Volume 1 of The Correspondence of John Tyndall published

From 2008 to 2010 I transcribed scores of letters by and to John Tyndall, knowing that they were slated for publication eventually. January 2015 saw the publication of the first volume of The Correspondence of John Tyndall, and the second volume will be published soon. And two more in 2016, and two more the next year, and so on. Eighteen volumes in all.


I am happy to share that I will return to working on the project, as a third co-editor for volume six (which will be published in 2017), with Darwin biographer Janet Browne and physicist Norman McMillan. The volume will cover the letters from 1856-1858. I will spend my time as co-editor largely look over the transcribed letters for accuracy with a fine-tooth comb. I’ll enjoy getting back into doing some history since I finished my masters degree in 2010, and am honored to have been asked to participate again.

You can check out the Amazon pages for the first two volumes. Too spendy for a personal library perhaps, but it would be great to request that your university library purchase the volumes, especially if there is a history of science department or emphasis. –> Volume 1 & Volume 2

Published in: on July 1, 2015 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Tyndall in the news

Portrait of John Tyndall FRS by John McClure Hamilton

Royal Society collection

Michael Reidy looks at Tyndall’s time in the Alps in “The Weisshorn, 1861-2011” for the Newsletter of the History of Science Society (July 2011)

Trinity College Dublin: TCD Geneticist Unearths Correspondence between Irish Physicist and Famous British Botanist (August 2011; that botanist is Joseph Dalton Hooker)

ThinkOrSwim.ie: John Tyndall – Ireland’s Greatest Climate Scientist (August 2011)

EPA Climate Change Lecture Series (September 27, 2011) – ‘Tyndall : His Work and Scientific Heritage’

History of Science Centre’s blog (Royal Society): The Xcentric Mr Tyndall? (September 2011)

Science Spinning: A (GREENHOUSE) GAS MAN: John Tyndall (September 2011)

Published in: on September 6, 2011 at 6:42 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: , , , ,

John Tyndall Symposium, Thursday 24th June 2010, University of Leeds

John Tyndall

John Tyndall was a famous physicist, lecturer and prominent public figure in nineteenth-century Britain. This symposium aims to bring together researchers interested in the life, letters and works of John Tyndall, and to discuss the current international project to transcribe his letters of correspondence.

The symposium will be held in the Leeds Humanities Research Institute, on Clarendon Place within the University of Leeds. This is site 25 on the university’s campus map. The ‘Freecitybus‘, which passes through the train and bus stations, stops at Clarendon way, a 5-minute walk away from the Institute.

There will be a registration fee of £5 to help cover costs, which can be paid on the day. If you would like to attend the event please contact Mike Finn by Friday 18th June. Download a poster for the event here.

Time Programme


Arrivals and registration

Introduction by Graeme Gooday (University of Leeds)

Session 1




Chaired by Efram Sera-Shriar (University of Leeds)

Michael Reidy (Montana State University)
“Bringing Science to the Humanities: The John Tyndall Correspondence Project”

James Elwick (York University, Toronto)
“Transcribing Tyndall, or, how to make Collaborative Academic Networks more than just a Buzzphrase”

Tea & Coffee

Session 2





Chaired by Jon Topham (University of Leeds)

Graeme GoodayJamie Stark (University of Leeds)
“John Tyndall: Lecturing, Authority and Correspondence in Victorian Public Science”

Mike Finn (University of Leeds)
“Following Your Example at a Distance: The Carlylean Balancing of John Tyndall & James Crichton-Browne”

Michael Reidy (Montana State University)
“John Tyndall’s Vertical Physics”


Session 3





Chaired by Geoffrey Cantor (Emeritus, University of Leeds / UCL)

Frank James (Royal Institution of Great Britain)
“Father, Son, Brother, Colleagues?: Michael Faraday and John Tyndall”


Bernard Lightman (York University, Toronto)
“Tyndall and Patronage”

Wine Reception

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 6:09 pm  Comments (6)  

Tyndall Project on Twitter

Follow @JohnTyndallCP

Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 10:25 am  Leave a Comment  

BSHS: Three graduate students at the MA level

From BSHS:

The Department of History, Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario is seeking three graduate students at the MA level.

One successful candidate will work with Prof. Elizabeth Neswald in the project “Engineering the Body. Thermodynamics, Social Technologies and the Practice of Nutrition”, funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research, and will develop a major paper research project on a topic in the history of nutrition or food history in North America or Europe in the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.

These Research assistantships would be for $3000 and $5000.  This funding would be on top of the department’s basic funding package.  Last year’s minimum entrance support was just over $13,000.  Additional monies can be provided in the form of Entrance Scholarships (as much as $2000).  Thus very high calibre applicants could obtain support of between $18,000 and $20,000.

Two graduate students will work with Prof. Elizabeth Neswald in the international “John Tyndall Correspondence Project”, funded by the National Science Foundation. Research interest or experience in 19c. history would be advantageous but is not required.

For further information, contact


Dr Daniel Samson:


Brock University

Dept of History

Graduate Programme Director

Published in: on December 25, 2009 at 5:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

From York’s Daily Bulletin (November 26, 2009):

York prof looks at the correspondence of scientist John Tyndall

What do the colour of the sky, the greenhouse effect and mountaineering have in common? The answer: John Tyndall (1820-1893), a leading figure in the 19th-century debates over evolution and a celebrated Victorian physicist. His research was expansive: he was the first person to explain why the sky is blue and the first to prove the greenhouse effect in the earth’s atmosphere. He was also a pioneering mountain climber. York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman and his international team of collaborators are hoping to shed light on his thinking.

Tyndall was a huge figure in scientific circles during the 19th century, but we don’t know a great deal about him. He is best remembered today for his controversial Belfast Address in 1874 to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in which he advocated the supremacy of scientific thought over religious belief. After that, it is as if he dropped off of the historical record. This is due in part to the fact that his correspondence was not readily available to be studied. Lightman and company are remedying this by combining international collaboration and modern technology to resurrect Tyndall’s correspondence.

Lightman, based in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, and his Montana State University co-applicant, Professor Michael Reidy, recently won US$580,000 in funding – to be disbursed over three years – from the United States National Science Foundation (similar to the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada). The pair are completing a research project titled “John Tyndall and Nineteenth-Century Science”, which involves locating, collecting, digitizing, transcribing, editing, annotating and eventually publishing John Tyndall’s correspondence, comprising more than 8,000 letters that are scattered throughout the world.

Lightman modelled this endeavour on the Darwin Correspondence Project, a similar but much larger UK-based undertaking involving the letters of Tyndall’s friend and contemporary, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin.

In preparing their grant application, Lightman and Reidy considered trying something unusual for humanities research, thinking it might
improve their chances of receiving the award. They proposed bringing the collaborative and organizational techniques of scientific research to humanities research – where researchers traditionally work alone, not in teams – and to see how education could benefit from new tools and practices. They also recognized it as an effective use of limited resources.

The Tyndall Correspondence Project, says Lightman, wouldn’t be possible without modern technology. “I wouldn’t have even conceived of doing this 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. The logistics would have been too overwhelming, says Lightman, and unlike the resources available to the Darwin Project’s researchers, the budget for Lightman’s project is comparatively small. So Lightman and his team – at universities in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US – have leveraged the processing power of computers and the Internet to make the information-pooling of their decentralized operations more efficient.

The Royal Institution of Great Britain transferred most of the letters, about 6,000 of them, to microfilm. The remainder of the letters came from about 30 other archival locations. Lightman had them all digitized to TIFF format, allowing for electronic display and distribution. (The incongruity of sending 19th-century letters by e-mail doesn’t escape him.)

Transcriptions undergo a filtering process. Junior members of the team transcribe the letters, including annotations and palimpsests, and send the transcriptions to the more senior members – who are more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Tyndall’s written words – for proofing. Senior members refine the transcription, eliminating errors and increasing accuracy.

A not-uncommon challenge that might be unfamiliar to contemporary writers is ink jar spills. Correspondents, not wishing to waste paper, frequently simply turned the page over and continued to write on the back. The team encountered many such problems, which took many forms.

Two of Lightman’s assistants are Bethune College academic adviser James Elwick, who is serving as the project coordinator, and York PhD candidate in history, Steve Bunn, who is working as the logistics coordinator. The pair have developed a number of techniques to facilitate transcription, a process based in trial and error. They started out thinking that optical character recognition technology – software that translates text on printed, typewritten or handwritten documents into electronically editable text – would be the perfect tool for them. However, they soon discovered it was only about 80 per cent accurate, creating more work as human transcribers were needed to verify the computer’s interpretation, and the technique was quickly abandoned. “You can’t divine the intention behind it, which is really the secret behind a lot of transcription,” says Elwick.

Nevertheless, Elwick and Bunn continued to explore different techniques to optimize the transcription process. For instance, they discovered the benefits of computer-voice playback. After researchers have transcribed a letter to a Microsoft Word document, they get a computer voice to read it back aloud as they review the original text of the letter. This allows them to proof the transcription without having to resort to moving their eyes back and forth between the original and the copy. To increase legibility, they often magnify and stretch the digitized images. To remove visual background clutter, they illuminate, darken or increase the contrast as required.

To enable international collaboration, the team started out trying to e-mail files to one another. However, the files were huge and file-size limits on e-mail constrained them. They tried Web-based e-mail systems like Google but, at 25 megabytes, they too were limiting. They tried using FTP sites, but they found them to be user-unfriendly. They then tried a service similar to York’s Dropbox, but it removed message attachments if not retrieved within seven days. They finally settled on a Web-based service that allows them to store information online and affords access to the information by various subscribers.

Complementing this, the pair discovered an inexpensive file management program that allows them to preview the contents of files before opening them, an hour-saving boon when exploring numerous files. It also tracks the accessing of files – who, when, what changes were made etc. – and allows researchers to leave messages for one another. It’s a virtual laboratory occupied by international collaborators.

Elwick is always on the lookout for extra tools and has discovered that new accessories often beget new capabilities. Recent additions to their collection include a Webcam, which he subsequently realized would come in very handy when training new and remote transcribers. They plan to use it for video-conferencing too. They also discovered some Web-based polling software that eases the task of scheduling meetings by removing the need for endless e-mailing back and forth.

Not all of the group’s activities occur remotely. In the summer of 2010, some members of the team will meet at a conference in Leeds, UK, followed by a conference on evolutionary naturalism at York in the spring of 2011. Lightman plans to have all the transcribing done in about three and a half more years. “The hope is that, by then, we’ll have people lined up to edit each volume of the correspondence,” says Lightman. A year later, he hopes to have the correspondence available to researchers both in hard-copy format and in a text-searchable version on the Web.

“We hope, in the end, to galvanize a community of scholars around themes raised through an intense study of John Tyndall,” said Lightman. “These themes include the relationship between science and religion, the popularization and professionalization of science, and advances in physics, glaciology, climatology and spontaneous generation, each of which individually and collectively played fundamental roles in the development of modern science.” In the end, his goal is to make the 19th-century figure of John Tyndall better known.

For more information on the Tyndall Correspondence Project, visit it online. For more on Lightman’s work as it relates to John Tyndall, see YFile, July 31, 2008.

Submitted by David Wallace, communications coordinator, Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies

Published in: on December 4, 2009 at 10:07 pm  Comments (1)  
Tags: ,

What is this word?!?!

See here.

Published in: on September 27, 2008 at 8:40 pm  Comments (2)  

Starting the Transcriptions

This past Friday and Saturday, I spent my time on campus getting started with transcribing letters. Tyndall’s writing is horrid (but what Victorian’s wasn’t?). There is a noticeable difference, however, between the writing in the letters written in the mountains (Alps) and those written in a city (Paris, London, etc.). Either he has better handwriting while penning his thoughts in a more suitable environment (in a city) than he does atop a mountain summit, or, as my advisor suggested, Tyndall had a transcriber for some of his letters. The first day I had much trouble making out certain words (I took WAY too long to decipher “Switzerland,” see image), but even by the second day I began recognizing certain ways that Tyndall wrote words or particular letters. Common in Victorian handwriting is the double S, and I have seen this throughout so far. Like the other graduate student who is working on this project at MSU, I started a “guide” to Tyndall particulars – how he writes his uppercase Ts, remember that he often connects multiple words, etc. (some “Tyndallisms” were given in the transcription directions). I will meet with Robin (said other student) this coming week to compare our blanks. After I am done with letters, I give them to my advisor for another check before being sent back to the powers that be.

"I reached Switzerland without accident"

While searching online for Tyndall information, I came across an archive for a radio program called Engines of our Ingenuity, which “tells the story of how our culture is formed by human creativity.” The program has featured John Tyndall several times: No. 192: Tyndall and Sound, No. 531: Tyndall and unruly Nature, No. 624: Tyndall, Science, and Religion, No. 642: Tyndall and Germs, No. 857: Tyndall on Parallel Roads, and No. 1067: Science, Religion, and John Tyndall, No. 1959: Tyndall, Mayer & Forebearance (each program is but a few minutes in length).

Published in: on September 21, 2008 at 5:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: ,

[Tyndall Blogged] Tyndall Speaks

Three times back in June 2008 Adrian Thysse shared quotes from John Tyndall on his blogs:

Natural Reckonings: Tyndall Speaks: On Religion and Science

Natural Reckonings: Sunday Sermon: Tyndall on Teleology


Mystery of Mysteries: Tyndall Speaks of Darwin and Agassiz

Tomorrow I start working on the John Tyndall Correspondence Project, as well as my first class as a graduate student. For the first couple of weeks all I will be doing is reading up on Tyndall to gain some background on his life and work, then I will begin working with my advisor on learning how to transcribe letters.

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , ,

Professor awarded prestigious US grant to study British scientist

From York’s Daily Bulletin (7/31/2008):

York humanities Professor Bernard Lightman, a prolific editor and writer in the field of Victorian science, likes to challenge himself with increasingly complex research projects. And he’s being rewarded for it.

Lightman recently received a prestigious $306,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for his latest research venture, the John Tyndall correspondence project. The objective is to publish the collected correspondence of prominent British physicist John Tyndall (1820-1893).

A leading figure in the debates over evolution, Tyndall was a member of the powerful group of scientific naturalists that included Thomas Huxley. Tyndall was also among the first to recognize the earth’s natural greenhouse effect and the role played by various gases in this process (hence Britain’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research).

Despite his significant role in the history of science, published versions of Tyndall’s correspondence are scarce. This is partly due to the bizarre circumstances surrounding his death. Tyndall was poisoned by his wife when she accidentally administered an overdose of medication that he had been taking for insomnia. She was so wracked with guilt that she decided to write the definitive life and letters of Tyndall and carefully guarded access to the large cache of letters in her possession. She died before completing the project. However, she did manage to collect the majority of Tyndall’s letters, now housed at the Royal Institution based in London, England. Approximately 2,000 more letters are located at the British Library and other archival locations around the world.

“These letters open a window onto many important aspects of 19th-century British science, culture and society, and provide important insights into the man himself,” says Lightman.

The York professor first became interested in Tyndall as a graduate student pursuing his thesis on agnosticism at Brandeis University. The term “agnosticism” was coined by Huxley in 1869 to distinguish his position from both atheism and theism. Tyndall shared many of Huxley’s views on this issue and was among the earliest agnostics.

Lightman now has copies of most of the 8,000 letters scattered around the world, so the first phase of the project – locating, collecting and digitizing all the letters – is nearly complete. The second phase of the project involves transcribing all of the letters. To date, about 1,000 of the letters have been transcribed. The plan is to transcribe the rest over the next five years.

This project arises out of Lightman’s earlier decision to undertake a biography of Tyndall. In the spring of 2006, Lightman received a three-year grant from the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) for the biography, after which he hired a team of graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow, James Elwick, to aid him with the research. When his team began collecting and transcribing the letters for the biography it soon became evident that the Tyndall correspondence embodied a project in and of itself. However, Lightman also recognized that he would need to acquire further funding to make the second project viable. That’s when he approached the Mellon Foundation.

The third phase of the project will involve editing the correspondence, a process over which Lightman will act as editor. This phase will begin once all of the transcriptions have been completed in about five years. Teams of scholars will edit and annotate about eight volumes of letters. They will be published in hard copy and put on the Internet. “Dealing with so many letters will be a big logistical challenge,” says Lightman, “but I hope this project sparks an interest in both Tyndall and the importance of his time period.”

Lightman is still working on Tyndall’s biography and hopes to have both that and the correspondence project complete within the next six to eight years.

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is a not-for-profit US-based foundation that has been involved in funding other Canadian research projects, such as the Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproduction, the Dictionary of Old English, the Records of Early English Drama (University of Toronto) and the Benjamin Disraeli Letters (Queen’s University).

Published in: on July 31, 2008 at 9:14 pm  Leave a Comment