Victorian Web: John Tyndall (1820-1893)

From Victorian Web:

John Tyndall (1820-1893)

John van Wyhe, Senior Fellow, National University of Singapore; Researcher, History & philosophy of science, Cambridge.

John Tyndall was born in Ireland as the son of a local constable. Tyndall attended a common primary school and joined the Irish Ordance Survey in 1839. Later he did surveying work in England and worked later worked on railway construction in the boom of the 1840s. In 1847 he began to teach mathematics at Queenwood College Hampshire. In 1848 Tyndall went to study in Germany where he was one of the first British subjects to receive the new PhD at Marburg. His years in Germany while still a young man turned Tyndall into something of a naturphilosophisch romantic pantheist. Tyndall’s major scientific work was in atmospheric gases. He also made many useful inventions. In the 1850s he succeeded Faraday in giving popular science lectures at the Royal Institution in London where Tyndall became a lecturer in physics. Tyndall became one of the leading figures in Victorian science; he was a member of the famous X Club along with other notables like T.H. Huxley and Herbert Spencer.

In 1874 Tyndall gave his famous Belfast Address before the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. It was one of the most prestigious places from which to pronounce on what men of science should be doing. Tyndall famously used his address to argue for the superior authority of science over religious or non-rationalist explanations. By the time of this address the Association had largely been taken over by the young guard, men like T.H. Huxley and Tyndall. Nevertheless, Tyndall’s bold statement for rationalism and natural law was made in Belfast, a stronghold of religious belief then as now and so it was taken as an aggressive attack on religion. The address was popularly believed to advocate materialism as the true philosophy of science. It remains a powerful call for rationalism, consistency, and scepticism.

Further reading

  • Tyndall. The Belfast Address.
  • Tyndall. Faraday as a Discoverer (html with formatting) & Gutenberg text; Making of America
  • Tyndall. Fragments of science for unscientific people: a series of detached essays, lectures, and reviews. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Heat considered as a mode of motion: being a course of twelve lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain in the season of 1862. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Hours of exercise in the Alps. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Light and electricity: notes of two courses of lectures before the Royal institution of Great Britain. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Scientific addresses. Making of America
  • Tyndall. Sound. A course of eight lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain Making of America
  • Burchfield, J. A. ‘John Tyndall – a biographical sketch’ In John Tyndall, Essays on a Natural Philosopher Royal Dublin Society. 1981.
  • Frank Turner and B. Lightman et al. Victorian Faith in Crisis: Essays on Continuity and Change in Nineteenth-Century Religious Belief. London, 1990.
  • Lightman, Bernard. The origins of Agnosticism: Victorian unbelief and the limits of knowledge. 1987.
  • The Athenæum: John Tyndall
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Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 9:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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