seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA

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Birth of Nicholas Joseph Callan, Priest & Scientist

Father Nicholas Joseph Callan, Irish priest and scientist, is born on December 22, 1799, in Darver, County Louth. He is Professor of Natural Philosophy in Maynooth College in Maynooth, County Kildare from 1834, and is best known for his work on the induction coil.

Callan attends school at an academy in Dundalk. His local parish priest, Father Andrew Levins, then takes him in hand as an altar boy and Mass server, and sees him start the priesthood at Navan seminary. He enters Maynooth College in 1816. In his third year at Maynooth, he studies natural and experimental philosophy under Dr. Cornelius Denvir. He introduces the experimental method into his teaching, and has an interest in electricity and magnetism.

Callan is ordained a priest in 1823 and goes to Rome to study at Sapienza University, obtaining a doctorate in divinity in 1826. While in Rome he becomes acquainted with the work of the pioneers in electricity such as Luigi Galvani (1737–1798), who is a pioneer in bioelectricity, and Alessandro Volta (1745–1827), who is known especially for the development of the electric battery. In 1826, he returns to Maynooth as the new Professor of Natural Philosophy (now called physics), where he also begins working with electricity in his basement laboratory at the college.

Influenced by William Sturgeon and Michael Faraday, Callan begins work on the idea of the induction coil in 1834. He invents the first induction coil in 1836. An induction coil produces an intermittent high voltage alternating current from a low voltage direct current supply. It has a primary coil consisting of a few turns of thick wire wound around an iron core and subjected to a low voltage (usually from a battery). Wound on top of this is a secondary coil made up of many turns of thin wire. An iron armature and make-and-break mechanism repeatedly interrupts the current to the primary coil, producing a high voltage, rapidly alternating current in the secondary circuit.

Callan invents the induction coil because he needs to generate a higher level of electricity than currently available. He takes a bar of soft iron, about 2 feet long, and wraps it around with two lengths of copper wire, each about 200 feet long. He connects the beginning of the first coil to the beginning of the second. Finally, he connects a battery, much smaller than the enormous contrivance just described, to the beginning and end of winding one. He finds that when the battery contact is broken, a shock can be felt between the first terminal of the first coil and the second terminal of the second coil.

Further experimentation shows how the coil device can bring the shock from a small battery up the strength level of a big battery. So Callan tries making a bigger coil. With a battery of only 14 seven-inch plates, the device produces power enough for an electric shock “so strong that a person who took it felt the effects of it for several days.” He thinks of his creation as a kind of electromagnet, but what he actually makes is a primitive induction transformer.

Callan’s induction coil also uses an interrupter that consists of a rocking wire that repeatedly dips into a small cup of mercury (similar to the interrupters used by Charles Grafton Page). Because of the action of the interrupter, which can make and break the current going into the coil, he calls his device the “repeater.” Actually, this device is the world’s first transformer. He induces a high voltage in the second wire, starting with a low voltage in the adjacent first wire. The faster he interrupts the current, the bigger the spark. In 1837 he produces his giant induction machine using a mechanism from a clock to interrupt the current 20 times a second. It generates 15-inch sparks, an estimated 60,000 volts and the largest artificial bolt of electricity then seen.

Callan experiments with designing batteries after he finds the models available to him at the time to be insufficient for research in electromagnetism. Some previous batteries had used rare metals such as platinum or unresponsive materials like carbon and zinc. He finds that he can use inexpensive cast iron instead of platinum or carbon. For his Maynooth battery he uses iron casting for the outer casing and places a zinc plate in a porous pot (a pot that had an inside and outside chamber for holding two different types of acid) in the centre. Using a single fluid cell he disposes of the porous pot and two different fluids. He is able to build a battery with just a single solution.

While experimenting with batteries, Callan also builds the world’s largest battery at that time. To construct this battery, he joins together 577 individual batteries (“cells“), which use over 30 gallons of acid. Since instruments for measuring current or voltages have not yet been invented, he measures the strength of a battery by measuring how much weight his electromagnet can lift when powered by the battery. Using his giant battery, his electromagnet lifts 2 tons. The Maynooth battery goes into commercial production in London. He also discovers an early form of galvanisation to protect iron from rusting when he is experimenting on battery design, and he patents the idea.

Callan dies at the age of 64 in Maynooth, County Kildare, on January 10, 1864. He is buried in the cemetery in St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth.

The Callan Building on the north campus of NUI Maynooth, a university which is part of St. Patrick’s College until 1997, is named in his honour. In addition, Callan Hall in the south campus, is used through the 1990s for first year science lectures including experimental & mathematical physics, chemistry and biology. The Nicholas Callan Memorial Prize is an annual prize awarded to the best final year student in Experimental Physics.

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Birth of John Tyndall, Experimental Physicist

File source: // Tyndall, Irish experimental physicist who, during his long residence in England, is an avid promoter of science in the Victorian era, is born on August 2, 1820 in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow.

Tyndall is born into a poor Protestant Irish family. After a thorough basic education he works as a surveyor in Ireland and England from 1839 to 1847. When his ambitions turns from engineering to science, he spends his savings on gaining a Ph.D. from the University of Marburg in Marburg, Hesse, Germany (1848–1850), but then struggles to find employment.

In 1853 Tyndall is appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, London. There he becomes a friend of the much-admired physicist and chemist Michael Faraday, entertains and instructs fashionable audiences with brilliant lecture demonstrations rivaling the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley in his popular reputation and pursuing his research.

An outstanding experimenter, particularly in atmospheric physics, Tyndall examines the transmission of both radiant heat and light through various gases and vapours. He discovers that water vapor and carbon dioxide absorb much more radiant heat than the gases of the atmosphere and argues the consequent importance of those gases in moderating Earth’s climate, that is, in the natural greenhouse effect. He also studies the diffusion of light by large molecules and dust, known as the Tyndall effect, and he performs experiments demonstrating that the sky’s blue color results from the scattering of the Sun’s rays by molecules in the atmosphere.

Tyndall is passionate and sensitive, quick to feel personal slights and to defend underdogs. Physically tough, he is a daring mountaineer. His greatest fame comes from his activities as an advocate and interpreter of science. In collaboration with his scientific friends in the small, private X Club, he urges greater recognition of both the intellectual authority and practical benefits of science.

Tyndall is accused of materialism and atheism after his presidential address at the 1874 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, when he claims that cosmological theory belongs to science rather than theology and that matter has the power within itself to produce life. In the ensuing notoriety over this “Belfast Address,” his allusions to the limitations of science and to mysteries beyond human understanding are overlooked. He engages in a number of other controversies such as spontaneous generation, the efficacy of prayer and Home Rule for Ireland.

In his last years Tyndall often takes chloral hydrate to treat his insomnia. When bedridden and ailing, he dies from an accidental overdose of this drug on December 4, 1893 at the age of 73 and was buried at Haslemere, Surrey, England.

Tyndall is commemorated by a memorial, the Tyndalldenkmal, erected at an elevation of 7,680 ft. on the mountain slopes above the village of Belalp, where he had his holiday home, and in sight of the Aletsch Glacier, which he had studied.

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Birth of John Kyan, Inventor in Wood Preservation

kyans-patentJohn Howard Kyan, inventor of the ‘kyanising’ process for preserving wood, is born on November 27, 1774 in Dublin. His father, also John Howard Kyan, is the owner of valuable copper mines in County Wicklow. He is educated to take part in the management of the mines, but soon after he enters the company its fortunes decline, and in 1804 his father dies almost penniless.

For a time Kyan is employed at some vinegar works at Newcastle upon Tyne, but subsequently removes to London. The decay of the timber supports in his father’s copper mines had already directed his attention to the question of preserving wood, and as early as 1812 he begins experiments with a view to discovering a method of preventing the decay. Eventually he finds that bichloride of mercury or corrosive sublimate, as it is commonly called, gives the best results and, without revealing the nature of the process, he submits a block of oak impregnated with the substance to the Admiralty in 1828. It is placed in the ‘fungus pit’ at Woolwich, where it remains for three years exposed to all the conditions favourable to decay. When taken out in 1831, it is found to be perfectly sound, and after further trials it still remains unaffected.

Kyan patents his discovery in 1832 (Nos. 8263 and 6309), extending the application of the invention to the preservation of paper, canvas, cloth, cordage, etc. A further patent is granted in 1836 (No. 7001).

The process attracts great attention. Michael Faraday chooses it as the subject of his inaugural lecture at the Royal Institution on February 22, 1833, on his appointment as Fullerian professor of chemistry. Dr. George Birkbeck gives a lecture upon it at the Royal Society of Arts on December 9, 1834, and in 1835 the Admiralty publishes the report of a committee appointed by the board to inquire into the value of the new method.

In 1836, Kyan sells his rights to the Anti-Dry Rot Company, an Act of Parliament being passed which authorises the raising of a capital of £250,000. Tanks are constructed at Grosvenor Basin, Pimlico, at the Grand Surrey Canal Dock, Rotherhide, and at the City Road Basin.

Among the early applications of the process is the kyanising of the palings around the Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, which is carried out in 1835 as an advertisement with small brass plates being attached to the palings at intervals stating that the wood has been submitted to the new process. The plates soon disappear, but the original palings still remain in good condition.

The timber used in building the Oxford and Cambridge Club, British Museum, Royal College of Surgeons, Westminster Bridewell, the new roof of the Temple Church, and the Ramsgate harbour works is also prepared by Kyan’s process. When wooden railway ties become general, a very profitable business for Kyan’s company is anticipated, and for a time these hopes are realised.

It becomes evident that iron fastenings cannot be used in wood treated with corrosive sublimate, on account of the corrosive action, and it is said that the wood becomes brittle. The salt is somewhat expensive and Sir William Burnett‘s method of preserving timber by zinc chloride, and afterwards the application of creosote for that purpose, proves severe competitors. Doubts begin to be expressed as to the real efficiency of kyanising, and the process gradually ceases to be employed.

John Kyan dies on January 5, 1850 in New York City, where he is engaged on a plan for filtering the water supplied to that city by the Croton Aqueduct.