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

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Horrible Histories–Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin is one of Steampunk’s favorite scientists and rightly so for his revolutionary ideas concerning evolution, not to mention his prodigious beard.  While his adventures on the HMS Beagle make for great reading, On the Origin of Species can be deadly dull reading.

Fortunately, along came the award-winning BBC “children’s” TV show Horrible Histories.  I’ve put the quotation marks there because it’s just as entertaining for adults, at least this adult. You can find lots of excerpts and some entire episodes on YouTube (although it looks like you have to pay for the full episodes). 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