Climate change and global warming have a very modern ring. However, it was over a century and a half ago when John Tyndall, son of a police constable from Leighlinbridge, Co Carlow, proved the existence of the greenhouse effect.
Tyndall, who died 120 years ago today, developed a love of problem solving at Ballinabranagh National School. He would rise early and chew coffee beans while reading about aerostatics and phlogiston, then go off to make hot air balloons and coal gas.
His abilities in mathematics and surveying got him a job at the Ordnance Survey office at Youghal in 1840 and later at the English office in Preston. He became surveyor on several railway lines in the north of England, poring over plans all night to meet deadlines. His health began to suffer. On Apr 30, 1846, he wrote in his journal: “Completely broken down.”
When Tyndall recovered he took a job teaching mathematics at Queenwood in Hampshire, where he set up one of the first school science laboratories and enlivened the lessons of older students by letting them inhale laughing gas.
In 1848 he travelled to Marburg, Germany, to study under Robert Bunsen, of Bunsen burner fame. Graduating with a PhD, he returned to England, and in 1853 was appointed Professor of Physics at London’s Royal Institution.
After helping Michael Faraday with experiments on magnetism, his interest turned to light and how it is scattered by small particles in the atmosphere (the ‘Tyndall effect’). He was the first scientist to explain why the sky is blue (‘Tyndall blue’).
Tyndall put a number of atmospheric gases to the test in his laboratory, throwing different wavelengths of light at each gas contained in a long brass tube, and measuring the amount of radiant heat that emerged at the other end. When he tested coal gas, carbon dioxide and water vapour he found they were strong absorbers of radiant heat — the heat that keeps the Earth warm enough for life to exist, “a blanket more necessary than clothing”, without which every plant would be “destroyed by a freezing temperature”.
He had provided experimental evidence of the naturally occurring greenhouse effect that scientists such as Joseph Fourier and Claude Pouillet knew about but had not proved. Climate scientists tell us we have enhanced this effect in recent years by releasing more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, warming the planet further.
Tyndall’s achievements went beyond this. In his lodgings above the Royal Institution he busied himself with projects night and day. He sterilised food by heating it several times (‘Tyndallisation’); improved firefighters’ breathing apparatus; developed steam foghorns; and promoted gas lamps in lighthouses.
He married Louisa Hamilton in 1876 and she helped write up his lab notes and books — he published 17. The couple spent their summers in Switzerland. Tyndall studied glaciers and mountains, and became an expert mountaineer, leading one of the first teams to reach the top of the Matterhorn.
At their new home in Haslemere, Surrey, he spent sleepless nights worrying about his lectures. Every evening he took the powerful drug chloral for his insomnia, and every other morning magnesia for his stomach. On the morning of Dec 4, 1893, his wife made a terrible mistake. “I measured a teaspoonful of magnesia, as I thought, and added water. He took this at a gulp, then a gulp of ginger. All he said was ‘There is a curious sweet taste.’ I said ‘John, I have given you chloral’, and he said ‘Yes, my poor darling, you have killed your John’.”
By 6.30pm Tyndall was dead. Stricken with grief and guilt, Louisa devoted her life to writing his biography.
Today his name lives on in the Tyndall institutes, notably Cork’s Tyndall National Institute, a premier research centre. Glaciers in Chile and Colorado, and mountains in California and Tasmania also bear his name.
Tyndall was one of the leading physicists of the 19th century who brought science to the masses, and whose findings on atmospheric gases have provided the cornerstone of research into global warming today. Doesn’t he deserve to be more widely known?