertain friends. By attaching it to the air pump and creating a vacuum within the tube, streams of electricity would be more visible and impressive upon the tube’s discharge.
National Museum of American History Accession File #13305
Currently not on view
Object Name
spark tube
used by
Priestley, Joseph
Physical Description
glass (overall material)
brass (overall material)
overall: 10 1/2 in x 2 1/8 in; 26.67 cm x 5.3975 cm
ID Number
catalog number
accession 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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