John Tyndall (1820-1893)

The physicist John Tyndall was born in the village of Leighlinbridge in County Carlow, Ireland, the son of a local police constable. He joined the Irish Ordnance Survey in 1839 as a draughtsman, moving to England in 1842 to work for the British equivalent. His land-surveying experience proved to be in demand during the railway boom of the 1840s, and from 1844 to 1847 he worked in construction planning for railway companies.

When the pressure of work grew less he decided to teach mathematics and land surveying at Queenwood College in Hampshire, where another new teacher was Edward Frankland, a former laboratory assistant. The pair decided to improve their scientific education by enrolling in a German university, where Frankland knew that experimental chemistry and physics were ahead of anywhere in England. From 1848 to 1851 they studied at the University of Marburg, where Tyndall studied under Robert Bunsen and Hermann Knoblauch.

Tyndall initially investigated diamagnetism during the 1850s, which resulted in his election to the Royal Society in 1852. In 1853 he was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy, or Physics, at the Royal Institution in London, after earning the esteem of Michael Faraday, who led the experimentation into magnetism there. In the late 1850s Tyndall turned to the study of atmospheric gases, molecularity and glacier motion.

Tyndall was also concerned with teaching and spreading the cause of science to the wider population. He took over from Faraday in giving public lectures at the Royal Institution, and published 17 books and tutorials not intended for a specialist audience, yet which often contained the most revolutionary experimental physics of the day. He also notably advocated the separation of science from religion, in contrast to the majority of his contemporaries who believed in the consistency and harmonious compatibility of the two. In this opinion he was united with his friend, the anatomist T H Huxley - from whom the term ‘agnostic’ originates - although Tyndall never specified his own views.

The sales of his popular books left Tyndall very well off towards the end of his life, with much of his money being donated to the Irish unionist cause. He died from an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate, which he was taking to treat insomnia.