John Tyndall, Irish natural philosopher, was born in Co. Carlow,
Ireland, his father being the son of a small landowner in poor circumstances,
but a man of more than ordinary ability.
Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley his name is inseparably connected
with the battle which began in the middle of the 19th century
for making the new standpoint of modern science part of the accepted
philosophy in general life. For many years, indeed, he came to
represent to ordinary Englishmen the typical or ideal professor
strong, picturesque mode of seizing and expressing things gave
him an immense living influence both in speech and writing, and
disseminated a popular knowledge of physical science such as had
not previously existed. But besides being a true educator, and
perhaps the greatest popular teacher of natural philosophy in
his generation, he was an earnest and original observer and explorer
was to a large extent a self-made man; he had no early advantages,
but with indomitable earnestness devoted himself to study, to
which he was stimulated by the writings of Carlyle. He passed
from a national school in Co. Carlow to a minor post (1839) in
the Irish ordnance survey, thence (1842) to the English survey,
attending mechanics' institute lectures at Preston in Lancashire.
then became for a time (1844) a railway engineer, and in 1847
a teacher at Queenwood College, Hants. Thence with much spirit,
and in face of many difficulties, he betook himself, with his
colleague Edward Frankland, to the university of Marburg (1848-1851),
where, by intense application, he obtained his doctorate in two
years. His inaugural dissertation was an essay on screw-surfaces.
first original work in physical science was in his experiments
with regard to magnetism and diamagnetic polarity, on which he
was chiefly occupied from 1850 to 1855. While he was still lecturing
on natural philosophy at Queenwood College, his magnetic investigations
made him known in the higher circles of the scientific world,
and through the initiative of Sir E Sabine, treasurer of the Royal
Society, he was elected F.R.S. in June 1852. In 1850 he had made
Michael Faraday's acquaintance, and shortly before the Ipswich
meeting of the British Association in 1851 he began a lasting
friendship with Thomas Huxley.
two young men stood for chairs of physics and natural history
respectively, first at Toronto, next at Sydney, but they were
in each case unsuccessful. On February 11, 1853, however, Tyndall
gave, by invitation, a Friday evening lecture (on "The Influence
of Material Aggregation upon the Manifestations of Force")
at the Royal Institution, and his public reputation was at once
established. He then joined Huxley in running the science section
of the Westminster Review and helped to form a group of evolutionists
who paved the way for Charles Darwin's 1859 publication of The
Origin of Species.
May 1854 Tyndall was chosen professor of natural philosophy at
the Royal Institution, a post which exactly suited his striking
gifts and made him a colleague of Faraday, whom in 1866 he succeeded
as scientific adviser to the Trinity House and Board of Trade,
and in 1867 as superintendent of the Royal Institution. His reverent
attachment to Faraday is beautifully manifested in his memorial
volume called Faraday as a Discoverer (1868).
inquiries into glacier motion were notable for his association
with Switzerland and for prolonged controversy with other men
of science on the subject. In 1854; after the meeting of the British
Association in Liverpool, a memorable visit occurred to the Penrhyn
slate quarries, where the question of slaty cleavage arose in
his mind, and ultimately led him, with Huxley, to Switzerland
to study the phenomena of glaciers.
the mountains seized him, and he became a constant visitor and
one of the most intrepid and most resolute of explorers; among
other feats of climbing he was the first to ascend the Weisshorn
(1861). Tyndall climbed to within a few hundred feet of the top
of the Matterhorn in 1864, the year before Edward Whymper succeeded.
The strong, vigorous, healthfulness and enjoyment which permeate
the record of his Alpine work are magnificent, and traces of his
influence remain in Switzerland to this day. The problem of the
flow of glaciers occupied his attention for years, and his views
brought him into acute conflict with others, particularly James
Forbes and James Thomson.
one knew that glaciers moved, but the questions were how they
moved, for what reason and by what mechanism. Some thought they
slid like solids; others that they flowed like liquids; others
that they crawled by alternate expansion and contraction, or by
alternate freezing and melting; others, again, that they broke
and mended. Thus there arose a chaos of controversy, illuminated
by definite measurements and observations. Tyndall's own summary
of the course of research on the subject was as follows:
idea of semi-fluid motion belongs entirely to Rendu; the proof
of the quicker central flow belongs in part to Rendu, but almost
wholly to Agassiz and Forbes; the proof of the retardation of
the bed belongs to Forbes alone; while the discovery of the locus
of the point of maximum motion belongs, I suppose, to me.
while Forbes asserted that ice was viscous, Tyndall denied it,
and insisted, as the result of his observations, on the flow being
due to fracture and regelation. All agreed that ice flowed as
if it were a viscous fluid; and of this apparent viscosity James
Thomson offered an independent explanation by the application
of pure thermodynamical theory, which Tyndall considered inefficient
to account for the facts he observed.
is unnecessary here to rake among the ashes of this prolonged
dispute, but it may be noted that Helmholtz, who, in his lecture
on "Ice and Glaciers," adopted Thomson's theory, afterwards
added in an appendix that he had come to the conclusion that Tyndall
had "assigned the essential and principal cause of glacier
motion in referring it to fracture and regelation" (1865).
investigations of the transparency and opacity of gases and vapours
for radiant heat, which occupied him during many years (1859-1871),
are frequently considered his chief scientific work. But his activities
were essentially many-sided. He definitely established the absorptive
power of clear aqueous vapour--a point of great meteorological
significance. He made brilliant experiments elucidating the blue
of the sky, and discovered the precipitation of organic vapours
by means of light.
called attention to curious phenomena occurring in the track of
a luminous beam. He examined the opacity of the air for sound
in connection with lighthouse and siren work, and he finally clinched
the proof of what had been already substantially demonstrated
by several others, viz. that germ-free air did not initiate putrefaction,
and that accordingly "spontaneous generation" as ordinarily
understood was a chimera (1875-1876).
practical outcome of these researches is the method now always
adopted of sterilizing by a succession of gentle warmings, sufficient
to kill the developed microorganisms, instead of by one fierce
heating attempting to attack the more refractory undeveloped germs
of the same. This method of intermittent sterilization originated
with Tyndall, and it was an important contribution to biological
science and industrial practice.
the substantial publication of these researches reference must
be made to the Transactions of the Royal Society; but an account
of many of them was incorporated in his best-known books, namely,
the famous Heat as a Mode of Motion (1863; and later editions
to 1880), the first popular exposition of the mechanical theory
of heat, which in 1862 had not reached the textbooks; The Forms
of Water, &c. (1872); Lectures on Light (1873); Essays on
the floating-matter of the air in relation to putrefaction and
infection (1881); On Sound (1867; revised 1875, 1883, 1803).
original memoirs themselves on radiant heat and on magnetism were
collected and issued as two large volumes under the following
titles: Diamagnetism and Magne-crystallic Action (1870); Contributions
to Molecular Physics in the Domain of Radiant Heat (1872). In
1875 Tyndall reported to the Royal Society in London that a species
of Penicillium had caused some of his bacteria to burst. This
discovery of antibiotic properties of penicillium predated Ernest
Duchesne by 20 years and Alexander Fleming by over 50 years.
was on the whole the personality, however, rather than the discoverer,
that was greatest in Tyndall. In the pursuit of pure science for
its own sake, undisturbed by sordid considerations, he shone as
a beacon light to younger men--an exemplar of simple tastes, robust
nature and lofty aspirations. His elevation above the common run
of men was conspicuous in his treatment of the money which came
to him in connexion with his successful lecturing tour in America
(1872-1873). It amounted to several thousands of pounds, but he
would touch none of it; he placed it in the hands of trustees
for the benefit of American science--an act of lavishness which
bespeaks a noble nature.
not so prominent as Huxley in detailed controversy over theological
problems, he played an important part in educating the public
mind in the attitude which the development of natural philosophy
entailed towards dogma and religious authority. His famous Belfast
address (1874), delivered as president of the British Association,
made a great stir among those who were then busy with the supposed
conflict between science and religion; and in his occasional writings--Fragments
of Science, as he called them, "for unscientific people"--he
touched on current conceptions of prayer, miracles, etc., with
characteristic straightforwardness and vigour.
a public speaker he had an inborn Irish readiness and vehemence
of expression; and, though a thorough Liberal, he split from Mr
Gladstone on Irish home rule, and took an active part in politics
in opposing it.
1876 Tyndall married Louisa, daughter of Lord Claud Hamilton.
He built in 1877 a cottage on Bel Alp above the Rhone valley,
and in 1885 a house on Hindhead, near Haslemere. At the latter
place he spent most of his later years; his health was, however,
no longer as vigorous as his brain, and he suffered frequently
from sleeplessness. On December 4, 1893, having been accidentally
given an overdose of chloral hydrate, he died at Hindhead.
crater on Mars is named in his honor.