Goldsworthy Gurney–Gentleman Scientist

Goldsworthy_Gurney_-_PD-OLDSir Goldsworthy Gurney is a prime example of that most Victorian of species: the gentleman scientist.  A man of independent means who did not actually need to work to earn his living, and who possessed a scientific mind could make a fair contribution to inventing the 19th century. Such a man was Gurney.

He invented the limelight–a lamp which glowed when heated with an oxygen/hydrogen flame and used to enduring fame in lighting actors on stage.

In the 1820s he invented a steam carriage and proved that it could travel long distances even over the rough roads of the day.

In 1856, he patented an improved heater, called the Gurney Stove, some of which are still in use to this day!

Here’s a link to an article on the BBC website about this interesting and not-very-well-known man.


John Tyndall—The Man who Discovered the Answer to “Why is the Sky Blue?”

John_Tyndall_1I am often amazed by Victorian scientists and engineers who seem to have had infinite curiosity, wide-ranging interests, and, somehow, the time to make pioneering contributions in a number of disparate fields. Francis Galton, Michael Faraday, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel are all examples of these larger-than-life characters. So is John Tyndall.

“Who?” you say. If you ever took an introductory chemistry class, you might remember the “Tyndall Effect” describing how light is scattered in a colloid or another solution containing small particles. It may seem like a pretty narrow and arcane scientific achievement, but as I will describe, light scattering is pretty important, and besides, it was only one of many achievements from this most Victorian of scientists.

John Tyndall was born in Ireland of an English family in 1820. He attended the local schools, learning amongst other things, drafting. This knowledge came into good stead when he was hired by the Irish Ordnance Survey. As the British railways were being built in the 1840s, there was a great demand for surveyors, prompting Tyndall to work for several years in Britain in railway construction planning.

After railway work slackened and intellectual pursuits called him, he left Britain for Germany to further his education in science. At the time, British universities focused on classics and mathematics, and not practical science, whereas Germany schools were known to be more advanced in the practical sciences.

Tyndall landed at the University of Marburg, where he studied under, amongst other people, Robert Bunsen, of Bunsen Burner fame. During his time in Germany, he became adept at experimental and laboratory procedures in a number of different scientific disciplines. Continue reading

The Poetry of Scientists

An interesting insight into a seldom-seen facet of Victorian Scientists. Who knew John Tyndall was a poet?

Gregory Tate

On shelf after shelf of carefully catalogued notebooks and sheets of paper, the archives of the Royal Institution in London store the voluminous manuscript writings of nineteenth-century scientific pioneers such as Humphry Davy and John Tyndall. Among these manuscripts are a surprising number of poems, painstakingly drafted, revised, copied out, and reworked. I’ve been working in the Royal Institution’s archives recently, researching both for my second academic monograph and for a documentary, ‘The Poetry of Science’, which will be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature on Sunday 2 November. I’ve been trying to figure out why nineteenth-century scientists (Davy, Tyndall, William Whewell, John Herschel, James Clerk Maxwell) were so interested in writing poetry. The copious crossings-out and emendations in the Royal Institution manuscripts indicate that Davy and Tyndall took care and time over their poems, editing and polishing them; poetry wasn’t simply a recreation. But why…

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The Art of Travel

A couple of years ago in a panel I did on Victorian Scientists at Clockwork Alchemy, the San Jose Steampunk con, I talked about Francis Galton. “Who?” you may ask. Francis Galton may be the most talented Victorian Scientist that no one has ever heard about today. The breadth of his work is jaw-droppingly astounding. Born in 1822 into the celebrated Wedgwood-Darwin clan (and half-cousin to Charles Darwin), he had all the advantages of a Victorian gentleman, including a wealthy father who died young leaving him with the means to be a gentleman-scientist for the rest of his life.

Young Francis was a child prodigy, reading by age two and knowing Greek and Latin by his fifth birthday. He was impatient with formal schooling, however, and bounced around aimlessly from school to school. He eventually earned an undistinguished degree from Cambridge, but only after suffering a nervous breakdown. Upon the death of his father, he left his studies and turned to travel, science, and invention.

Francis Galton in the 1850s

Francis Galton in the 1850s

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The Colors of the Past

One of the more interesting ways to while away the hours is by looking at old photographs, especially those from the birth of photography in the mid-1800s. An amazing amount of detail  can be gleaned from a photograph printed from a large glass plate.

But are we really seeing what we think we’re seeing? First off, the images are necessarily monochromatic—black and white. Any color that is seen in black-and-white photographs is a result of hand-tinting the photograph, typically to put some color in the subject’s cheeks. Color photography, although experimented with even early on in photography’s history, was extremely cumbersome, and required laboratory-grade equipment to pull off. Even the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell thought about color reproduction and what is considered to be the first color photograph was made using a technique he first described.

So we’re left with black-and-white photography for the Victorian Era. But are we really seeing a proper monochromatic reproduction of reality? In most cases, the answer is no. Continue reading

CSI: Victorian London

Take one part Dr. Gregory House, add a bit of Sherlock Holmes and a pinch of modern forensic science, and you have Dr. John Snow, a man who solved one of the largest mass killings in Victorian London.

The culprit: cholera. Ever since it first appeared in Britain in 1831, cholera periodically ravaged the cities, leaving thousands dead in its wake. In 1848-9, over 14,000 Londoners died; in 1853-4, another 10,000 succumbed. That the disease was somehow related to the deplorable conditions of British cities at the time was clear, but the means of transmission was believed by all authoritative men of medicine to be via “miasma”. Miasma was thought to be a sort of poisonous vapor or mist originating from decomposing matter, called miasmata. (Similarly, the word “malaria” comes from the Italian meaning “bad air”.) To prevent outbreaks, it was thought to be a simple matter of removing the miasmata. That many of London’s cholera outbreaks occurred along the banks of the Thames, the stinking fetid pool that was the depository of much of the capital’s sewage, only served as proof of the theory’s validity. Continue reading