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Global Warming Science In The Age Of Queen Victoria: John Tyndall

Updated on December 11, 2014

John Tyndall

Perhaps it’s the dramatic weather changes, or perhaps it is mere coincidence, but mountains recur in the lives of the first scientists to investigate the physics of climate. Claude Pouillet hailed from the Jura Mountains not far from the Swiss frontier; Fourier spent years in Grenoble, the “gateway to the Alps,” and Horace de Saussure, whose experiments had been of such value to Fourier, was a notable Alpinist. This theme was destined to continue in the life of another great experimentalist, John Tyndall. He was not only a seminal figure in climate science, honored today as the namesake of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research-- popularly remembered as the first man to explain why the sky is blue; he was also a notable mountaineer, credited with the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa.

Monte Rosa

Monte Rosa.  Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Monte Rosa. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Tyndall's Early Life

Tyndall was born in August, 1820, in the picturesque—though decidedly not mountainous—Irish village of Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, on the Barrow river southeast of Dublin. It was a little more than fourteen months after the birth of the girl who would grow up to be his sovereign, Alexandrina Victoria of the House of Hanover. His father, also named John Tyndall, was variously said to be the disinherited son of a small landholder, a shopkeeper or bootmender, a man of “some intellect” and a fervent Protestant. He would take up service in the Irish Constabulary following its formation in 1822, reaching the rank of Sergeant.

The Constabulary was not popular with Catholic farmers, who were legally obliged to pay tithes to support Church of Ireland clerics—often absentee clerics, without congregants—as the Constables effectively became the tithe collectors. The conflict would become so heated in the early 1830’s that it would become known as the “Tithe Wars.” Casualties numbered in the hundreds. Thus young John Tyndall would grow up as a member of an officially privileged yet unpopular minority. Perhaps this accounts in part for a certain pugnacity observable in Tyndall’s temperament.

Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow

Leighlinbridge, showing ruins of Norman castle.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.
Leighlinbridge, showing ruins of Norman castle. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

If Leighlinbridge resembled most 19th-century Irish towns in hardship and political turmoil, however, it also resembled a good many in possessing a surprisingly good school.  The Leighlinbridge National School was run by John Conwill, who possessed an excellent reputation, and several of whose pupils went on to high achivement.  He was also a Catholic, a fact that moved the Tyndall’s Protestant neighbors to object to young John’s attendance.  But Tyndall senior valued quality over doctrinal correctness, and affirmed his choice for his son “even if he was taught on the steps of the altar.”

Tyndall Memorial Plaque, Leighlinbridge

Though Tyndall was naturally a gifted athlete—he loved “running, swimming, climbing, and other sports”—he became an excellent scholar.  He valued the study of grammar, but particularly excelled in mathematics. By the time he left school April of 1839 he had acquired solid “knowledge of algebra, geometry, trigonometry and conic sections”.  He was especially notable for outstanding ability to visualize, and could accurately work problems in solid geometry without the diagrams or models most students found necessary.  It is said that he spent much time out of school discussing mathematics with Master Conwill.  He would continue to correspond with his schoolmaster until Conwill’s death in 1880.

Queen Victoria At Her Coronation

Painted by Franz Xavier Winterhalter.  Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Painted by Franz Xavier Winterhalter. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Young Adulthood

But like his sovereign, Victoria, who had been crowned Queen of the United Kingdom on June 28, 1838, Tyndall was destined to enter adult responsibilities at the age at which most of today’s youth enter college. He joined the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national mapping service, at that time engaged in the first comprehensive survey of Ireland. It was during this period that Tyndall began a twelve-year habit of arising by 5 or 6 AM in order to study. He tolerated the low Ordnance pay until 1843 in order to acquire useful skills—some sources say that he was fired for complaining about anti-Irish discrimination in the Service--and in 1844 began work as a railway surveyor. It was often very arduous; Tyndall later wrote, “Strong men were broken down by the strain and labour. . . I well remember the refreshment I occasionally derived from five minutes’ sleep on a deal table, with Babbage and Callet’s Logarithms under my head for a pillow.”

British Locomotive, 1847

A locomotive from Tyndall's days as railroad surveyor.  Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
A locomotive from Tyndall's days as railroad surveyor. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

When the railway boom faded, Tyndall moved on to a position as teacher at a college called Queenswood.  Here, too, he invested in his own abilities, giving up part of his pay in order to study in the chemistry laboratory, which was under the supervision of Dr. Edward Frankland.  The men became friends, and decided to study science in Germany, where its practice was then pre-eminent.  In the autumn of 1848, as revolution seethed across much of Europe, the two arrived in Marburg.  Tyndall wrote, “. . . Marburg is truly lovely.  It is the same town in which my great namesake [William Tyndale, 1494-1536], when even poorer than myself, published his [English] translation of the bible.”

Tyndall studied under notable scholars Drs. Bunsen, Stegmann and Knoblauch—the latter, significantly, had “distinguished himself by his researches in radiant heat.”  Surely it was through studies with Knoblauch that Tyndall first became acquainted with the names of Pouillet and Melloni.  Knoblauch also collaborated with Tyndall in his first researches, and offered an introduction to the great physicist Faraday, whom the young Irishman met on a trip back to the UK in 1850 following the completion of his doctorate.  Tyndall made the acquaintance of many of Germany’s best minds before his permanent return to the United Kingdom in 1851, including Helmholtz, Magnus, Poggendorf, and Humboldt, among others.

The Royal Institute, London

Painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864.) Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Painting by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd (1793-1864.) Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Returning to his post at Queenswood—Tyndall and Frankland unsuccessfully applied for teaching posts in places as far-flung as the University of Toronto, Canada, and Sydney, Australia--Tyndall continued his researches, and was rewarded by an invitation in 1853 to lecture at the Royal Institution. Tyndall wrote that he accepted with “fear and trembling,” regarding the Institution as a “dragon’s den,” such were the standards for the public lectures there. But he achieved a triumph; Faraday himself offered congratulations; an invitation for a second lecture was offered and accepted, and in July Tyndall was unanimously elected a Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Royal Institution. He had “arrived,” and now there was no need to arise quite so early to study; study and investigation had become his “day job.”

Another significant turn came in 1856, when Professor Thomas Huxley—a friend for several years--suggested that Tyndall might join him in an Alpine expedition to investigate glacial structure and dynamics. This they accomplished. For Tyndall, it was a reminder of the impression that the Alps had made when he first saw them in 1849. The conjoined athleticism of mountain trekking, poetic allure of majestic scenery and vivid effects of light and color, and intellectual intoxication of scientific exploration was irresistible; Tyndall would return to the Alps nearly every summer for the more than 30 years, either for research, recreation, or a "spot" of each.

Tyndall's Sketch Map, La Mer De Glace

Tyndall's sketch map of the "Sea of Ice."  The glacier, like so many, has retreated many miles since Tyndall's day.  Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Tyndall's sketch map of the "Sea of Ice." The glacier, like so many, has retreated many miles since Tyndall's day. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

In science as elsewhere, “one thing leads to another,” and this is especially true with such active minds as Tyndall’s.  He wrote in 1861:

The researches on glaciers which I have had the honor of submitting from time to time to the notice of the Royal Society, directed my attention in a special manner to the observations and speculations of De Saussure, Fourier, M. Pouillet, and Mr. Hopkins, on the transmission of solar and terrestrial heat through the earth’s atmosphere.  This gave practical effect to a desire which I had previously entertained to make the mutual action of radiant heat and gases of all kinds the subject of an experimental inquiry.

 The inquiry began in the summer of 1859, and for seven weeks Tyndall systematically conducted an “incessant struggle” to design, procure and build an apparatus sufficient to achieve the “exact measurements” at which he aimed.  Details of windings, insulations, and heat sources occupied him for much of the time, though some preliminary results were attained.  Returning to the project in September of 1860, Tyndall worked for another seven weeks, eight to ten hours daily, to attain the final form of the “ratio spectrophotometer.”

Tyndall's Ratio Spectrophotometer

The apparatus essentially compared two stable heat sources, the cubes labeled “C”, each of which was filled with water kept at the boil. The one at the left is a reference; the one at the right, however, sends its heat through the tube, which may be evacuated or filled with the gas or vapor to be measured. A thermopile converts the difference in received radiation to a voltage, which deflects a needle proportionately. Tyndall could thus directly compare the absorption of heat by water vapor, oxygen, carbon dioxide—which nineteenth century chemistry usually referred to as “carbonic acid”—or any other gas or vapor he chose.

His results were as interesting as they are robust. He wrote:

I am unable at the present moment to range with certainty oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and atmospheric air in the order of their absorptive powers, though I have made several hundred experiments with the view of doing so. Their proper action is so small that the slightest foreign impurity gives one a predominance over the other.

By contrast, “olefiant gas”—we call it ethene or ethylene today, and know it as the naturally produced gas which ripens many fruits—absorbed an astounding 81% of the heat passing through the sample tube. Tyndall was amazed:

Those who like myself have been taught to regard transparent gases as almost perfectly diathermous, will probably share the astonishment with which I witnessed the foregoing effects. I was indeed slow to believe it possible that a body so constituted, and so transparent to light as olefiant gas, could be so densely opake to any kind of calorific rays; and to secure myself against error, I made several hundred experiments with this single substance.

(It is fortunate that ethene is not very stable in the atmosphere, or it would be a very troublesome “greenhouse gas,” as it occurs naturally and is produced in large quantities as a feedstock for industrial chemistry.)

Comparative Absorption Of Various Gases

A reproduction of Tyndall's table of comparative absorption of various gases.  Note that the results are given in degrees, referring to the deflection of the galvanometer's needle.  "Carbonic oxide" is called "carbon monoxide" today.
A reproduction of Tyndall's table of comparative absorption of various gases. Note that the results are given in degrees, referring to the deflection of the galvanometer's needle. "Carbonic oxide" is called "carbon monoxide" today.

Signficance for climate science.

As the table above shows, the compounds “carbonic oxide” (CO, or carbon monoxide) and “carbonic acid” (CO2, or carbon dioxide), though not as effective as “olefiant gas”, are much better absorbers than dry air, or its main constituents, nitrogen and oxygen. Dry air—but air is not usually dry. What of air containing water vapor? On November 20, 1860, Tyndall differentially compared the absorptive power of the ambient air to that same air scrubbed of its water vapor and “gaseous acids.” He

. . .found that the quantity of aqueous vapour diffused through the atmosphere on the day in question, produce an absorption at least equal to thirteen times that of the atmosphere itself. . . It is exceedingly probable that the absorption of the solar rays by the atmosphere, as established by M. Pouillet, is mainly due to the watery vapour contained in the air.

Tyndall did not fail to underline the significance of the facts he had uncovered:

De Saussure, Fourier, M. Pouillet, and Mr. Hopkins regard this interception of the terrestrial rays as exercising the most important influence on climate. . . every variation [in aqueous vapour] must produce a change of climate. Similar remarks would apply to the carbonic acid diffused through the air, while an almost inappreciable admixture of any of the hydrocarbon vapours would produce great effects on the terrestrial rays and produce corresponding changes of climate. It is not, therefore, necessary to assume alterations in the density and height of the atmosphere to account for different amounts of heat being preserved to the earth at different times; a slight change in its variable constituents would suffice for this. Such changes in fact may have produced all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal.

Fourier and Pouillet had shown the importance of atmospheric absorption and re-emission of radiation to climate; Tyndall had now, for the first time, identified water vapor and carbon dioxide gas as the most important substances responsible for this effect.

Greenhouse gas absorption data--a modern graph

Absorption spectra of various gases.  Note complementary spectra for CO2 and water vapor.
Absorption spectra of various gases. Note complementary spectra for CO2 and water vapor.

Tyndall's Later Career

From the studies in heat detailed above, Tyndall would proceed to research particle scattering of light—he was the first to explain the color of the sky, and to predict that space would appear black—and then to apply this knowledge and experimental prowess to the confirmation of Pasteur’s biological theories, and refuting the old idea of spontaneous generation. He also devised Tyndallization, a method of sterilization still used today in cases where Pasteurization is not desirable. He worked tirelessly and effectively as an advocate for the benefits of science and for freedom of scientific inquiry. This latter was much more controversial than it might sound; Pope Leo XIII would proclaim in 1888 that “. . .it is quite unlawful to demand, to defend, or to grant, unconditional freedom of thought, speech, writing, or religion.”

Pope Leo XIII (1898)

Although Leo XIII's defence of restraints on freedom of thought was abhorrent to Tyndall, the Pontiff was regarded as moderate and diplomatic in his day.
Although Leo XIII's defence of restraints on freedom of thought was abhorrent to Tyndall, the Pontiff was regarded as moderate and diplomatic in his day.

The controversy was most significant in Ireland, of all places in Europe, and led to some strange ironies with respect to Tyndall.  Because of his concern that Prime Minister Gladstone’s proposal for greater autonomy to the Irish—“Home Rule”—would result in undue influence by the Catholic Church, he opposed this proposal vigorously, though he supported Gladstone’s Liberal party.  When he gave his famous “Belfast Address,” it was received by some as anti-religious, and was denounced—quite possibly by another former student of Master Conwill of Leighlinbridge:  Patrick Francis Moran, later the first Cardinal of Australia.

Cardinal Moran

Tyndall would have known Moran, first Cardinal of Australia, briefly in Leighlinbridge when the latter was a young boy. Image courtesy Wikipedia commons.
Tyndall would have known Moran, first Cardinal of Australia, briefly in Leighlinbridge when the latter was a young boy. Image courtesy Wikipedia commons.

Consultant, Lecturer And Philanthropist

Over the years, Tyndall often acted as a scientific consultant to government, helping to improve the safety of navigation, mining, and steam engines. He invented the first practical respirator to allow firemen to breathe in smoke-filled environments. He toured the United States as a lecturer, earning about $13,000. This money he set aside to aid American science education, invested successfully, and donated the resulting $32,000 to endow scholarships at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania. The tour also demonstrated that his athletic gifts were still in evidence at age 53: at Niagara Falls, Tyndall engaged a local guide to help him clamber over the rocks and even, at times, through the current, in order to view the falls from beneath.

Niagara Falls

Horseshoe Falls at Niagara.  Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Horseshoe Falls at Niagara. Image courtesy Wikipedia Commons.


Tyndall also undertook the great adventure of matrimony, albeit late in life, marrying Louisa Hamilton in 1876. She was the daughter of an aristocratic Conservative politician, Lord Claud Hamilton, and met Tyndall in Switzerland. Though at thirty she was considerably younger than her husband, she was also a good deal older than the average bride of the day. In any case, their marriage, though childless, was very happy. They built two houses: a vacation home in Switzerland near Bel Alp (1877), and a retirement home in Hindhead, Surrey (1885.)

View From Bel Alp

Unfortunately, Tyndall’s vigor could not be sustained indefinitely. In 1887 ill-health led him to resign from the Royal Institute, and though he continued to work on his last book, New Fragments--published in 1892--he was much troubled with insomnia, among other complaints. Throughout this time, Louisa was, according to Tyndall’s old friend Huxley, “his secretary, his nurse, his tireless watcher—even his servant in case of need.” Tyndall wrote simply, “She has raised my ideal of the possibilities of human nature.” This care was to end tragically. The morning after Tyndall told Louisa, “If I pull through this it will be all your care, all your doing,” she made an error literally fatal: she mistook a newly-delivered bottle of chloral hydrate, which Tyndall was taking nightly for his insomnia, for the magnesia which he took every other morning.

John And Louisa

Taking a tablespoonful of the syrup in a glass of water at a gulp, Tyndall remarked on a “curious sweet taste.” Louisa tasted the drop left, saw two bottles remaining, not the lone bottle of magnesia that should have stood near, and realized the truth.

“John, I have given you chloral.”

“Yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John.” These words are sometimes cited as Tyndall’s last, but the truth is more revealing, if less dramatic. Tyndall got out of bed, saying, “Let us do all we can. Tickle my throat. Get a stomach pump.” Louisa administered a dose of mustard, inducing vomiting, put John back to bed, and was even able to give him warm water and hot coffee. Their doctors arrived, and worked all day with Louisa to try to save Tyndall. But though he returned to consciousness enough to tell Louisa that he recognized those present and that “I know you are all trying to rouse me,” their efforts would not, in the end, succeed. Tyndall died peacefully at around 6:30 on the evening of December 4th, 1893.

Manitoba Free Press Leads With Tyndall, December 5, 1893

Winnipeg, the capitol of Manitoba, was only incorporated in 1881.  The Manitoba legislature is built of Tyndall stone, a limestone quarried near Tyndall, Manitoba, a town named for the physicist.
Winnipeg, the capitol of Manitoba, was only incorporated in 1881. The Manitoba legislature is built of Tyndall stone, a limestone quarried near Tyndall, Manitoba, a town named for the physicist.

His death was news around the world, and he was memorialized by his old friends Huxley and Frankland, among many others. The London Times said, with respect to his vision of the proper place of science, “We stand today where Tyndall stood twenty years ago.” Louisa was crushed by her error, and made it her life’s work to try to ensure that John was remembered fittingly, with a proper biography. But so voluminous was the information—and perhaps, so challenging were the emotional aspects of her task—that, though she lived to be 95, dying in August of 1940, the biography was not to reach completion until 1945.

Yet Tyndall has not lacked memorials. Many thousands of lives were touched by his genius as a teacher, by his generosity of spirit and purse, or by his outspoken intergrity. His researches advanced knowledge very considerably in many disciplines, proved particularly crucial in the study of the physics of climate, saved many lives--particularly in the case of his microbiological researches, which have very materially enhanced public health--and have largely withstood the test of time rather well. There is even, in the Alps, a "Pic Tyndall", memorializing not the scientist, but the climber. It is difficult to imagine that Tyndall would fail to approve.

John Tyndall.  Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
John Tyndall. Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

This Hub is third in a series, preceded by "The Science Of Global Warming In The Age Of Napoleon III."

It recounts the life, work and times of a fascinating but too seldom remembered physicist, Claude Pouillet--the first scientist to reliably estimate solar radiation.

Or go right back to the beginning. Arguably the first scientific papers laying the groundwork for global warming science were the work of brilliant mathematician, and Napoleonic official, Joseph Fourier. Read about his life, work, and times in the first of these "Science of Global Warming" Hubs.

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    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 4 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Ron, thanks--I'm so glad that you enjoyed it!

      I'm away from home just now, and with limited connectivity, but when I get back, I'll make your better Hub acquaintance.

    • profile image

      hiit 4 years ago

      That's what I call a "great hub". Thank you so much.

      Ron from Fitness Tips

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 5 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Thanks, dz--and sharp eye!

      I don't think this is a discrepancy, though--Tyndall's results, as seen in the chart, were reported in terms of the needle deflection he saw. The 81%, if I recall correctly, is a modern figure. I believe it's consistent (within reasonable limits of experimental error), with Tyndall's "61 degrees."

    • profile image

      dz alexander 5 years ago

      This is very interesting. Thanks for doing it.

      In the Tyndall section, is there a discrepancy in the ethylene absorption [81% & 61 degrees in the text & chart respectively]?

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 6 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Thanks, Lady E!

      One of my goals with the "Science of Global Warming" series was to look at the researchers as human beings, as well as thinkers. I didn't know just how interesting they would turn out to be--Tyndall not least!

      And when you have interesting people, you're bound to turn up some great love stories, too, as in this case, or the case of Gilbert Plass, whose story I have in process.

    • Lady_E profile image

      Elena 6 years ago from London, UK

      An interesting detailed Hub - I enjoyed reading it. Glad Tyndall found Happiness in his Marriage to Louisa Hamilton in 1876.

      Great Hub.

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 7 years ago from Atlanta metropolitan area, GA, USA

      Neven, you are so kind! Thanks once again for your generous praise.

      I'm a little unsure about sign-ups. If you are a Hubpages member (it's free) you can join my fan club, and you'll then receive email notifications. (I suspect, but don't know for sure, that this doesn't work for non-members.)

      I think it's also possible to use RSS for this purpose, but I've not done so myself--investigate "RSS" in your browser help, maybe? (Perhaps there's a hubpage to be written on this problem! Or maybe one already exists?) If I find something out about this, I'll share the info.

      I know what you mean about Victorian times. In Tyndall's case, he also got to hang out with Herbert Spencer and Michael Faraday. He sure kept some kind of company. . .

    • profile image

      Neven 7 years ago

      This is great stuff again, Doc Snow! As much as I detested History class, I'm thoroughly enjoying reading this. And I love those quotes alluding to Global Warming avant la lettre.

      It must have been such an exciting time for geniuses in those days as there was so much to explore and you weren't burdened with all the work your predecessors did, so you could just do all kinds of science and not be restricted by specialisation (which is such a downside of science nowadays). And then you;d just go and hang out with sir Thomas Henry Huxley, whose grandson I admire so much and who also alluded to problems such as Global Warming from quite early on.

      I look forward to your next post. Is there any way for me to sign up and be warned when it's here?

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