The towering reputation of John Tyndall, pioneer scientist, educator and Alpine climber gives no hint of his humble origins in County Carlow. John was born in 1820, the son of a police constable stationed in Leighlinbridge. While his parents were not wealthy, they had a great respect for education. This set the young Tyndall on a path to becoming one of the Victorian era’s most highly regarded scientific minds.
Tyndall’s time was not spent solely in a laboratory, lecture hall or at a writing desk. 2,300 metres high in the Swiss Alps, above the village of Belalp, the ‘Tyndalldenkmal’, a Swiss national memorial, is a memorial to John Tyndall. This commemorates the frequent mountaineering expeditions he undertook from the mid-1850s onwards. During these, he was among the first to reach the highest alpine summits and also studied the motion of glaciers. He was the first person to be honoured freeman of nearby Naters in the region of Valais. He and his wife also had a holiday home there.
In 1993, a plaque was erected on the memorial. This plaque references John Tyndall as British as did a significant amount of signage and promotional material which was brought to public attention. It was appropriate that his Carlow and Irish ancestry would be suitably recognised and contact was made with the Swiss authorities to rectify this matter. After consultation and agreement with the authorities in Switzerland and Ireland, a suitable plaque with pre-agreed wording in four languages including Irish was cast in Dublin and was transported to Belalp in 2020. This plaque was formally unveiled on the 202nd anniversary of Tyndall’s birth on August 2nd 2022 at a special ceremony. This plaque was funded by the Town and Village programme for Carlow. On the same day a Tyndall nature trail funded by the Swiss authorities was also unveiled.
This web page provides context to the visit as well as providing an overview of John Tyndall and his many achievements.
Background to August 2nd 2022 visit
On August 1st 2022 a delegation of Councillors, Tyndall experts and tourism interests from Carlow travelled to Belalp, Switzerland for a momentous occasion in the relationship between both countries in the context of their shared Tyndall heritage. The purpose of the visit being the launch of a new plaque on the Tyndall “Denkmal” monument to recognise John Tyndall’s Irish and Carlow ancestry, some 400 metres above the village of Belalp.
The original Tyndall “Denkmal” was constructed by his wife Louisa Hamilton in 1911 to express her deep affection and love for her husband and her attachment to the land and people of the region. From 1861 until his death in 1893, Tyndall had spent his summers in the Swiss Alps, mainly at his favourite place, Belalp, from where he enjoyed excellent views to the Matterhorn and the Aletsch glacier.
The plaque on the Tyndall “Denkmal” had recognised Tyndall as a British scientist with no mention either of his Leighlinbridge or Irish ancestry. This was brought to the attention of Carlow County Council and Carlow Tourism by local man Randal Dempsey, resident of Carlow who as a great enthusiast of Tyndall and his work had travelled to the Belalp area on several occasions. In 2019 after consultation and agreement with the authorities in Switzerland, a suitable plaque with pre-agreed wording in four languages including Irish was cast in Dublin and was transported to Belalp. This plaque was funded by the Town and Village programme operated by Carlow County Council.
The original proposal was to launch the plaque on August 2nd 2020 to co-incide with the 200th anniversary of Tyndall’s birth but a world pandemic stopped these plans. The date was later revised to August 2nd 2022 and so after two bus trips, plane, train, cable car and mountain jeep journeys, the Carlow delegation arrived in Belalp some 12 hours after leaving Carlow on August 1st 2022.
August 2nd was the central and most important day of the trip. Having met the Swiss delegation at the cable car station, the 400 metre climb to the Tydalldenkmal which lies on the Triembiel mountain, commenced. The Swiss delegation included the mayor of Naters Charlotte Salzmann-Briand, former mayor Ruppen Felix who is also a director of Blatten-Belalp Tourism, Claire Kerschensteiner deputy head of mission at the Irish Embassy, Head of Blatten-Belalp Tourism Mario Gertschen, Killian Eyholzer from the Swiss Army knife corporation, Maria Zenklusen from the Swiss Travel Fund Reka, Brigitte Wolf biologist, Alexandra Donaldson-Leiggener, Manager World Nature Forum Visitor Centre as well as approximately twelve officials and staff from the various local Swiss authorities.
From a tourism perspective the visit was significant, allowing Carlow Tourism to forge important connections with our counterparts in Blatten-Belalp Tourism, to re-iterate again the importance of Tyndall to both of our local tourism economies and to consider and plan for a return visit by the Swiss delegation. Tentatively spring/summer of 2023 was suggested to mark the unveiling of the new public art sculpture to Tyndall in the Garden of Remembrance in the village of Leighlinbridge.
Speech by Cllr Brian O’Donoghue, Chairman Carlow County Council at the unveiling of a new plague to John Tyndall
Frau Charlotte Salzmann-Briand, Mayor of Naters, Herr Ruppen Felix, Municipal Councillor of Naters and Director of Blatten-Belalp Tourism and Frau Claire Kerschensteiner, Deputy Head of Mission Embassy of Ireland, fellow Councillors of Carlow County Council, ladies and gentlemen.
Let me please begin with the wise words of the man we are here for: The logical feebleness of science is not sufficiently borne in mind, It keeps down the weed of superstition, not by logic but by slowly rendering the mental soil unfit for its cultivation.
Thank you for inviting us here to this momentous occasion which marks the official unveiling of a new plaque on the Tyndalldenkmal. I want to thank all those who were most accommodating when approached to change the original plaque to recognise Tyndall’s Irish and Carlow ancestry.
We are delighted to be here for various reasons – firstly because Carlow is the birthplace of Tyndall and this occasion gives us all the opportunity to celebrate a very famous son of our county. We’re delighted because Carlow is benefiting from the increased recognition of Tyndall and his worldwide impact across so many areas, allowing us to establish links such as those here today. Ireland is benefiting from the enormous reputation it’s gained from the work of Tyndall, and obviously we are delighted to be here in Switzerland where Tyndall’s contribution to mountaineering is of such importance.
Beginning with these four things, Leighlinbridge where Tyndall was born, Carlow, Ireland and Switzerland. Let me first say, Martin Nevin is here with us today, he is the man who in 1970, and probably before, was the first person to campaign for recognition for Tyndall in Carlow and Ireland. Martin is a person who was born in Leighlinbridge, where Tyndall was born, and has lived his whole life there. We’re delighted that Carlow County Council has now erected one of the most impressive monuments to Tyndall in the Garden of Remembrance on the banks of the River Barrow in the village of Leighlinbridge. Developed by Professor Ralph Stander, who’s a Berlin graduate of Sculpture and Fine Arts, it’s a wonderful addition to the county and the country. It’s a unique monument with a massive mirror, reflecting the sky, which shows Tyndall blue on a very clear day in Leighlinbridge, but usually shows the clouds, which are various colours, which are all determined by Tyndall scattering, whether they’re white or whether they’re black, these are Tyndall scattering colours, as are sunset’s colours.
Let me say, how important Tyndall is to various tourist developments and mention why. We are delighted that we get a lot of tourists from the United States of America. Tyndall in 1873, raised all the money for the research centres in the Ivy League universities of Columbia, Yale, Penn State and Harvard. This is an incredible contribution made by an Irishman to American science and these institutions have won many noble prizes, but these research institutions were founded by a Carlow man.
Equally we’re delighted to have tourists from England, Tyndall when he began his main professional work as a lecturer and eventually a superintendent director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, began his work with Faraday. He was Faraday’s disciple and he began his work there on glacial researches and that brought him to Switzerland, where he did important studies on glacial motion and alpine effects, but really brought him into becoming a mountaineer, and furthermore it led to him doing work on climate science.
We have strong linkages with France and are twinned with Dole, the birthplace of Pasteur. Tyndall’s main contribution, perhaps, to the modern world is the development of sterile medicine and facilities, with his clean room technologies, he established The Germ Theory, this brings us to CERN, where we have got the wonderful research facilities for Europe, between France and Switzerland.
We have visitors from all over the world, but obviously the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research is a major international organisation that is leading the research in climate science. It has influence across the world, but it came into existence from the 1993 Tyndall Centenary that Carlow County Council ran in Carlow. Internationally, we are pleased that Mary Robinson, Past President of Ireland, was the president of the Tyndall Centenary in 1993 in Carlow and from there she developed the interest in climate crisis, and she established the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice
So we come to Switzerland now, and we are delighted that we get a few, not enough, visitors from Switzerland, we would like to see more, but there is obviously a wonderful connection between Carlow and Switzerland because Tyndall was the person who wrote the first ever climbing book, Mountaineering in 1861. Tyndall was a researcher of alpine phenomenon and wrote many textbooks about science, but this was an actual book on mountaineering, which was considered to be a bit of an immoral sport and was roundly criticised at the time. Tyndall, was as you know probably the first person to really get to the summit of the Matterhorn, he was also the first person to climb the Weisshorn.
The work that Tyndall is mainly remembered for is his foundation of infrared spectroscopy, and we’ve got Doctor McMillan here, whose work continues today this tradition of spectroscopic research in Carlow. His work on what is called SERS is pretty important, he believes, but we must point out that TERS, which is tipped, enhanced, raman spectroscopy is a very important development in nano spectroscopy and it was invented in Switzerland, so we are working in Carlow and Geneva and in other places in Switzerland on similar research.
Let me finish off by mentioning that we are here really, celebrating Tyndall as the mountaineer. Where most mountaineers were concerned with walking up snow slopes, Tyndall was very much a rock climber and was a pioneer in the approach to climbing, he was very gifted in this regard and the books that he wrote, the articles that he produced on mountaineering, the popular publications really made him the most important figure in Victorian alpine community and we must say that climbing owes a great debt to him. He did very important work, he left what were called ‘infusion tubes’ all the way up the mountains to find out whether germs existed at different levels, he broke them open and in these ‘infusion tubes’ were usually solutions of urine, the Carlow Museum has quite a few of these tubes, they are sealed and they still have very good clear solutions, but obviously if there’s germs around then these solutions go cloudy. Tyndall could determine at what level germs existed, this kind of work that was so important for developing the ‘Germ Theory’
His work was of the most profound and fundamental importance and his contributions to climbing are unparalleled almost in Victorian times and his popularisation of the sport of mountaineering, and the alpine science, is without a doubt the most important legacy that he has left Switzerland.
And so, as I began with the words of Tyndall, I think it is only fitting to end on his words: Knowledge gained, casts a faint light beyond its own immediate boundaries. There is no discovery so limited as not to illuminate something beyond itself, John Tyndall, thank you, very much.
Tyndall’s contributions are amazingly diverse and of growing, rather than diminishing importance in the modern world.
The towering reputation of John Tyndall, pioneer scientist, educator and Alpine climber gives no hint of his humble origins in Co Carlow.
John was born in 1820, the son of a police constable stationed in Leighlinbridge. While his parents were not wealthy, they had a great respect for education. This set the young Tyndall on a path to becoming one of the Victorian era’s most highly regarded scientific minds.
Having a world class local teacher was another crucial factor.
This was John Conwill. In his classroom, and on walks along the Barrow, Conwill opened John’s eyes to mathematics and the sciences. Once in the snow they traced out the proof of the theory of Pythagereous.
Hungry for knowledge, the young Tyndall found inspiration in an early edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. With this as his guide, he conducted the first of the experiments that characterised his practical approach to science.
His first job was with the Ordnance Survey in Carlow and later in Cork. But after transferring to England, he was fired. The reason? because of his campaign on behalf of Irish engineers to receive equal conditions and pay as his English counterparts.
However, clever surveyors were in demand during England’s railway boom of the 1840s and Tyndall worked for four years as a railway engineer. The pressure was relentless and John worked exceptionally long hours. This led him to pursue an opportunity to become Superintendent of the Engineering Laboratory in Queenwood College, Hampshire in 1846, the cradle of the heuristical method – learning by practical observation from Imperial College where Tyndall and his Queendwood colleague Edward Frankland were both professors. .
Tyndall was eager to stretch himself intellectually. He decided to pursue a PhD under the supervision of Robert Bunsen, inventor of the Bunsen Burner and father of spectroscopy. Disciplined and hard working as ever, the 28-year-old achieved this goal within just two years.
Returning to Hampshire in 1851, his scientific abilities were soon noticed. The most eminent scientist of his day was Michael Faraday, who soon became Tyndall’s mentor. Faraday’s disciple was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of London which is still the government of British science.
Through his association with the Royal Society, Tyndall founded the X Club, joining such luminaries at Huxley and Franklin, who were devoted to promote the theories of evolution of the tenth member Darwin.
Continuing a tradition begun by Faraday, John brilliantly presented public lectures that featured spellbinding practical demonstrations. Most notably he devised experiments to prove theoretical. fundamentals of geysers, artificial skies, invented the cloud chamber and particle physics with strong beams.
These experiments brought his many areas of study to life. Besides writing around 20 books, John Tyndall’s name is associated with huge advances and insights in the field of physics.
His investigations spanning magnetism, heat, light and – most notably considering current concerns about global warming – studies of the greenhouse effect. Tyndall in demonstrating the fundamentals of infrared science the basis for atmospheric physics and established the sciences of infrared spectroscopy and spectroscopic scattering applied to establishing cleanroom methods developed further in proving the germ theory of his collaborator Louis Pasteur. His name is associated with sunset “light scattering” in the beauty of the “Tyndall colour series”. Sky blue is one of these colours which is Tyndall Blue.
Tyndall’s time was not spent solely in a laboratory, lecture hall or at a writing desk.
2,300 metres high in the Swiss Alps, above the village of Belalp, the ‘Tyndalldenkmal’ is a memorial to John Tyndall. This commemorates the frequent mountaineering expeditions he undertook from the mid-1850s onwards. During these, he was among the first to reach the highest alpine summits and also studied the motion of glaciers.
When he was 55, Tyndall married 30-year-old Louisa Hamilton. Together, they built a holiday home in Bel Alp.They remained happily married for eighteen years. Then, in a tragic mishap, Louisa gave him an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate to treat his insomnia. Immediately realizing this, Tyndall said “My darling, you have killed your John”. Despite attempts to save him, John Tyndall died on 4 December 1893.
Today, Tyndall is remembered as a giant of Victorian science. His curiosity, towering intellect and ability to communicate were all fostered in Carlow by his local teacher, John Conwill. Tyndall never denied his Carlow roots and loved his native Leighlinbridge. Through his life, Tyndall remained in touch with Conwill. Eventually, he paid him a pension in gratitude for his exceptional teaching.
Tyndall deserves to be remembered and celebrated as a scientist and writer. He wrote around 20 books and his name is connected to infrared spectroscopy, clean room methods, sunset “light scattering”, Tyndall blue, optical telecommunications and fiber optics.
Ireland rightly celebrates its illustrious writers. A scientist, who was also an internationally celebrated writer and whose influence is still felt worldwide, deserves similar acclaim.