• Roland Jackson

John Tyndall and Robert Bunsen


John Tyndall is known as a physicist rather than a chemist, but he had a greater regard for no German man than Robert Bunsen.

In October 1848, Tyndall travelled to Marburg with his friend and fellow teacher at Queenwood College, the chemist Edward Frankland. Following an invitation from Bunsen to Frankland, they had decided to study for their PhDs at the university where Bunsen (about ten years older than Tyndall) was a professor. They were the first from Britain to do so.

Tyndall took lectures in physics from Christian Gerling (and later Hermann Knoblauch), mathematics from Friedrich Stegmann, chemistry from Bunsen, and spent time in the laboratory mastering qualitative and quantitative analysis. He thought the teaching impressive, and that it would take ‘years of devoted effort to bring England up to the same standard’.[1] He found Bunsen’s lectures superb. His surprisingly neat notebooks from those days have recently been discovered in the Royal Institution’s archive. Tyndall’s German was not good before his arrival (he had bought Ollendorf’s language teaching methodology the day before he left England, after some previous self-study). Nevertheless, the notebooks are predominantly in German, including substantial portions in Kurrentschrift, the old German form of handwriting.

Tyndall would later become known as one of the most engaging lecturers in England, and he was both inspired and influenced by Bunsen. When Tyndall finally got his big break—the offer of a professorship at the Royal Institution—it was to Bunsen that he turned for advice. Tyndall had to give four lectures ‘On Air and Water’ to qualify him formally for consideration. He wrote to Bunsen, who suggested the complete structure and experimental options for a lecture on water.[2] Following this, Tyndall gave his second Friday Evening Discourse, the set-piece lecture to the RI’s Society audience, ‘On some of the eruptive phenomena of Iceland’.[3] Again, he received advice from Bunsen, who had visited Iceland.[4]

Over subsequent years the two men maintained a friendly correspondence. Tyndall was an important conduit between the German men of science (and particularly the physicists) and the British. In his role as an editor of the Philosophical Magazine, and of Taylor’s Scientific Memoirs, he had many papers translated and made available in English. He also actively promoted their recognition by the Royal Society. He proposed Bunsen for the Copley Medal in 1857, and though he tactfully decided not to push Bunsen’s claim against Charles Lyell that year, Bunsen received the award in 1860.[5]

[1] 17 November 1848, Tyndall Journal, RI MS JT/2/13b/399.

[2] 6 March 1853, Robert Bunsen to Tyndall, RI MS JT/1/B/144.

[3] Tyndall, J., ‘On some of the Eruptive Phenomena of Iceland’, Proc. Roy. Inst. 1, (1853): p. 329–35.

[4] 19 April 1853, Robert Bunsen to Tyndall, RI MS JT/1/B/145.

[5] 31 October 1857, Tyndall Journal, RI MS JT/2/13c/1038.

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© 2017 Roland Jackson