John Tyndall (Physicist)

The story of John Tyndall is one of courage, passion and idealism . A story of the highest personal success achievable by any man of humble beginnings in his time.

When Tyndall was born on August 2, 1820 his family was virtually unknown outside their small village of Leighlinbridge straddling the river Barrow which flows through Ireland’s second smallest county, Carlow.

When he died 73 years later he had won world-wide acclaim as a scientist, controversialist, educationalist and alpine pioneer. His original researches and his work with top scientists of his era opened up new fields of science and laid the groundwork for future scientific endeavour.

John Tyndall

John Tyndall

Tyndall’s major scientific contributions were in physical chemistry. He is the founder of the science of light scattering or nephelometry. His instruments are the basis of many instruments such as fluorimeters, turbimeters and ultra-violet spectrometers. His major research work was in the transmission and absorption of gases, liquids and vapours and he laid the basis for infra-red spectroscopy.

Tyndall is also credited with the first ever atmospheric pollution measurements using infra-red and scattering measurement instruments to monitor the London atmosphere.

He showed that ozone, the upper layer of atmosphere so vital to life on Earth, was an oxygen cluster rather than a hydrogen compound.

He observed perhaps the first controlled photochemical reactions and made important contributions to thermodynamics. Tyndall was the inventor of the fireman’s respirator and made other less well known inventions including better fog horns.

One of the most important inventions to which he contributed, the light pipe, has led to the development of fibre optics which are playing an increasing role in telecommunications, electronics and medicine. One modern light pipe instrument is the gastroscope which enables internal observations of a patient’s stomach without surgery.

Tyndall made negative radiation studies of the moon and predicted the blackness of space as well as working on solar chemistry which today has solar energy connotations.

Tyndall also made major contributions in the study of evolution through his work on absorption of heat in the atmosphere, by his introduction of thermodynamics into the whole debate and through other contributions to philosophical discussion.

His contribution to physics was considerable delving into magnetism, electricity, molecular physics, optics, sound, the properties of materials, diamagnetism and heat.

He initiated the practical teaching of scientific subjects in our schools. His lectures, liberally illustrated by exciting experiments, brought science to the people in a way that made it truly popular. An exceptional educationalist he strongly influenced the direction of university and school physics teaching.

Amongst his friends he numbered 19th century giants in the world of science and literature – Louis Pasteur, Faraday, Charles Lister, Thomas Huxley, Leslie Stephens, Thomas Carlyle and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tyndall’s social life was as varied as his scientific and alpine exploits and he was a much sought after guest in London’s high society. A man who was shaped by the luminaries of his generation he came to shape a generation himself.
He traveled extensively in Europe, mostly amongst his beloved mountains, and on a major lecture tour of America. He did more than most to popularise and make respectable the sport of mountaineering. He was the first to climb the Weisshorn (14,804 ft.) and would have been the first to climb the Matterhorn but his guides refused to venture upon the last peak in 1862. But the penultimate peak and the ridge which stretches from it to the final peak were named after him, and he did become the first person to traverse the mountain from the ltalian to the Swiss side in 1868. He also climbed the highest Alpine peak, Mont Blanc (15,781 ft.), several times. He pioneered solo ascents.

A disciple and successor of Faraday as Director of the prestigious Royal lnstitution of London and a close associate of Darwin and Huxley, Tyndall was a bold and original thinker in his own right. He established the new doctrines upon which modern science is based amid the controversies of the middle and late 19th century.

His bid to win official recognition of the value of science and to professionalise it led him to form the exclusive X-club which became a major pressure group to wrest scientific authority from the traditionalist mathematical scientists to themselves the evolutionists.

As a physicist his work was brilliant and many faceted.

As an educator and lecturer he became one of the ablest popularists of science of his generation and pioneer of practical teaching. As a mountaineer he was in the vanguard of those who conquered age old peaks and age old fears.

As a controversialist he steeped himself in the burning religious and political issues of the day. He is counted in France among the foremost 19th-century philosophers of science, and merits an entry in the ‘Dictionnaire des Philosophes’, Paris

At his death many monuments had already been erected to him and landmarks named after him – others were to follow.

Scientific terms such as: Tyndallisation – a sterilisation process still favoured on the Continent, Tyndall blue, the Tyndall cone are also permanent monuments to his work.