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Royal Institution of Great Britain

Tyndall, John (1820-1893)


Reference code(s): GB 0116 John Tyndall Collection

Held at: Royal Institution of Great Britain

Title: Tyndall, John (1820-1893)

Date(s): 1835-1957

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 10.78 metres

Name of creator(s): Tyndall, John, 1820-1893. Natural philosopher.


Administrative/Biographical history:

John Tyndall was born the son of John Tyndall, a shoemaker, in Leighton Bridge, County Carlow, Ireland, in 1820. He attended the National School in Carlow until the age of 19. He supplemented his schooling by reading and thus became fascinated by science. He began work as a draftsman and civil engineer in the Irish Ordnance Survey, but was later transferred to the English division in Preston, Lancashire in 1842. He was strongly against political principles in England and was transferred back to Ireland after protesting against them. He later returned to England as a surveyor and engineer during the railway development of 1844-1845. He became acquainted with George Edmondson of Queenwood College in Hampshire in 1847, and began teaching mathematics and drawing there. At Queenwood College, Tyndall was introduced to German science through his involvement with Thomas Archer Hirst and Edward Frankland. In 1848, he attended the University of Marburg in Germany, and studied science under Bunsen, gaining his PhD in 1850. He remained at Marburg and worked in the laboratory on diamagnetism with Karl Herrmann Knoblauch. Together, they published a paper on their work in Philosophical Magazine, in 1850-1851. Like many natural philosophers, Tyndall had to write, lecture and examine in order to earn a living and gain a name as a first-rate natural philosopher. Nevertheless, in 1852 he was elected Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1853 he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI). Under Michael Faraday's guidance, he became a very good lecturer giving over 300 lectures at the RI alone. He succeeded Faraday as Superintendent of the RI in 1867, which he held until 1887. He became Scientific Adviser to Trinity House in 1865 and to the Board of Trade in c1867. Tyndall undertook various forms of research in his time, from electromagnetism to thermodynamics to bacteriology. From 1851 to 1856, he studied the compression on crystalline substances; 1854-1856 he looked at Penrhyn slate and investigated the Penrhyn quarries; 1856-1859, he studied glacial movements; 1860-1870 he undertook work on the effects of solar and heat radiation on atmospheric gases; 1870-1876 he considered the scattering of light particles and the blue colour of the sky, as well as spontaneous generation and defending Pasteur in his work. John Tyndall is known for verifying the high absorptive and radiative power of aqueous vapour; measuring atmosphere and the transmission of heat by gases and liquids; explaining the selective influence of the atmosphere on sounds, and establishing the principle of `discontinuous heating', otherwise known as `Tyndallisation', as a sterilizing technique. His work on glacial movement was inconclusive. Tyndall was kept busy outside of the laboratory through other activities such as being the Examiner for the Royal Military College 1855-1857; Professor of Physics at the Royal School of Mines 1859-1968; lecturer at Eton College 1856 and at the London Institution 1856-1859. He regularly wrote articles for the Saturday Review from 1859, and became Scientific Adviser to The Reader 1863-1867. In 1869 he inaugurated the journal Nature and pushed for public knowledge and access to science. In 1866-1867, he was on the British Association Committee for teaching science. He published many papers through the Royal Society, as well as books such as Glaciers of the Alps in 1860 and Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion in 1863. He received the Rumford Medal from the Royal Society, in1869. In 1874, he gave a presidential address to the British Association in Belfast which caused a great deal of controversy since he questioned theistic explanations for natural phenomena. In 1876, he married Louisa Charlotte Hamilton. During the 1870s and 1880s, Tyndall was often ill. He resigned from his position as Scientific Advisor to Trinity House and the Board of Trade in 1884, over Joseph Chamberlain's policy for lighthouses. He rejected Gladstone's policies for home rule in Ireland in 1885, and by 1886 he became so ill that he was eventually bedridden. He retired from the RI in 1887, and after an accidental overdose of medication by his wife, Louisa, he died in 1893.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of John Tyndall include: Correspondence (JT/1) - c4,300 letters [and 13 typescript volumes] to and from various recipients and on various issues; Journals (JT/2) - the journals of John Tyndall, Louisa Tyndall, Thomas Archer Hirst, Edward Frankland and Lady Claud Hamilton relate to various issues: those of John Tyndall to issues such as railway work, travels, and his general day to day life; those of Louisa Tyndall to personal issues such as the state of John Tyndall's health; the Thomas Archer Hirst journals refer to personal activities and his work; Edward Frankland's journal to his time at Queenwood with John Tyndall and Lady Claud Hamilton's journal is of a personal nature; Notebooks (JT/3) - the notebooks and experimental diaries of John Tyndall refer to his work, experiments and observations. There are notes on glaciers, heat and light experiments, putrefaction, lighthouses, the sky, sound, the Alps, [Michael] Faraday, travels and other miscellaneous notes such as philosophy and other people's experiments. There are also two notebooks relating to the X-Club belonging to John Tyndall. There are two notebooks of Louisa Tyndall and one of Anna Hirst which are of personal and religious substance; Lectures (JT/4) - the volumes of lecture notes consist of notes by John Tyndall for lectures given at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) and the London Institution as well as various addresses and speeches for example at St. Andrew's Hall, Glasgow and Belfast. The notes refer to lectures on heat, radiant heat, light, magnetism and electricity, sound, the discoveries of [Michael] Faraday, John Tyndall's American tour as well as the apparatus for the lectures; Biographical Material (JT/5) - the biographical material contains notes made and materials collected for biographies of John Tyndall. These include articles, newspaper cuttings, hand written notes, drafts by C N Creasey and A S Eve, written attempts by Louisa Tyndall and other papers with biographical notes such as hand-written copies of Pasteur letters and chronologies. There are two boxes of Thomas Archer Hirst material which refers to his journals and contain biographical notes; Press Related Material (JT/6) - Press related material includes written articles and letters for the Times and Saturday Review, newspaper cuttings relating to John Tyndall and his works and activities for example of lighthouses, his American tour, as well as obituaries and miscellaneous pieces on religion and scientific affairs; Publications - Articles (JT/7) - the publications and articles consist of various off prints and copies of publications and articles by John Tyndall and others. Many were presented to John Tyndall, some relate to obituaries and have Louisa Tyndall's annotations in them; and Other (JT/8) - Various miscellaneous items consisting of bound volumes of manuscripts relating to issues such as John Tyndall's life, work, poetry written or collected by John Tyndall, valentines and travel notes, portraits, drawings and sketches of John Tyndall. There is also a box of medals of John Tyndall, a folder with an index to correspondence possibly in Louisa Tyndall's hand, a testimonial given to John Tyndall on his marriage to Louisa and various other papers.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

As outlined in the scope and content field.

Conditions governing access:

Access to bona fide researchers by appointment with the Keeper of the Collections or the Assistant Archivist, the Royal Institution of Great Britain.

Conditions governing reproduction:

Reproduction of material is permitted at the discretion of the Keeper of the Collections.

Physical characteristics:

Finding aids:

Old catalogue of 15 Volumes; CALM catalogue (incomplete).


Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information:


Additional items previously un-catalogued will be added to the catalogue at some point.

Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Transferred by Louisa Tyndall's family in the 1940s.


Existence and location of originals:

Existence and location of copies:

Related material:

The Royal Institution of Great Britain holds portraits and some apparatus of Tyndall, used for his work on radiant heat and the blue colour of the sky.

Other correspondence and papers pf John Tyndall are located at: British Library Manuscripts Collection (reference: MSS 537 15-16; MSS 63092); Saint Andrews University Library; London University, University College Manuscripts Room (reference: Galton papers); Royal Society (reference: HS); Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Library and Archives; London University, Imperial College Library (reference: B/Huxley); Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives (reference: Add 7342, 7656); West Sussex Record Office (reference: pp9-10); Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories; London University Library, Senate House (reference: MS 791); Huntingdon Library.

Publication note:



Archivist's note: Sources: old catalogue at the RI. Compiled by Mrs Ivone Turnbull.

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: May 2002.


Personal names
Airy | Sir | George Biddell | 1801-1892 | Knight | astronomer and mathematician
Barnard | Jane | 1832-1911 | niece of Michael Faraday
Bunsen | Robert Wilhelm Eberhard | Von | 1811-1899 | German chemist x Von Bunsen | Robert Wilhelm Eberhard
Campbell | George Douglas | 1823-1900 | 8th Duke of Argyll | statesman x Argyll | 8th Duke of
Carlyle | Thomas | 1795-1881 | historian and philosopher
Darwin | Charles Robert | 1809-1882 | scientist and naturalist
Derby | Frederick Arthur Stanley | 1841-1908 | politician
Faraday | Michael | 1791-1867 | chemist and natural philosopher
Frankland | Sir | Edward | 1825-1899 | Knight | chemist
Harris | Sir | William Snow | 1791-1867 | Knight | electrician
Helmholtz | Hermann | von | 1821-1894 | Professor of Physiology x Von Hemlholtz | Hermann
Herschel | Sir | John Frederick William | 1792-1871 | 1st Baronet | astronomer
Hirst | Thomas Archer | 1830-1892 | mathematician
Hooker | Sir | Joseph Dalton | 1817-1911 | Knight | botanist
Huxley | Thomas Henry | 1825-1895 | scientist and educationist
Jones | Henry | Bence | 1813-1873 | physician x Bence Jones | Henry
Lecky | William Edward Hartpole | 1838-1903 | historian and essayist
Lyell | Sir | Charles | 1797-1875 | 1st Baronet | geologist
Magnus | Heinrich Gustav | 1802-1870 | Professor of Technology and Physics
Matteucci | Carlo | 1811-1868 | Italian physiologist and physicist
Moign | Francois Napolean Marie | 1804-1884 | French scientific writer
Moseley | Henry | 1801-1872 | mathematician
Pasteur | Louis | 1822-1895 | French chemist
Plateau | Joseph Antoine Ferdinand | 1801-1883 | Professor of Physics
Playfair | Lyon | 1818-1898 | 1st Baron Playfair | chemist x Playfair | 1st Baron
Pollock | Juliet | c 1819-1899
Pollock | Sir | William Frederick | 1815-1888 | 2nd Baronet | Queens Remembrancer author
Sabine | Sir | Edward | 1788-1883 | Knight | General and geophysicist
Soret | Jacques Louis | 1827-1890 | Swiss physicist
Spencer | Herbert | 1820-1903 | philosopher
Stokes | Sir | George Gabriel | 1819-1903 | 1st Baronet | mathematician and physicist
Sylvester | James Joseph | 1814-1897 | mathematician
Tyndall | John | 1820-1893 | natural philosopher
Wiedemann | Gustav Heinrich | 1826-1899 | Professor of Physics

Corporate names
Alpine Club
Board of Trade
Eton College | public school
London Institution
Ordnance Survey
Queenwood School | Hampshire
Royal Institution of Great Britain
Royal School of Mines
Royal Society
Trinity House
University of Marburg x Marburg University

Belfast | Northern Ireland | UK | Western Europe | Europe
Carlow | Ireland | Western Europe | Europe
Germany | Western Europe | Europe
Hampshire | England | UK | Western Europe | Europe
London | England | UK | Western Europe | Europe
Switzerland | Western Europe | Europe