“We live in the Sky, not under it.”
John Tyndall, “Climbing in Search of the Sky,” Fortnightly Review, No. 37 (1 Jan 1870), 13.
A large group of scholars from around the world are collecting and publishing the correspondence of John Tyndall.
The first two volumes are already published. The third is at the printers. The fourth is in the hands of the general editors. The fifth and sixth and seventh are underway. A total of nineteen will someday exist.
John Tyndall was killed by his wife Louisa in 1893 when she accidentally gave him an overdose of a powerful narcotic he took for insomnia. Devastated by her mistake, she demanded control of all of his journals, correspondence, and unfinished writings so she could celebrate his life in a monumental Life and Letters. When she died in 1940 at the age of ninety-five, she had published nothing to resurrect the life and work of her long-dead husband. This explains, in part, why his cultural and scientific significance has been so largely overlooked. When other prominent Victorian scientists passed away, their multi-volume Life and Letters soon followed: for example, Charles Darwin’s in 1887, Thomas Huxley’s in 1902, and Herbert Spencer’s in 1908. Victorians used these publications both to make sense of death and to foster a new, textual life. It is also to these collections that scholars first turn. Tyndall’s first biography did not appear until 1945, and though it included selections from his personal correspondence, the letters had been heavily expunged of all things unpalatable (and his controversial life and unorthodox views ensured that there were plenty of things that were unpalatable). By then, the lack of access to Tyndall’s correspondence had already obscured his place in broader Victorian culture.
The aim of the John Tyndall Correspondence Project is to resurrect the life, work, and ultimate significance of the Irish physicist John Tyndall by publishing in a series of nineteen scholarly volumes all of the 8,000 extant letters to and from Tyndall.
Tyndall lived several interconnected lives. His first life was that of a rising scientific personality, one of the most influential scientists of the Victorian era. Born in Leighlin Bridge, County Carlow, Ireland the son of a struggling shoemaker and leather dealer, his climb up the social ladder reached spectacular heights when, in 1867, he succeeded Michael Faraday as Superintendent of the Royal Institution (RI). He published significant works in electro-magnetism, thermodynamics, sound, glaciology, climate science, and spontaneous generation. He was the first to verify experimentally the role of specific gases, including carbon dioxide, in producing the earth’s natural greenhouse effect.
Tyndall’s life as an experimental physicist overlapped with his second great life’s work as one of the most outspoken advocates and controversial defenders of science in the nineteenth century. His public lectures at the RI, a mixture of practiced showmanship and extravagant demonstrations, introduced fashionable audiences in London to the revolutionary discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology. Tyndall’s prominent position as a public lecturer contrasted sharply with his work behind the lecture curtain, where he deftly defended science from its religious critics. In this, he was more combative than eloquent. Along with biologist T. H. Huxley and philosopher Herbert Spencer, Tyndall argued that naturalistic rather than theistic explanations could (and should) account for the workings of nature. He became a leading figure in the debates over evolution, representing the powerful group of intellectuals who defended Darwin and the naturalistic worldview. This influential group of scientists formed the X-Club in 1864 to direct the course of British science and to lobby for its support in the halls of government.
Tyndall is often remembered for two debates in particular. In July 1872, he called for an experimental verification of prayer, embroiling himself in the “Prayer-Gauge Debate.” American Methodists, in particular, were outraged; they set up prayer meetings in all the major cities on the East coast to pray for Tyndall’s soul (Mullin 2003). The second, more acrimonious debate followed his presidential address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Belfast two years later. Tyndall praised Darwin’s accomplishments and demanded that “all religious theories, schemes and systems, which embrace notions of cosmogony, or which otherwise reach into the domain of science, must, in so far as they do this, submit to the control of science, and relinquish all thought of controlling it” (Tyndall 1874, 61). The speech scandalized Christian clergymen and intellectuals, who responded with numerous pamphlets, newspaper editorials, and journal articles.
Tyndall’s third life was confined to the lofty altitudes of the Swiss Alps. He was one of the figures largely responsible for the growth of mountaineering as a sport. He spent almost every summer from 1854 until his death in 1893 turning the Alps into what Leslie Stephen famously called “the playground of Europe” (Stephen 1871). His crowning achievement in mountaineering was the first successful ascent of the majestic Weisshorn in 1861, a solitary snow-covered peak in the Pennine Alps. He returned to England an alpine hero, one of the reasons that his name lives on in mountain ranges, peaks, and glaciers throughout the world, from Europe and North America to Africa and New Zealand.
Owing to Tyndall’s central position as a scientist, a lecturer, a defender of naturalism, and a mountaineer, he amassed an enormous international network of correspondents, covering almost every field imaginable, from science to politics to art. A list of his correspondents in Britain and abroad reads like a “who’s who” of nineteenth-century cultural and scientific life. Among them were scientists, such as Michael Faraday, Charles Darwin, Asa Gray, Hermann Helmholtz, T. H. Huxley, and Charles Lyell, and important literary figures, such as Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson.