John Tyndall: remembering the Carlow man who discovered why the sky is blue

Born 200 years ago, John Tyndall, a policeman’s son from Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, developed a love of problem-solving at Ballinabranagh National School.
John Tyndall: remembering the Carlow man who discovered why the sky is blue
John Tyndall's blue sky tube

Born 200 years ago, John Tyndall, a policeman’s son from Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow, developed a love of problem-solving at Ballinabranagh National School.

As a young man, he would rise early and chew coffee beans while reading about aerostatics and phlogiston, then go off to make hot air balloons.

His abilities in mathematics and surveying got him a job at the Ordnance Survey office at Youghal, Co. Cork, in 1840, and later at Preston, Lancashire, where he attended night classes at the Mechanics Institute. “I think if he studied less his face would not be so pale”, commented his sister.

“Completely broken down” 

Sacked from the Survey, he thought about moving to the USA but instead became a railway surveyor in the north of England. His health suffered as he pored over plans all night to meet tight deadlines. On 30 April 1846, he wrote in his journal: “Completely broken down.” In 1847 he took a job teaching science at Queenwood College in Stockbridge, Hampshire. With fellow science master Edward Frankland he set up one of the first school science laboratories and enlivened the lessons of older students by letting them inhale laughing gas.

Tyndall travelled with Frankland to Germany in 1848, to study chemistry in Marburg under Robert Bunsen – of Bunsen burner fame. Returning to England in 1853, he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution in London where he eventually became Director.

The X Club 

Following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, Tyndall helped set up the journal Nature, and organised a club for fellow evolutionists called the “X-Club”. Its ten members adopted nicknames: Tyndall’s was Xcentric and Frankland’s was Xpert.

Nothing but blue skies 

After helping Michael Faraday with experiments on magnetism, Tyndall’s interest turned to light. In 1859 he became the first scientist to explain why the sky is blue (‘Tyndall Blue’).

When sunlight reaches the Earth's atmosphere, he noted, it is scattered in all directions by particles in the air (the ‘Tyndall Effect’). Due to blue light travelling as shorter waves, it is scattered more than other colours, and that is why we see a blue sky most of the time.

‘Greenhouse effect’ and global warming 

Tyndall experimented with various gases. Coal gas, carbon dioxide and water vapour proved 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”.

Scientist John Tyndall (1820-1893)
Scientist John Tyndall (1820-1893)

The achievements of the man dubbed ‘the father of climate science’ did not stop there. In his lodgings above the Royal Institution he busied himself with projects night and day. He proved Louis Pateur’s germ theory of disease, and sterilized food by heating it several times (‘Tyndallisation’).

Made science understandable 

In 1870 Tyndall eventually achieved his dream of visiting the USA, where his animated public lectures were packed: he had the knack of making difficult scientific topics understandable by giving vivid mental images. He followed up his lectures with a book, Fragments of science for unscientific people (1871).

At a concert in London, Tyndall, now fifty-six, was introduced to twenty-seven-year-old Louisa Hamilton, daughter of Lord Claud Hamilton – the woman who “raised my ideal of the possibilities of human nature”. In 1876 they married in Westminster Abbey. Louisa became his secretary, helping write up his laboratory notes and books – he published seventeen.

The couple spent their summers in Switzerland where Tyndall studied glaciers and mountains. An expert mountaineer, he had led one of the first teams to reach the top of the Weisshorn in 1861, and the Matterhorn from the Italian side in 1868.

His wife's terrible mistake 

At their new home in Hindhead, Surrey, he spent sleepless nights worrying about his lectures. Every evening he took chloral for his insomnia, and alternate mornings magnesia for his stomach. On the morning of 4 December 1893 his wife made a terrible mistake: “I measured a teaspoonful of magnesia, as I thought, and added water. [He took a gulp]. All he said was ‘There is a curious sweet taste.’ I said ‘John, I have given you chloral’..." That evening Tyndall lay dead.

Stricken with grief and guilt, Louisa devoted the rest of her life to writing his biography.

Tyndall was one of the leading physicists of the 19th century, helping to popularise science and bring it to the masses. Today his name lives on in the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in Norwich, and Cork’s Tyndall National Institute at UCC. Glaciers in Chile and Colorado, and mountains in California and Tasmania also bear his name.

Two hundred years after his birth, John Tyndall, whose achievements spanned so many areas, deserves to be better known.

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