John Tyndall (1820-1893)

Biography of John Tyndall

John Tyndall was a prominent physicist, who proved the greenhouse effect.

Photograph of John Tyndall
Credit: Royal Institution


Ri positions

  • Professor of Natural Philosophy, 1853-1887;
  • Superintendent of the House, 1867-1887;
  • Director of the Laboratory, 1867-1887;
  • Honorary Professor, 1887-1893

Born in County Carlow in south-eastern Ireland, he attended the local National School there and in 1839 joined the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Three years later he moved to the English Ordnance Survey where he worked until 1844 when he became a railway surveyor. In 1847 he was appointed to teach mathematics and surveying at Queenwood College. The following year, with Edward Frankland, he moved to Marburg where he spent two years studying with Robert Bunsen taking his PhD in 1850 and the following year spent some time in Berlin. Thereafter he returned to Queenwood College until his appointment at the Royal Institution.

In addition to being Michael Faraday's first biographer, in 1865 Tyndall succeeded him as Scientific Adviser to Trinity House, the lighthouse authority for England and Wales. He held the position until 1883, working on the transmission of sound. He undertook important work on diamagnetism, radiant heat and spontaneous generation. He also worked on glaciers and became a keen mountaineer being the first person, in 1861, to climb the Weisshorn.

Tyndall wrote many popular scientific articles and books and engaged in polemics. His most notable was his Presidential Address to the 1874 meeting of the British Association at Belfast, espousing scientific naturalism - the view that things in nature are best explained without invoking theological explanations.

Papers at the Ri

Papers include: correspondence; journals of John Tyndall, Louisa Tyndall, Thomas Archer Hirst, Edward Frankland and Lady Claud Hamilton; notebooks and experimental diaries of John Tyndall, personal notebooks of Louisa Tyndall and Anna Hirst; lecture notes; biographical material; Thomas Archer Hirst material: journals and biographical notes; press related material; publications and articles; bound volumes of manuscripts relating to John Tyndall's life, work; poetry written or collected by John Tyndall, valentines and travel notes, portraits, medals.

Catalogue information is currently available on request and a summary of the collection can be found on the AIM25 website.