John Tyndall resurrected

In the lead up to the launch of the first volume of Tyndall's correspondence, Ri historian Roland Jackson asks how many people really appreciate John Tyndall’s significance?

Join us on Wednesday 4 March 2015 for a series of expert talks on Tyndall’s early life, his relationship with the Ri and the future of collaborative humanities research.

  • Maul & Polyblank portrait of John Tyndall

    Maul & Polyblank portrait of John Tyndall

    Credit: Royal Institution

This Victorian physicist, known by some for his discovery of the basis of the greenhouse effect and his explanation of why the sky is blue, is a much under-rated figure. Reading most of the biographies and histories of the mid-19th century one could be forgiven for thinking that his impact was negligible. If one knows him, he is like a ghost at the table in so many tableaux.

Yet quite apart from his important contributions to science – to the theory of magnetism, glacier structure and motion, molecular absorption and radiation of heat and light, the chemical action of light, the colour of the sky, cometary theory, acoustics, spontaneous generation and the germ theory – he was a major cultural and media figure of the day, internationally and nationally.

In articles and commentary in newspapers and periodicals such as the Times, the Pall Mall Gazette and the Saturday Review his name, regularly coupled with Thomas Huxley’s (whose scientific research is arguably much less significant) is invoked as a token and symbol of the scientific viewpoint in current debate; of ‘scientific naturalism’ against organised religion, of the proper emphasis of educational policy and practice, and of the fundamental importance of scientific research. In his spare time he was one of the outstanding Alpine mountaineers of his generation and features prominently in public discourse about the ethics of mountaineering.

He was one of the most socially and culturally connected of his scientific peers, a good friend of Alfred Tennyson and Thomas Carlyle, a sparring partner of John Ruskin, a sought-after guest at aristocratic country house parties and a member of exclusive clubs and societies. In public service he succeeded Faraday as an advisor to the Board of Trade and Trinity House and often sat on, chaired or gave evidence to Committees or Commissions on a range of scientific and educational matters. He was a governor of Harrow School for many years.

  • Tyndall represented as a lighthouse

    Print depicting Joseph Chamberlain, President of the Board of Trade, as a wave trying to knock John Tyndall as a lighthouse over, published in Moonshine on 20 December 1884

    Credit: Royal Institution

On 4 March 2015 the first volume of his collected correspondence will be launched at the Royal Institution. This massive initiative, the Tyndall Correspondence Project, led from across the Atlantic, will publish around 7000 letters to him and from him in some 16 volumes over the next 8 years. The majority of the letters have been known to, and used by, historians in archives for years to give insights into specific aspects of scientific and cultural history. But seeing them in the round enables a more holistic picture to be given, and publication will make them much more accessible to all.

One immediate surprise, which should have been evident before, is that he was probably not born in 1820 as all the biographies state. But we don’t know exactly when. His own evidence is contradictory and any primary record has been destroyed.

Looking at the letters together many themes emerge: his significance as a networker with the continental men of science; the manner in which he cultivated important older figures such as George Airy and Sir John Herschel; his close and often flirtatious relationships with Society women – such as Juliet Pollock, Lady Mary Egerton, Lady Emily Peel and Lady Ashburton – ; the complexity and subtlety of his thinking about science and religion (he was no Richard Dawkins); the agonising emotional entanglements until he finally found Louisa; the calls on his purse from desperate relatives in Ireland.

  • Letter from John Tyndall to one of his oldest friends Heinrich Debus written on 23 March 1893

    Letter from John Tyndall to one of his oldest friends Heinrich Debus dated 23 March 1893, a few months before he died

    Credit: Royal Institution

We should just pause a moment to think about what this project does not tell us. There are missing letters. Some we can tell are missing, if we have one side of the correspondence or a note in a diary. Others we may never know about. His widow Louisa it seems destroyed many particularly personal diary entries and some letters may have gone the same way.

Nevertheless, this meticulously edited collection of his letters will provide a rich resource to historians of science and of the Victorian period, and doubtless stimulate further examination of his particular contributions to science and wider culture. Scientists themselves, those interested in the origins and histories of their fields to which he contributed, will find unexpected insights into the development of their areas of research. And finally, those interested in the literary and cultural debates of the time will find that there exists one man who was far more visible at the time than posterity has so far acknowledged. Some rewriting of history is overdue and this collection of letters should stimulate it.

Roland Jackson is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal Institution and Honorary Research Associate at UCL, studying the work of John Tyndall, and has recently published an academic paper on Tyndall’s contribution to our understanding of magnetism (open access) , and a previous one on the Royal Medal episode (£).

He is also Executive Chair of Sciencewise and a member of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

You can follow him on Twitter @Roland_Jackson and you can even follow John Tyndall himself @ProfTyndall.

Join us on Wednesday 4 March 2015 at 7pm for a special event to celebrate the launch of the first volume of Tyndall's correspondence. Ri historian Prof Frank James hosts an evening of expert talks on Tyndall’s early life, his relationship with the Ri and the future of collaborative humanities research. Free to Ri members.

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