Preston and the co-founder of climate science

The Victorian scientist John Tyndall was one of the pioneers of climate science. He was the second person to demonstrate the greenhouse effect (the first was an American woman, Eunice Foote, but, unsurprisingly, her work received much less attention at the time). He had a long and distinguished career as one of Britain’s leading scientists.

The Tyndall plaque in Corporation Street, Preston. It rather underplays his contribution to science. Image: Bolcko

As the author of a recent article entitled John Tyndall: the forgotten co-founder of climate science notes, the neglect until fairly recently of such an interesting character as Tyndall is remarkable given ‘… the existence of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, the Tyndall National Institute and the Pic Tyndall summit on the Matterhorn in the Alps. There are even several Mount Tyndalls, Tyndall glaciers and Tyndall craters on the Moon and Mars’. Tyndall was one of that group of British mountaineers who ticked off first ascents of many of famous peaks in the Alps. He completed the first solo ascent of Monte Rosa, at 4,634 metres the second highest mountain in the Alps after Mont Blanc, carrying only a ham sandwich and a flask of tea.

Today there is a burgeoning interest in Tyndall, not only as a scientist but also as poet and mountaineer. His collected correspondence, which contains about 8000 letters in total, is being transcribed for The John Tyndall Correspondence Project, which was initiated by Prof Bernard Lightman at York University and now involves scholars from five countries who are working on a 19-volume edition, The Correspondence of John Tyndall (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016–). His poetry has been collected and was published in 2020 as The Poetry of John Tyndall.

Early stimulus for his scientific studies was provided by his attendance at lectures at the Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge in Cannon Street, Preston, while he was living in the town. His stay in Preston in the early 1840s (during which he was witness to the Lune Street Riot and the shooting dead of four strikers) and subsequent visits to friends in the town supplied inspiration for his poetry, resulting in a number produced after an idyllic stay in Goosnargh, where he was ‘beguiled’ by the innkeeper’s daughter and enjoyed a local delicacy named ‘snap and rattle’. Inspiration for another of his poem’s was hearing High Mass at St Wilfrid’s Church, in which he describes being moved emotionally by the ceremony, while rejecting it intellectually. These poems were first published in the Preston Chronicle, along with several contributions on a variety of subjects.

His time in Preston is commemorated by the blue plaque in Corporation Street and the John Tyndall Institute for Nuclear Research at UCLan. The plaque incorporates a UCLan logo and Tyndall has clearly been recruited as part of the university’s creation story, which traces its foundation back to the institution in Avenham. Surprisingly, a search of the UCLan website yields not a single mention of John Tyndall.

For more: The full account of Tyndall’s Preston connections

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