Ten journals of John Tyndall newly identified at the Royal Institution

Ten previously unattributed notebooks in the Royal Institution’s archive have now been identified as written by the physicist John Tyndall (c1822–1893).

John Tyndall 1820-1893
Royal Institution

John Tyndall was 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. The following year spent some time in Berlin. Thereafter he returned to Queenwood College until his appointment at the Royal Institution in 1853.

In addition to being Michael Faraday’s first biographer, Tyndall succeeded him in 1865 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 magnetism, the absorption of heat by the gases, and on germ theory and spontaneous generation. He also studied the motion of 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 the natural world is best understood without invoking theological explanations.

Throughout his career he also held a number of positions at the Royal Institution:

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

The Ri archive holds the largest known collection of John Tyndall material, made up of correspondence, journals, notebooks and experimental diaries, biographical notes, press related material, bound volumes of manuscripts, poetry, travel notes, publications, portraits and medals.

For all enquires related to the Tyndall collection please contact archivist@ri.ac.uk

Tyndall's journals

Ten previously unattributed notebooks in the Royal Institution’s archive have now been identified as written by the physicist John Tyndall (c1822–1893). This exciting discovery includes notes of Tyndall’s university education in Marburg (1848–1849) and of experiments on magnetism, compression, glaciers and ice (1855–1857). The journals contain detailed material on the curriculum he followed in Germany, covering mathematics, physics and chemistry, and diverse experimental notes.

The journals were identified by Roland Jackson, Ri Fellow and Tyndall scholar, when he was shown a number of unattributed items from the collection. He described their significance: “These notebooks will help to shine new light on Tyndall’s early university education in Marburg including the lectures he received from Professors Bunsen, Stegmann, Gerling and Knoblauch, and on his early researches at the Royal Institution. His mathematical competence has often been questioned, and these notebooks show in particular how much mathematics he studied”.

Frank James, Professor of History of Science at the Royal Institution, who worked on Bunsen as part of his PhD thesis said: “I’m delighted that Tyndall’s notes on Bunsen’s lectures have turned up so unexpectedly at the Ri”.