The Tyndall Papers

If you haven’t noticed, winter has arrived in Bozeman. It is a season for skiing, snowshoeing and snowboarding in the northern Rockies. While it is undeniably chilly, temperatures are on the rise globally. The greenhouse effect has implications for people around the world, due to its relationship with weather and climate. To study this atmospheric phenomenon, scientists go where they always have — to the mountains.

This is exactly where John Tyndall (1820-1893) went to discover more about the earth’s atmosphere and how pollution and carbon emissions affect it. As an experimental physicist and a mountaineer, he pioneered high altitude exploration in the Alps while doing extensive lab work at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. This unique duality makes Tyndall an interesting character and one of the most important scientists of his era although today little is known about him.

Tyndall’s current obscurity was cause for Montana State’s Dr. Michael Reidy to partner with York University in Toronto to bring Tyndall’s work to the world by leading a collaboration between a dozen universities from five countries all working to synthesize and publish the unknown writings of the Victorian scientist and mountaineer.


Who was John Tyndall?

Tyndall was a popular figure in his day. The papers he published were translated into French and German, his demonstrations in London packed the theatre every time, and his brief lecture tour in America was hugely successful. Various political cartoons both mocked and praised Tyndall’s personality and work. He was a household name in Victorian society, and his scientific theories were debated and tested around the world.

Tyndall was 55-years-old when he married Louisa Hamilton, who was 30-years-old. They built a summer chalet in the Swiss Alps where they spent much time together hiking and living a happy marriage, until one fateful evening. Tyndall was prescribed a chloral hydrate for his failing health and his wife Louisa made an error in her measurements and accidentally overmedicated him, causing him to fatally overdose.

Although devastated by the terrible incident, she resolved to publish his correspondence and work. She began typing and transcribing various letters, papers and experiments that her late husband had written. But by the time Louisa passed at the age of 95, none of her husband’s letters or personal correspondence had been published. At the same time people were posthumously publishing work by Darwin and Huxley, Tyndall’s unknown writings were collecting dust or being scattered. The tradition of a life and letters — a collection of a scientist’s

correspondence outside papers meant for official publication — was never a reality for Tyndall.


The lost letters

The absence of a publication of Tyndall’s correspondence lead Canadian Historian Bernard Lightman, professor at York University and fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, to search for Tyndall’s lost letters, but he needed help.

“Tyndall was one of the scientific naturalists, and scientific naturalism has had a huge impact on modern science,” Lightman said, “Not only were the scientific naturalists among the first cadre of Western scientists to successfully obtain cultural authority, they also had an international impact through their publications.”

Dr. Michael Reidy, from Montana State’s history department, came in to lend a hand. At the time, Reidy was studying the history of alpine exploration, specifically the golden age of mountaineering, a time where scientists and explorers of Victorian society were first climbing the upper parts of Earth, especially the Alps. Tyndall was part of this movement as he was the first person to reach the summit of the Weisshorn and one of the first to reach the top of the Matterhorn. Reidy was very interested in the life of John Tyndall and ended up at a conference of Tyndall and his legacy.

“[Lightman] came up to me and asked to join him in finding Tyndall’s letters,” Reidy reminisced, “and I decided to join him. But all too soon, we realized it was going to be harder than we thought.”

Lightman wanted to compile Tyndall’s letters and release them in a series of volumes, nearly 120 years after his death. Unluckily for Lightman, York University is in Canada, and Canadians cannot apply for American Grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Working with Lightman and others, Reidy submitted a grant application in September 2009.


A fresh approach to research

The NSF awarded $580,000 to Montana State University to work with York and institutions in a huge international collaboration to publish Tyndall’s correspondence. There are over 12 Universities, from Bozeman to Cambridge to Auckland, all working on transcribing the letters in order to publish them. In addition to the historians and professors heading up the project, over 120 graduate students have been or are currently working on the transcriptions.

“We have everyone from undergraduates to people working on their post-doctoral research involved in this collaboration,” Reidy said.

Dan Zizzamia, a graduate student at MSU, plays an integral role in how researchers communicate effectively from different points on the globe. Zizzamia works to find new ways of managing data. Since most of the original documents are housed in an archive, the bulk of the transcription occurs by looking at photos of the documents and typing word for word the contents of each letter.

Zizzamia also says that the Tyndall collaboration has linked big names in the fields of science and history together and with students getting their masters degrees. Most of the work these students do is on the “zero level” with a basic word-for-word transcription. The document is then transcribed again by a more experienced historian on “level one,” and the process is repeated all the way up to “level three.”

Each letter will be annotated so a modern reader can understand the meaning behind certain words and phrases. Information is also synthesized and presented on the context of the document. Many of the letters are addressed to Tyndall from other scientists but will also include Tyndall’s responses.

The majority of the texts are in English, but a significant percentage are in German, French and even a few in Spanish. To make matters worse, some of the original documents are actually transcriptions that Louisa Tyndall typed when she started working on the publication of her husband’s life and letters.

“Louisa left out things that would be damaging to Tyndall’s public image and legacy,” Reidy described.“Fortunately we have located many of the primary letters that Louisa was looking off of, so we can check to make sure everything is factual.”

Tyndall’s legacy

Louisa had legitimate concerns of Tyndall’s image. He was a controversial figure — with an agnostic and atheist leaning, he was adamant about his opinions and scientific theories. In Tyndall’s day, the people who wanted to go mountaineering were required by law to go with a guide. Tyndall decided to go his own way, and reached the summit of Monte Rossa without aid. He also preferred to scale exposed edifices of cliffs and is recognized as one of the first alpine explorers to rock climb.

Reidy travelled to the alps to follow in the footsteps of Tyndall and the various hikes and climbs he helped pioneer. On Aug. 19, 2011, Reidy and his climbing partner reached the top of the Weisshorn, exactly 150 years after Tyndall’s epic climb.

In England, where Tyndall’s work was mainly popularized, the Centres for Climate Change Research are named after John Tyndall because he was one of the first to study how certain gases absorbed heat from the sun. By taking measurements at different altitudes, Tyndall was able to theorize that carbon dioxide was a large absorber of the sun’s rays. This is why some consider him to be the father of the greenhouse effect.

Reidy and Lightman plan on releasing eight volumes of Tyndall’s life in letters, with the first to come out in February 2015. Significant celebrations are planned in Dublin and London for the release, with subsequent festivities in the works for Bozeman.

For more information on the Tyndall Correspondence Project go to


  • Michael D. Barton

    Great project! I was fortunate to spend three semesters working on it, transcribing letters, and reearching Tyndall for my own master’s paper.