Tyndall, John

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(b. Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, Ireland, 2 August 1820; d. Hindhead, Surrey, England, 4 December 1893)

natural philosophy, microbiology, popularization of science.

Tyndall was the son of John Tyndall, an ardent Orangeman who was at different times a small landowner, shoemaker, leather dealer, and member of the Irish constabulary. Educated until he was nineteen at the national school in Carlow, Tyndall gained a vision of science, self-instruction, and moral duty shaped by his private reading of Carlyle, Emerson, and Fichte. Tyndall began work as a draftsman and civil engineer in the Irish Ordnance Survey but in 1842 was transferred to the English survey at Preston, Lancashire. In England for the first time, Tyndall witnessed economic depression and civil strife. Carlyle’s Past and Present moved him deeply and, in 1843, focused his opposition to the oppressive policies and incompetent management of the ordnance survey. His protests rejected, Tyndall was dismissed and returned briefly to Ireland. He then found work in Lancashire and Yorkshire as a surveyor and engineer during the railway mania of 1844–1845. In 1847, once again unemployed, he was befriended by George Edmondson, a Quaker from Preston. Edmondson had recently begun at Queenwood College, Hampshire, one of the first schools in England to have a laboratory for the teaching of science. At Queenwood, where Tyndall taught mathematics and drawing, he was joined by his friend the geometer Thomas Archer Hirst and the chemist Edward Frankland. Under Frankland’s influence, Tyndall was introduced to German science. In 1848, Tyndall left Queenwood with Frankland to study at the University of Marburg. There, living on his savings, Tyndall completed a mathematical dissertation for the doctorate under Friedrich Stegmann, and then entered the laboratory of Karl Herrmann Knoblauch, recently arrived from Berlin, who was at that time extending the work of Faraday and Pl#x00DC;cker on diamagnetism. Tyndall’s first scientific research was undertaken in collaboration with Knoblauch; his first article, on the behavior of crystalline bodies between the poles of a magnet, was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1851.

From 1851 Tyndall’s life in both science and public affairs followed clear lines of development–as researcher, educator, popularizer, and controversial public figure. Like other men of science of his generation Tyndall had great difficulty in obtaining paid work in science. Jobless in England for two years, rejected from two posts in Ireland and (with his close friend T. H. Huxley) by the universities of Sydney and Toronto, Tyndall was obliged, like Huxley, to write, lecture, and examine. By the mid-1850’s, Tyndall’s prospects improved. In 1851 Huxley was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; Tyndall, aided by the patronage of Faraday, followed in 1852. In the following year, with a growing reputation, Tyndall became professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, where, under Faraday’s guidance, Tyndall developed his natural talents for lecturing and research. In 1867 he succeeded Faraday as superintendent of the Royal Institution and as adviser to Trinity House and the Board of Trade. From 1867 to 1885 his position at the Royal Institution gave him a central vantage point in British science.

Tyndall’s research can be arbitrarily described in two phases; the first, between 1853 and 1874, witnessed a steady progression within physics, while the second, between 1874 and the early 1880’s, saw the amplification of his work in other domains. In the first phase, his work on diamagnetism, involving the effects of compression on hundreds of crystalline substances (1851-1856), led to the study of Penrhyn slate and the problem of “slaty cleavage” (1854-1856). Generalizing from the effects of pressure on slate led him to the study of glacial movement (1856-1859); in turn, glaciers fostered a passion for mountaineering and a fascination for what was to become his major work–the effects of solar and, later, heat radiation on atmospheric gases (1860–1870). He then considered the scattering of light particles in the atmosphere the“Tyndall effect” and explained the blue color of the sky (“Rayleigh scattering”). The scattering of sunlight by dust particles (much evident in the dust-laden air of Albemarle Street) led him to consider means of destroying airborne organic matter by heat; this in turn kindled his interest in the case against spontaneous generation (1870-1876) and brought him to the defense of Pasteur. This formidable capacity to move from electromagnetism through thermodynamics and into bacteriology was the hallmark of Tyndall’s genius. No less formidable were his talents in describing, with charm and lucidity, the phenomena of physics to large audiences.

The enormous range of Tyndall’s inquiries reflected many different intellectual influences. An explicit discussion of these influences in their context has yet to be undertaken. We lack any comprehensive review of Tyndall’s work on optical and crystalline structure; on magnetism, radiation, and mountaineering; and on the relationship between his several research programs. Tyndall is remembered chiefly for his efforts to verify the high absorptive and radiative power of aqueous vapor; to measure the absorption and transmission of heat by many different gases and liquids; to explain the selective influence of the atmosphere on different sounds; and to establish the principle of “discontinuous heating” (“Tyndallization”) as a sterilizing technique. Practical applications of his work in meteorology, fog signaling, and bacteriology were seen within his lifetime. In other ways his work anticipated important later developments. His explanations of diamagnetic phenomena and mechanical pressure–and their relation to molecular forces–could not be confirmed in the absence of a comprehensive theory of atomic structure. Yet his early research, extending the association of diamagnetisim with induced polarity, still relates to problems and techniques in high-pressure research in solid state and applied physics. In other fields his work has worn less well. His explanations of glacial movement by fracture and regelation were not conclusive; the conjectures of his adversary James D. Forbes on the viscosity and plasticity of glacial behavior, for example, were subsequently supported by applications of thermodynamic principles to continuous deformation under stress, and as a result have since widely prevailed.

Public demands on Tyndall’s time were enormous, with the Royal Institution absorbing most of his energies. In his thirty-three years there he delivered over fifty Friday discourses, over 300 afternoon lectures, and twelve Christmas courses for young people. In addition he served as examiner for the Royal Military College (1855-1857), professor of physics at the Royal School of Mines (1859-1868), and lecturer at Eton (1856) and the London Institution (1856-1859). Much of his additional lecturing and examining were undertaken to supplement his salary at the Royal Institution, and many of his textbook commissions were accepted for the same reason.

Tyndall’s influence upon what Nature called the scientific movement was direct and profound. He occupied a unique place in the popular exposition of science. In 1859 he joined with Huxley in writing a regular column for the Saturday Review . In 1863-1867 he acted as scientific adviser to The Reader, and in 1869 he helped inaugurate the journal Nature. In 1871, with Spencer and Huxley, he advised Edward Livingston Youmans on the International Scientific Series (to which he contributed Volume I [1872]). Tyndall’s prolonged debates with publishers and his evidence to the Royal Commission on Copyright (1878) reveal the difficulties of earning a living as a scientific author. Tyndall contended with this partly by republishing his popular essays and lectures. For example, the American edition of Fragments of Science, which appeared in 1871, was sold out on the day of publication; and his Forms of Water (1872) went through twelve English editions by 1897.

Among his fellow members of the famous “X Club” (founded 1864) and his scientific contemporaries in the Metaphysical Club (founded 1869), Tyndall became an evangelist for scientific naturalism and the public support of research. He contributed “Science Lectures for the People” (begun in 1862) and gave evidence to the Select Committee on Scientific Instruction (1867-1868). In 1866-1867 he contributed to the British Association committee on the teaching of science; and in 1868 he became president of Section A, and 1874, president of the British Association at Belfast. By 1872, Vanity Fair spoke glowingly of his energy, imagination, and rhetoric, “at all times to be envied, and at nearly all times to be admired.”This was the spirit in which his American tour (1872-1873) was conducted. The conclusion to his Lectures on Light and his bequest for fellowships at Harvard, Columbia, and Pennsylvania resonate with his hopes for the encouragement of scientific research.

With his flair for public debate, Tyndall earned the sobriquet “Xccentiric” from the X Club. What Oliver Lodge called Tyndall’s “wholesome rightness” came to the defense of many whom he believed ill used. Thus he advanced Monseigneur Rendu’s claims against those of J. D. Forbes on the movement of glaciers; and he defended J. D. Hooker against intervention by A. S. Ayrton’s Office of Works. His sincerity had the defects of its virtues; conviction bred defensiveness, even obstinacy, in celebrated debates with Forbes (1857–1867), C. A. Akin (1862–1863), P. G.Tait and William Thomson (1873–1874), Henry C. Bastian (1870–1873), and, notoriously, with John Ruskin (1874).

But these intellectual skirmishes were overshadowed by the battle that followed the“Belfast Address,”Tyndall’s presidential address to the British Association in 1874. Tyndall’s quixotic conflicts with religious authority–notably about prayer and miracles-were intense and sustained. His devotion to experiment and verification, and his determination to find the truth, to reject metaphysics, and to reveal the ultimate mechanism of natural phenomena, had impelled his search for“agents of explanation”which would unify the physical relations of heat, magnetism, electricity and sound, and even the“ultra-scientific region” of the mind. This program was hardly new in 1874. But the explicit confrontation between materialism and revealed religion, provoked by the archdemocrat of science before the“parliament of science,”left deep scars. Caustically satirized in William Hurrell Mallock’s New Republic in 1877, Tyndall became to many more villain than hero.

If the year 1874 was a climacteric in Tyndall’s public reputation, 1876 was a watershed in his private life. In that year, when he was fifty-six, he married Louisa Charlotte Hamilton, then aged thirty-one, the eldest daughter of Lord Claud Hamilton. The late 1870’sand 1880’s however, were years of persistent illness, requiring frequent recuperative trips to his favorite retreat at Bel Alp, above the Rhone Valley. During the early 1880’s, he continued to serve as“scientific adviser”to government and undertook fresh responsibilities with the Royal Commission on Accidents in Coal Mines (1879–1886), But by 1884 his relations with government were strained by a violent dispute with Joseph Chamberlain over lighthouse policy, which led to his resignation as scientific adviser to Trinity House and the Board of Trade. Politically, Tyndall always considered himself“in some sense Liberal, in some sense, Radical.”As an Orange man, he admired Parnell and denounced the“Romish hierarchy of the National League.”In 1885,rejecting Gladstone’s policies for home rule in Ireland, and outraged by the government’s failure in the Sudan, he broke finally with Liberalism. He was even moved to consider standing as a Unionist candidate for a Glasgow constituency in the election of May 1885.

In 1886 Tyndall fell seriously ill, and the following year he retired from the Royal Institution and withdrew to his house at Hindhead, near Haslemere, Surrey. Bedridden by insomnia and indigestion, in 1893 he died from an accidental overdose of chloral, tragically administered by his devoted wife, who survived him by forty-seven years.

Although he received five honorary doctorates and was an honorary member of thirty-five scientific societies, Tyndall was never offered national honors.

Tyndall’s contemporaries did not view his work uncritically. Perhaps the least complimentary review of his work appeared in the tenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1902), in an article by Oliver Lodge. Lodge claimed Tyndall’s knowledge was“picturesque and vivid”rather than“through and exact"; that Tyndall never popularized anything especially recondite, yet“never hesitated to elaborate the simple"; that his research lacked origiality and definition, so that his superficial understanding of physical issues promoted unnecessary disputes. There are difficulties with Lodge’s interpretation, especially in relation to Tyndall’s work on radiant heat and spontaneous generation. After protests from Tyndall’s colleagues, Lodge removed the more inflammatory passages in the eleventh edition of the Britannica. Subsequently, little has appeared to qualify the received impression of a sensitive observer, a skillful experimentalist, a dedicated“filed physicist”and Alpinist, an inspired communicator, and a“shining beacon to struggling self-taught youth,”who, in Nature’s words, brought“democracy into touch with scientific research.”


I. Original Works. Tyndall published more than 180 experimental papers, of which the Royal Society Catalogue lists more than 140, and more than sixty scientific lectures, addresses, and reviews, in addition to a considerable number of popular essays on literature, religion, mountaineering, and travel, many of which appeared in series and embodied material that he repeated in different forms and in different languages.

The most important of Tyndall’s essays and lectures are reproduced in several books, all published during his lifetime. These and other major books are The Glaciers of the Alps (London, 1860); Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion (London, 1863); On Sound (London, 1867; 4th ed., 1883), a later edition of which is The Science of Sound (New York, 1964); Researches on Diamagnetism and Magne-Crystallic Action (London, 1870); Hours of Exercise in the Alps (London, 1871); Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (London, 1871); Contributions to Molecular Physics in the Domain of Radiation Heat (London, 1872); The Forms of Water in Clouds, Rivers, Ice, and Glaciers (London, 1872; 12th ed., 1897); Six Lectures on Light, Delivered in America, 1872–1873 (London, 1873; 5th ed., 1895); The Floating Matter of the Air in Relation to Putrefaction and Infection (London, 1881); New Fragments (London, 1892).

An outline of Tyndall’s writings would be incomplete without a notice of the many contributions he made to the Liverpool Mercury under the name “Spectator,”and to the Carlow Sentinel and Preston Chronicle under the name Wat Ripon between 1843 and 1849.

By far the greatest archive of Tyndall’s papers exists at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This collection, together with his published writings and much of his correspondence, has been catalogued, and the catalogue is available in microfiche with an accompanying printed introduction by J. Friday, R. MacLeod, and P . Shepherd, John Tyndall, Natural Philosopher, 1820–1893 (London, 1974).

II. Secondary Literature. The most accessible sources of biographical material on Tyndall are in Nature, 49 (1894), 128; Dictionary of National Biography, XIX, 1358–1363; and Oliver Joseph Lodge, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 10th ed., XXXIII (1902), 517–521; and 11th ed., XXVII (1910–1911), 499–500, in which passages offending Mrs. Tyndall were removed.

Tributes to Tyndall are by Herbert Spencer,“The Late Professor Tyndall,”in Fortnightly Review, 55 (1894), 141–148; T. H. Huxley,“Professor Tyndall,”in Nineteenth Century, 35 (1894), 1–11; and Edward Frankland,“John Tyndall, 1820–1893,”in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 55 (1894), xviii–xxxiv.

Mrs. Tyndall hoped, but failed, to complete a life of her husband. Owing to the circumstances of Tyndall’s death, this biography was repeatedly delayed. Following Louisa Tyndall’s death, a biography was completed by A. S. Eve and C. H. Creasey, Life and Work of John Tyndall (London, 1945).

There are several vignettes of Tyndall including D. Thompson,“John Tyndall (1820–1893), A Study in Vocational Enterprise,”in Vocational Aspects of Secondary and Further Education, 9 (1957), 38–48; and J. G. Crowther,“John Tyndall,”in Scientific Types (London, 1968).

Many informal details of Tyndall’s social and scientific life are revealed in the diaries of Thomas Archer Hirst, perhaps Tyndall’s closest friend, which repose in the Royal Institution, and which have been edited by W. H. Brock and R. Macleod.

There have been few sustained assessments of Tyndall, the exceptions being Lord Rayleigh,“The Scientific Work of Tyndall,”in Royal Institution Library of Science, 4 (1894), 273–281; and W. Bragg,“Tyndall’s Experiments on Magne-Crystallic Action,”ibid., 9 (1927), 131–154. Aspects of his work have also been treated by James Bryant Conant,“Pasteur’s and Tyndall’s Study of Spontaneous Generation,”in Harvard Case Histories in Experimental Science, case 7 (Cambridge, Mass., 1953), 487–539: E. J. Wiseman, “John Tyndall: His Contributions to the Defeat of the Theory of Spontaneous Generation of Life,”in School Science Review, 159 (1965), 362–367; J. K. Crellin,“Airborne Particles and the Germ Theory, 1860–1880”in Annals of Science, 22 (1966), 49–60; and“The Problem of Heat Resistance of Micro-Organisms in the British Spontaneous Generation Controversy of 1860–1880,”in Medical History, 10 (1966), 50–59; Glenn Vandervliet, Microbiology and the Spontaneous Generation Debate During the 1870s (Lawrence, Kansas, 1971); J. Friday,“A Microscopic Incident in a Monumental Struggle: Huxley and Antibiosis in 1875,”in British Journal for the History of Science, VII (1974), 61–71; and some more general references that are in William Bulloch, The History of Bacteriology (London, 1938).

There has recently been growing interest in the substance of Tyndall’s scientific and political controversies. Cf. Bernard Semmel, The Governor Eyre Controversy (London, 1962), 123–128; R. MacLeod,“Science and Government in Victorian England: Lighthouse Illumination and the Board of Trade, 1868–1886,”in Isis, 60 (1969), 5–38; Frank M. Turner,“Rainfall, Plagues and the Prince of Wales: A Chapter in the Conflict of Religion and Science,”in Journal of British Studies, 13 (May 1974), 46–65. The controversy with Forbes on glacier motion has been described by J. S. Rowlinson,“The Theory of Glaciers,”in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 26 (1971), 189–204. The Mayer-Joule controversy is dealt with in T. S. Kuhn,“Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery,”in M.Claggett, ed., Critical Problems in the History of Science (Madison, Wis., 1959), and in J. T. Lloyd,“Background to the Joule-Mayer Controversy,”in Notes and Records of the Royal Society, 25 (1970), 211–235.

A comprehensive review of Tyndall’s work on optical and crystalline structure, on magnetism, radiation, and mountaineering, as well as the relationships between his several“research programmes”is lacking. The historical record has stressed his activities as popularizer, lecturer, and man of letters.

Roy MacLeod

John Tyndall

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John Tyndall

The Irish physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893) is best known for his work on the scattering of light by atmospheric particles and on the absorption of infrared radiation by gases. He also did much to popularize science among laymen.

John Tyndall was born on Aug. 2, 1820, at Leighlin Bridge, near Carlow, Ireland, where his father was a constable. After a little formal schooling, he gained a practical education by working as a surveyor and engineer. He entered the University of Marburg, Germany, in 1848 and earned his doctorate 2 years later. His dissertation research interested Michael Faraday, who later brought him to the Royal Institution of London. In 1867 Tyndall succeeded Faraday as superintendent there. He retired in 1887.

Tyndall is noted for his study of the scattering of light by atmospheric particles, a phenomenon sometimes called the Tyndall effect. In 1869 he provided explanations for the color of the sun at the horizon and of clear skies; about 2 years later Lord Rayleigh provided the relevant theory. Tyndall showed that if broth was placed in air which was without scattering particles, the usual life forms did not develop. His work thus did much to invalidate the "spontaneous generation" theory of life.

Tyndall's studies of the transmission of infrared radiation through gases and vapors did much to clarify the nature of the absorption process and brought him the Rumford Medal in 1869.

In connection with consulting work on navigational aids Tyndall gave much attention to sound phenomena. This resulted in his interesting book On Sound (1867), written "to render the science of acoustics interesting to all intelligent persons including those who do not possess any special scientific culture." He wrote 15 other popular treatises, many of which are still enjoyable reading. "As a popular writer on the phenomena of physics he had no equal."

Tyndall's passion for justice was never better demonstrated than during the bitter scientific controversy of 1864-1866 concerning the priority rights of J. R. Mayer, whose cause Tyndall supported, as originator of the conservation-of-energy concept. Mention is also due his 1874 address at Belfast, in which he firmly advocated the right of science to follow its course without restrictions by dogma or theology, and in which he equally firmly denied that there was any basic conflict between science and religion.

Tyndall was an expert mountain climber and in 1861 made the first ascent of the Weisshorn. At the age of 56 he married the woman who, he said, "raised my ideal of the possibilities of human nature." He died at his home near Haslemere on Dec. 4, 1893.

Further Reading

A full and interesting account of Tyndall is provided in A. S. Eve and C. H. Creasey, The Life and Work of John Tyndall (1945). Tyndall's life and contributions to science are discussed in James Gerald Crowther, Scientific Types (1970).

Additional Sources

John Tyndall, essays on a natural philosopher, Dublin: Royal Dublin Society, 1981. □

Tyndall, John

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Tyndall, John (1820–93). Physicist, lecturer, and foe of organized religion, Tyndall grew up in Ireland; after surveying and teaching, he went to Marburg in 1848 to study with R. W. Bunsen. In 1853 he got a professorship at the Royal Institution, and from 1867 followed Michael Faraday as superintendent. He worked on heat and on bacteria, translated important papers from the German, and in 1874 as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science delivered in Belfast an address declaring that scientists would wrest the whole of cosmology from theologians. He was an ally of T. H. Huxley. Tyndall was an expert and enthusiastic mountaineer (and student of glaciers), calculating how high the energy in a ham sandwich would take him; his writings about the alps are suffused with pantheism. His ice-axe is preserved in the Zermatt museum.

David Knight

John Tyndall

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John Tyndall


Irish physicist whose research described the scattering of light by particles. Tyndall's work showed why it is possible to view a beam of light passing through a cloudy liquid from the side. The Tyndall effect, as it is known, is used in water quality analyses and in looking for small (dust-sized) particles in space. Tyndall also helped to popularize the work of James Maxwell (1831-1879), who discovered that heat is related to the random motions of molecules.

Tyndall, John

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Tyndall, John (1820–1893) Irish physicist, who correctly suggested that the blue colour of the sky is due to the scattering of light by particles of dust and other colloidal particles. By 1881, Tyndall helped disprove the theory of spontaneous generation by showing that food does not decay in germ-free air.

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