This story is about an Irishman who had an amazing beard, loved mountains and helped establish the experimental basis for the thing we now called global warming.
But first, to set the scene, a short diversion into the history traffic.
Did you know that the first one-way street in London was created due to the public love of science?
The Royal Institution sits in a relatively quiet road in Mayfair, just off the main thoroughfare of Piccadilly, surrounded by shops and posh hotels, slightly east of Hyde Park Corner and north of Buckingham Palace.
Founded in 1799 by one Count Rumford (google him, fascinating life) the RI was established as an 'Institution for Diffusing Knowledge’ – it wouldn’t just be a place with a lab to do science, they’d talk about it too. It has an amazing funnel lecture theatre – it’s great for looking down on the scientific displays, but also means you can see the other people in the audience. This can make for lively debates between audience members, but it also means you can look at who else is there at the lecture, and be seen – the scientific equivalent of a box at the opera. Plus, apparently, one of their lecturers, Humphry Davy, was a bit of a hottie and was known for fun, sometimes explosive, displays. Which gives me an excuse to share one of my favourite cartoons of the 1800s.
So popular were Davy’s lectures, the traffic clogged the local roads, and they had to make it a one-way street.
But we’re not going to talk about Humphrey Davy and his matinee idol pouty lips. Nor are we going to talk about the other famous icon of the Royal Institution, Michael Faraday (though we might another time). This post is about John Tyndall. Less flashy than some of the other RI professors, and often forgotten in the history of science, but key to our understanding of this thing we now call global warming. But remember the one-way street, because it is a small part of the story.
Tyndall wasn’t one of those Victorian boffins who had rich parents to bankroll their scientific tinkering and introduce them to powerful and interesting people. Born in County Carlow, Ireland, in 1820, the son of a policeman. He studied maths and technical drawing at school, and in his late teens got a job at the Ordnance Survey. This was a time of massive land use change in the UK, notable in terms of building railways, and Tyndall soon shifted to a much better paid job in railway construction planning.
When work in the railways slackened, he took a job in a boarding school in Hampshire. One of the other teachers there had just come from a stint as a lab assistant as the British Geological Survey, they bonded over a love of science and, in 1848, travelled to the University of Marburg, Germany, to study it further. Robert Bunsen was one of their tutors (yes, the burner dude).
After graduating, Tyndall worked on magnets and made a name for himself with research on the magneto-optic properties of crystal. He was elected to the highly prestigious role of Fellow of the Royal Society in 1852 and in 1853, Michael Faraday invited him to give a series of talks at the Royal Institution. The following year, Tyndall was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy there.
Another important thing to know about Tyndall was that he was really into glaciers. In 1858 he joined the newly founded Alpine Club and, curious about how these things had formed in the first place, he started reading the work of De Saussure, Fourier and Pouillet (the people who first suggested the idea of the thing we now call the greenhouse effect, covered in the last post). De Saussure’s solar boxes which had inspired Fourier to imagine a sort of atmospheric greenhouse notwithstanding, this was largely theory. Tyndall took to the lab, and started experimenting.
As Tyndall described his experimental work, they were ‘questions he was putting to nature’. For weeks he tried experiment after experiment – question after question – to probe out the truth, working long hours in the basement of the Royal Institution (which still has his equipment if you want to visit).
At this point, it is probably worth noting that the greenhouse effect is a bit of a misnomer. Greenhouses stay warm partly because they let sunlight in which warms surfaces that warms the air, and also because that glass traps the warm air in, keeps it from escaping. The atmosphere is a bit subtler than that. It intercepts just one part of the infrared radiation emitted from the surface, preventing it from escaping into Earth.
Tyndall tested out the transmission of radiant heat through a range of different gases – it’s similar to the experiments Eunice Foote tried in the USA a few years before (in a previous post), though there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Tyndall knew about her work.
When it came to oxygen and nitrogen, the main gasses in our atmosphere, infrared radiation just went right through them. Then Tyndall tried the coal gas used to power the lighting in his laboratory. Here, the heat stuck.
Tyndall also discovered that water was a greenhouse gas, and concluded it was water that had created the sort of climate that had allowed humanity to develop in the way it has. As Tyndall put it, water was a sort of “blanket more necessary to the vegetable life of England than clothing is to man. Remove for a single summer-night the aqueous vapor from the air… and the sun would rise up an island held fast in the iron grip of frost”. Or to put it another way, beware something drying out our lovely damp blanket of an atmosphere or we might be plunged into another ice age. Like most other early climate change scientists, Tyndall was much more worried about global cooling than global warming.
Tyndall knew this work had impact. Even if he couldn’t have a sense of the sorts of greenhouse gas emissions we’ve managed since, and the huge danger that’s putting us in, he knew this was interesting. His diaries suggest he was excited. Then, on Friday 10th June, 1859, he gave a public lecture on the work. Prince Albert, the Queen’s husband, chaired the event.
As the decades rolled on and more people studied the issue, they’d go back to Tyndall’s work, citing him and solidifying his role in the history of climate change. Tyndall doesn't have nearly as big a profile as, for example, Micheal Faraday, but he is solidly remembererd within the history of climate change.
It’s interesting to compare this with Foote’s reception for similar work - a man had to read her paper for her at a conference, and then it was virtually lost for a century and a half. This is partly just because Foote was a woman and people are rubbish at remembering women’s contributions. But it’s also because Tyndall had managed to get a seat at the RI. Again, the fact he had that seat was at least in part because he was a man, but it is worth remembering both his and Faraday’s relatively humble beginnings, and that the platform of the RI meant he'd share his work with a range of people.
That's why I started with the story of the one-way street. I wanted to emphasise that science was (and, I'd argue, still is) popular, and there are long-standing institutions set up to help connect scientists to the rest of society. These institutions need a lot of work, not least because they still tend to be too skewed to the interests and images of posh, white men. But they exist.
A big part of the early discovery of climate change happened at the RI, and as such, it was a relatively open discovery. The discoveries themselves might have happened in a basement lab, but it didn’t stay there. This wasn’t some sneaky weird bit of knowledge hidden at the back of a lab, getting dusty. Other people knew. It just took a while before anyone realised what a big deal it was. They were all too busy getting their knickers in a twist about Darwin, if nothing else.
Tyndall was also a member of the X Club. A dinner club that met monthly at hotel just along from the RI, it had been founded by TH Huxley (the granddaddy of the Brave New World chap) in the 1860s. The X was chosen, apparently, because it committed the members to nothing in particular. But they did also time their dinners to just before meetings at the Royal Society and it's pretty likely that they wanted to influence the scientific establishment, especially when it came to evolution, and issues of science's relationship with religion. Whether it was that Machiavellian or not, it is an example of the sorts of networks Tyndall could be part of and Foote couldn't, and also how (male) scientists at the time were banding together to help build their influence. Herbert Spencer was also a member of the X Club, but that's another story. (And if anyone’s written some history of science fanfic about Ada Lovelace and Mary Anning forming an XX Club to steer Victorian science in a whole other direction, do let me know).
And so we come to the end of this tale. In his later years, Tyndall took chloral hydrate to treat his insomnia, and in aged 73, died of an accidental overdose. By the late 19th century, a man lucky enough to get sorts of scientific gigs Tyndall did could make a good living, and though he didn’t die super-rich, he was a lot wealthier than his policeman-father. His wife was much younger than him, and didn't die till 1940. He didn’t have children, but there are some glaciers named after him in Chile and Colorado, and Mount Tyndalls in both Tasmania and California. A huge UK centre for climate change research is named after him too.